Those endless days of strategising

Human beings are strategic. 24/7 we are working out how to thrive and survive to the best of our ability by seeking gain and avoiding pain. To achieve these outcomes we have a variety of abilities at our disposal, which broadly speaking fall into the following categories:

  • Thinking
  • Behaving
  • Feeling
  • Relating

Effective use of our abilities is both an effect of thriving and surviving and a cause of it – a virtuous, self-perpetuating circle. In other words, using them effectively makes life a great deal easier. And when life is easier, they become, yes you guessed it, more effective. Achieving this virtuous circle is a sign someone has positive personal and/or professional strategies underpinning their lives. It might sound odd then to describe negative uses of our abilities such as overthinking as ‘strategic’, but that is precisely what they are.

A strategic paradox

What is certain is that negative strategising uses – or misuses – our abilities in ways that prevent thriving and surviving. At the heart of this seemingly counterintuitive approach to life lies a paradox: the goal is still to ‘gain’ and avoid ‘pain’. Yes, negative strategising has the same aims as its positive counterpart. Consider this scenario from a client I worked with, who I shall call John.

John works away during the week, crisscrossing the country with colleagues managing construction projects. At the end of long days, John looks forward to a drink or more accurately several drinks. Throughout the day, John divides his thoughts between his work and alcohol. He establishes which of his colleagues is coming out for the evening meal and whether at least one of them is a drinker like himself. If there is, John does a Google search of bars and pubs in the local area and works out what time they will need to leave the restaurant if they are to make the most of the drinking hours available. If no one is a drinker, then John does a Google search of off-licences and supermarkets, where he can buy alcohol. He then works out how much time he will need between finishing work and sitting down for the evening meal to purchase alcohol and stash it in his hotel room. To John, the idea of NOT drinking was unbearable.

Sound exhausting? This was John’s life. Endless strategising.

Encourage gain, avoid pain

John’s strategising, while negative in that alcohol was ruining his life, was still all about the gains of drinking and the pain of not. And this is what is known about people who for one reason or another find it difficult to thrive and survive. Their days are spent endlessly strategising in ways that maintain this predicament. People, work, consumables, places and times – life’s daily ingredients manipulated to ensure certain outcomes.

Who lives life in this way?

People who are unable to thrive and survive in positive ways live life like this. While they cause themselves pain by how they live, as we saw in John’s case, there is a positive basis to this. Below is a list of some factors that can cause this endless strategising:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Anger
  • Addiction
  • Obsessions, compulsions
  • Trauma
  • Anxiety and depression

When someone is affected by any of the above, positively thriving and surviving can feel impossible. Without this goal to aim for, the focus instead shifts to encouraging the gains from these issues. Let me give you another example from an old client:

Clare has low self-esteem, which causes her to feel insecure in social situations where she doesn’t know people. Her friend, Steve, invites her out for drinks and a meal. He does this over text. Before replying, Clare stops what she is doing and works out what will make it ok to accept Steve’s invitation. The possibility of being stuck with people she doesn’t know causes Clare’s anxiety to spike, but so does the idea of being stuck at home. In her imagination, Clare visualises how it can work. She will ask Steve who else is going. If she knows anyone well enough, she will make her own way to the pub. If she doesn’t, she will ask Steve to pick her up or meet her before anyone else arrives. This will give her the opportunity to ask Steve if she can sit next to him at the restaurant table, so she doesn’t have to make polite conversation with a stranger.

Sound exhausting? This was Clare’s life. Endless strategising.

Energy draining

Dividing thinking, behaving, feeling and relating between the need to get on with life and endless strategising is energy draining. Life can be challenging enough! Yet this approach to it doubles the amount of challenge, while using twice the amount of energy. Over time a vicious cycle establishes itself where someone has a diminishing amount of energy to cope with an increasingly difficult life. The answer can only be resolving the issues listed above.

“When I worked out how to get my life back on track, I was amazed at how much more productive I was. The main outcome was bringing my retirement date forwards. Spending so much money on alcohol was pushing my retirement date back to pay for it.” John

On – and off! – strategising

The beauty about thriving and surviving is just how much less strategising is required. A positive strategy for life, one based on thinking, behaving, feeling and relating in life-affirming ways, can be left to run unconsciously a great deal of the time. This creates spare capacity to consciously invest in our human flourishing, with the energy previously wasted by endless strategising being redirected into a life of meaning and purpose. Back to Clare:

“My life has changed out of all proportion. I have lost weight. My sleep is so much better, and I just feel more rested. It’s early days but I feel excited about my life again.” Clare

Getting support for unhelpful strategising

If the quality of your life is being undermined by overthinking and other endlessly unhelpful strategising, then please get in touch. At Conversations With Impact we’ve helped many clients find clarity and peace of mind in this important area of our lives.