It is human nature to aspire to greater things. The United States was conceived and built on that principle. Sadly, some of these aspirations are thwarted by circumstances and environment. More often than not, however, we thwart our own aspirations out of poorly informed beliefs. We listen to what others tell us without verifying the accuracy. We follow the rules even when some of those rules don’t make sense. We accept the decisions of others out of not wanting to rock the boat. Many times, we simply imagine all the things that can go wrong.

The result of all this is a fear of the unknown. “What might happen if I challenge what someone says about my situation? Those in charge must know what they’re doing. You can’t fight city hall.” This list of rationalizations can go on forever. That said, there are also endless examples of those who have significantly improved their circumstances by altering their beliefs, persevering and dealing with the fear and discomfort they encounter along the way.

Ironically, our biggest obstacle can be how our brains function. The brain is “wired” for security, both physical and emotional. When we perceive a threat to our well-being, real or imagined, our brain increases the production of the stress hormone, cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline. In turn, we begin to feel discomfort. If the threat is real and physical, this is a good thing. But if the threat we perceive is due to uncertainty, our discomfort gets in the way of our thinking clearly. In essence, we worry about possible outcomes. This worry distorts our ability to think logically about the situation at hand.

The key to thinking clearly is learning to manage these feelings of discomfort. How? Here are three strategies the best decision makers use:

Begin by taking a deep breath. This accomplishes two objectives. First, it allows you a few seconds to step back and consider the source of the discomfort. With the exception of physical threats, taking time to think enables you to determine whether the discomfort is justified. In most cases, it will not be. Second, simply taking a deep breath physically reduces the impact of the cortisol and adrenaline that has built up in your body. A deep breath or two will relax you.

Next, declutter your environment. We are all inundated with stimuli these days. Organize the way you gather input. Seeking the input of a few trusted colleagues is almost always better than searching the web or messaging your 1000 Facebook friends. Work at eliminating the distractions that fill your mailbox. Organize your computer’s desktop. Pitch the piles on your desk. Clean out your car. Sort the stuff in your computer bag or briefcase. Turn off all the electronic bells and sound effects that drain your attention. You get the idea. The more distractions in your environment, the more discomfort you will feel when dealing with the unknown.

Finally, acknowledge the discomfort and compartmentalize it. The best decision makers accept that discomfort is a part of growing and navigating life’s crucial challenges. Then they develop ways to put it aside. This might be saying a mantra like, “I am calm in the midst of chaos.” It might be changing environments when the stress begins to build. It might be analyzing the stress logically by writing down reasons why it’s irrelevant or even silly. It might be conducting a “reality check” with a trusted colleague. Whatever works for you. But find something that works!

If you aspire to improve your circumstances, learning how manage discomfort is the first step to doing so.

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