Life is full of frustrations. From the minor irritations of losing your car keys to the major anxieties of continued failure towards a goal, frustration is not a pleasant emotion in any magnitude. Because of the unpleasantness of this emotion, people will often avoid anything that might lead to it. Unfortunately, many of the things we truly want to experience such as triumph, joy, victory and purpose require a great deal of frustration. Being able to manage frustrations allow us to remain happy and positive even in trying circumstances.
I recently had a very frustrating experience during most of this past week. My computer had been getting progressively worse in performance and I had decided it was time for a reformat of the hard drive and a fresh start (which, by the way, isn’t a bad technique for solving a lot of your personal problems as well). It was at this point I realized that my Windows XP was only a factory install and did not have a disc for reformatting purposes… And so my week-long saga of continued computer frustrations began. I’m normally a fairly technically savvy guy, but I’m hardly a computer expert. Between negotiating with hardware retailers, spontaneous computer crashes, internet failures and being put on hold for an hour while calling customer support, this was a very frustrating problem. On a side note to the people who organize customer service lines, if I am having a problem with your product and you have put me on hold for an extremely long period of time, I am NOT interested in buying more of your products, so save the advertisements.
What I thought would have been a routine procedure turned into a six day period in which all my spare time was devoted to failing to solve my computer issues. Of all the times I couldn’t afford to lose computer access this was it. As work on my project has ramped up I have been pushing hard to get the program ready to start beta testing in July. So, during a time when working on schedule was vital, a series of frustrating computer problems bogged down any progress. A completely trivial problem when compared to many major life frustrations, but it really allowed me to refine my own processes to handle future frustrations. My recent experiences have prompted me to explain my process for handling frustration so it doesn’t lead to burnout, stress or depression.
What Causes Frustration?
In order to successfully manage frustration, you need to first understand what causes it. Frustration is simply caused whenever the results you are experiencing do not seem to fit the effort and action you are applying. Frustration will occur whenever your actions are producing less and fewer results than you think they should. This is a very simple fact, but it is an important step to solving frustrating problems.
With my computer issues, my frustration was actually completely unrelated to the computer problems. Frustration isn’t an inherent component of computer problems, just my perception of them. I was frustrated because I expected the actions I was taking would solve the problems when they didn’t. As long as frustration is a property of your problems and not of your perceptions, it will be impossible to deal with, so start there.
Frustration is Energy Consuming
Our energy as human beings is our primary currency we use to do anything. Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energies all fuel discipline, creativity, courage and motivation. Anthony Robbins  includes energy as the first key to success in any area of life. Stress in excessive doses is a negative emotional state that weakens the immune system and raises blood pressure is the direct result from a lack of energy. When we run out of energy we become useless.
Frustrating problems are incredibly energy consuming. Because these problems consume our energy in such great quantities, we need to be extremely careful that we don’t try to keep running with an empty energy reserve. When this happens we burnout and require a long time to recover. The initial reaction of most people is to work harder when they encounter frustration. Although the intention to work harder makes sense, it often results in trying to spend more energy than we have available.
Why are frustrating problems more energy consuming than normal tasks? The answer to this is relatively simple. Because your action is not producing the results you expect, your brain naturally goes into full gear, rapidly consuming mental energy to solve the problem at hand. In this time it is very easy to run out of energy. When your energy stores are depleted this is when you become irritable, tired, stressed and sometimes even angry.
During my nearly week-long bout of continuous computer problems it was impossible for me to solve them all at once. Trying to expend all my energy towards a solution would have left me stressed and burnt-out before I was finished. Realizing when I was running low on energy I would take breaks, relax and distract my mind with another activity. Although some people may consider this laziness or unproductive, it was absolutely necessary. Removing myself from the problem recovered my energy to go at the problem again. Although I spent probably a third less time “working” than I normally do, I was far more tired than normal, indicating my increased energy expenditure.
Taking breaks to recover energy is critical when working to solve a frustrating problem. Use your emotional state as a guide to determine your current energy levels. If you are starting to feel really frustrated and stressed, take a short break before continuing. Continuing to work without energy completely reduces your effectiveness and greatly increases your chance of burnout.
Reward Action Not Just Results
Your environment is only going to reward your results not your actions. You won’t earn a million dollars or have a great body just because you “tried hard”. Unfortunately this is exactly what causes frustrating problems in the first place. Because your actions are not producing results, your environment is not rewarding you for taking action. In this case you need to reward yourself for taking action, even if it wasn’t fruitful.
Rewarding yourself doesn’t have to be something tangible. Just giving yourself a pat on the back for good effort is a reward. By rewarding yourself even when your environment doesn’t support you, you can help reduce the destructive and negative emotions you experience. Frustrating problems drain energy, but so does the simple emotion of frustration. By reducing the emotion of frustration you can help reclaim some of that energy and you can do that by rewarding your actions.
Let’s face it, most of the problems you get frustrated with will not be of major consequence in the long run. My computer problems certainly weren’t and most of the time you feel frustrated it will be from something fairly inconsequential and minor. Getting some perspective about the problem can allow you to keep your mind level when dealing with it. Of course this is really easier said than done. Usually frustration is caused by a narrow focus on a problem that isn’t resolving itself as you had hoped.
To get a little perspective on your issue, try broadening your focus from your current problem outwards. Try thinking about how the problem looks when you view it from a few weeks from now, a year, ten years or your lifetime? How would a historian thousands of years from now view your problem? (Assuming future historians have nothing better to do than examine and document the lives of twenty first century inhabitants)
Go outside and look up at the sky. Viewing the incredible expanse of space and time will ultimately make your problems look very small indeed. Even if this practice won’t solve your problem it will significantly reduce your frustration. Getting perspective about a problem is critical to put your mind into a state where it can be solved.
Getting perspective when you are frustrated isn’t a particularly difficult practice, the only difficulty is in remembering to do it. I don’t have any suggestions for remembering to get some perspective when your focus becomes too narrow and you become frustrated, it has to just be a habit. When you get used to temporarily changing your focus and perspective to regain stability, it happens automatically.
Nobody likes to feel frustrated. Unfortunately, frustrations are part of life. Learn to manage your frustrations so they don’t leave you stressed, burned-out or depressed. Take breaks from your frustrations to recover your mental and creative energies. Reward your actions, not just your results and remember to gain a little perspective when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Don’t let your frustrations prevent you from setting goals and living your life to the maximum.