It’s nearly impossible to avoid stressful situations at your job, but the more you’re able to curb your negative impulses under pressure, the more successful you’ll be at work and in life. This article outlines different methods that help control impulses before they cause damage.
We all have things we wish we never said or did in the heat of the moment at work, like being hurtful to a co-worker or acting unprofessional. Maybe your boss piled another thing on your plate, or a coworker accused you of doing something wrong.
Maybe you were made to re-do something last minute, or you were chastised for not hitting your sales goal. Whatever the reason, the stress finally got to you, and you lashed out—which did nothing to help your case, and only made you look worse.
It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid stress in the workplace. A whopping 83% of workers say they feel stressed-out by their jobs because of pay, unreasonable workloads or annoying coworkers. Even so, there are simple ways to curb your negative impulses and reduce your risk of causing damage—we'll call it emotional discipline.
Studies show that your level of emotional discipline, or self-control, can predict physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, criminal activity and general life outlook. The greater your ability to exercise control over your emotional impulses, the more disciplined, productive and successful you’ll be at work and in other life situations.
The first step in eliminating negative impulses is noticing and recognizing the behavior as it happens. Theoretically, if you’re aware of the feelings and actions that cause a behavior, you’re less likely to act on them in the future. If possible, identify any triggers that may be causing the impulse problem: Did you get no sleep the night before? Have you not taken any breaks? Does it always happen when your boss mentions a specific assignment?
Then, review your response to discover which indicators will signal to you that you might indulge in your impulse. Does your blood pressure rise? Do you clench your fists? Next time, you’ll notice the warning signs and avoid a potentially embarrassing reaction. As an added bonus, practicing self-awareness builds emotional intelligence, which differentiates low performers from high performers.
Once you begin to recognize your impulse triggers, you can start applying impulse control methods like distraction. If you feel the familiar feelings bubbling up, walk away or work on another project for a few minutes. Often, you’ll find that the distraction of just taking a break and focusing on other, less stressful things will defer your impulse and reduce the risk of you acting out.
This same diversion tactic is encouraged for behaviors like impulse spending, based on research by neuroscientists that proves even a 10-minute wait can drastically reduce the brain’s response for a reward. Rather than making an impulse purchase, for example, a shopper should either linger in the store or leave for a minimum of 10 minutes (in hopes they would later be less inclined to carry through with buying the item).Test this out in other situations where you might feel less in-control, and you may find you’re more able to avoid the impulse.
If you still feel the impulse lingering, try discussing what bothers you most with someone who can listen or help you find a solution. Sometimes all you need is to say your negative feelings out loud to someone, and you’re less likely to transfer words to action. Confiding in co-workers may help you feel less burdened and more connected to your work team. If you don’t want to risk having your words repeated around the office, a good friend could offer handy advice based on their own experience.
Or, if neither of those options work, employers often provide free or low-cost employee assistance programs. These advisors talk through all kinds of issues that could affect your work performance, including mental health problems, sleep problems, or other problems at home. People who use these services have reported less tardiness and absences and increased productivity.
To reinforce your control over a situation under stress, you may want to implement a system of rewards and punishments for your behavior. In technical terms, this is called operant conditioning, and it’s used to discourage or reinforce negative and positive behaviors. If you resist your urge to act impulsively, reward yourself with an activity that you find pleasurable. For example, you might reward yourself with taking a break or with a treat of frozen yogurt.
Alternatively, if you react with your negative impulse, punish yourself by taking away something pleasurable. That might mean not browsing your favorite blog in between calls. Or, maybe it means no afternoon coffee (resulting in a caffeine headache). Eventually you will force yourself to not only recognize the behavior, but avoid it whenever possible.
If all else fails, change your environment and stimuli. Think of ways to engineer situations that eliminate as many of your triggers as possible. If your impulsive behavior stems from a certain project, ask for it to be moved to a different person if possible. If the problem is with a specific person or co-worker, try to opt for projects where you don’t encounter that person. If a certain friend or peer group encourages your behavior, you may want to find a new friend or peer group that reinforces your positive behavior instead.
If you simply can’t deal with the behavior of your boss or an over-demanding workplace, you may need to transfer to a new department or start fresh with a new job elsewhere. While this may be difficult to do, it could prevent you from acting out in a way that completely tarnishes your reputation or career connections. If you still can’t control the impulsive behavior, you may need to seek professional therapy in order to move forward.