Arunima, a recognized expert physician and research lab director, wakes up between 3 and 4 most mornings. Her mind spins yarns about the consequences of forgetting something on her to-do list, trapping her in a saga of flops and ruin. Her outward success masks feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and shame.
Arunima has mastered organizing her time and work. Her team members follow her good example. Yet she is still hyper-vigilant about work she might miss. Despite her competence, she’s victimized by destructive thought patterns and missed connections with loved ones. For Arunima, the problem is not inefficiency; it’s a matter of mastering her mind rather than the matters at hand.
Arunima dug deeper into her fears and motivations, basing her work on the exposure ladder, a tool commonly used in some forms of therapy. Individuals overcome fears and anxieties by repeatedly exposing themselves to successively scarier tasks. Ultimately, they vanquish their biggest fears.
If you are overly worried about neglecting critical tasks or excessively fear failing at work, consider these five steps that Arunima adapted from the exposure ladder to help her confront and conquer her work-related fears. However, please work with a trained psychologist if you have a serious concern or condition.
1. Create a fear list in ascending order. Write down desirable but frightening actions. For example, Arunima was afraid to unplug from work. She articulated the least scary version of unplugging—turning off email notifications—to the most extreme version of unplugging: no work after 6 p.m. and only two hours on Sundays. You don’t have to face your biggest fears when you’re not yet fully skilled to tackle them. Instead, you create a solid footing on each rung of the ladder, ascending until you’re prepared to tackle the most tippy portion at the top.
2. Add actions that diverge from your fear list. If you only list scary behaviors, your focus is still on the work items you’re trying to wean yourself from. Instead, focus on alternate actions you can substitute for destructive habits. Arunima enrolled in a class during an unplugged block of time. Planning alternate actions reduces the likelihood of relapse.
3. Document the narrative you tell yourself with each fear. Often our biggest barriers are the stories we tell ourselves. Write down the dire consequences you believe will befall you if you change your actions. Expose your inner dialog to reduce your fearmongering.
4. Imagine what your narrative could be. Instead of looping negative, self-defeating dialog, author an alternate line with which to courageously face your fears. For example, Arunima’s default statement was, “If I don’t provide the answer, the solution will be inelegant and inefficient.” She replaced this talk track with, “This is an opportunity for others to grow and be more independent.” Give your inner voice permission to support alternate, healthier actions.
5. Rate your level of anxiety for each item. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), rate how anxious you feel at the thought of acting on the behaviors on your fear list. Creating a fear scale promotes progress. It’s also a helpful reminder that this is only a 1 when your heart starts to skip a beat. Take charge and keep practicing at each level until it feels natural instead of prematurely charging up the ladder.
If you want to tamp down your work fears, amp up the attention you give to your self-imagined stories. Revamp them to reveal a path that frees you from fears of missing out, failing, and falling and allows your inner narrative to drive broader outward success.