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What to do when Problem Solving and Positivity doesn’t work

What to do when Problem Solving and Positivity doesn’t work

You’re an entrepreneur reading a business psychology blog. My guess is, you read a bit of self development material. Maybe you’ve invested in courses, seminars or retreats – all geared toward equipping you with inner resources to Achieve Your Potential.

Over the last few years, you’ve probably heard about dozens of problem-solving, reframing, negativity-busting techniques and philosophies designed to keep you operating at your peak no matter what happens.

Why is it then, that none of them really work when things go majorly pear shaped?

This post reveals the missing link between learning personal (or business) development techniques and the ability to actually use them in your darkest moments.

Crisis happens. Even to the world’s best entrepreneurs.

Unexpected tax bills pop up. High value clients turn on you overnight. Your invoices don’t get paid and the people sending you bills don’t care about your problems. Share prices fluctuate for incomprehensible reasons. Natural disasters wipe out investments.

Stuff goes wrong.

The success of an entrepreneur isn’t measured in money but in their capacity to make smart decisions in the midst of crisis.

Almost every business or personal development guru has advice for times of chaos. I share a tried-and-true formula with my clients, designed to transform any crisis (be it concrete or emotional) into a learning and action-taking experience.

When the s*** hits the fan, you scramble to remember those lessons from your wise role models. You try to “stay positive” and use the “5 ways to be better” and whatever else you know.

No matter how hard you try, the overwhelming feeling that things are going wrong grows. It starts as a twisting, sickening sensation in the stomach which quickly (and inexplicably) fills your mind with horrifying imagery.

Entrepreneurs don’t fear shark attack or zombies. Instead, they visualize a rapidly approaching future in which mortgage payments can’t be made. They see their disappointed spouses. They see their peers judging them as failures.

When all that is spinning through your mind, like a house of entrepreneurial horrors, just try staying positive and using that awesome planning technique.

It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because you’re not in a headspace where any technique is going to work. Your brain is physically altered – bathed in fear inducing chemicals. The options available to you shut down as you start to see your failure as the black pit at the end of a tunnel without doors.

Your state sucks. So change it.

Here’s the secret. In times of crisis, looking for a solution isn’t the solution. Trying to figure things out is not the way to move forward.

Changing your state is the only thing that works.

Your emotional state is intimately tied to your representation of the world. Feel overwhelmed and your perception of reality will reflect your state. You’ll begin to realize how much you’re juggling and start to freak out. Feel sad? You’ll sort through “reality” to pick out all the examples of how crappy life is while ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

Your emotional state is like a filter you view the world through. The question is, are you using beer goggles (where you and everyone else look hot!) or some nasty form of depressing, overwhelming eye wear?

The other thing tied to your state (and thus your world) is your physiology. This is the real secret.

It’s impossible to stay depressed while doing jumping jacks or going for a really good run. The endorphins just won’t allow it!

Sure, the clinically (habitually) depressed will revert back to their favorite shade of blue once the effects of the run wear off… but by that point, we already have all the evidence we need.

When you radically shake up your physiology, your state changes. New, refreshing and invigorating chemicals flood your brain.

Exercise is one way to do it… but there are hundreds of others too.

For me, listening to certain music is a guaranteed state change. So is taking a shower – perhaps because of the powerfully different physical sensation.

Newcomers to entrepreneurialism try to deal with their problems by soldiering on. They remain resolutely in their offices until the solution arrives. Or, more likely, when they convince themselves that things are so hopeless that it’s okay to give up.

Street smart entrepreneurs know that a change of state is the number one priority. They know that giving themselves the time to push “refresh” on their brain will pay dividends later.

Next time you find yourself frozen by crisis, take a moment to go and do the most irrelevant form of state-changing behavior imaginable.

Eat a 2000 calorie cupcake. Have sex. Watch a video of a cute cat on YouTube.

Do anything* that’ll alter your brain chemistry for the better, even if it’s only temporary.

(*okay, maybe not anything… but you get the idea.)

The alternative is to approach your biggest challenges in a state of shock and barely contained fear. Your best intentions to solve problems using clever tactics will fail because of the mental state you’re bringing to the table in these moments.

Did I mention that your biggest challenges are also your biggest opportunities? Think about that.

Athletes know that state (they call it “being in the zone”) is the crucial component to success. Entrepreneurs are no different.

Luckily for you, you don’t have to solve your problem before half time. You have all day. Actually, you probably have a few days. You have the time to radically change your state in a fun way.

Put down the phone and switch off the computer. Forget everything you’re telling yourself you “should” do.

Go change your state. Unlock the mental resources that will allow your tactics, planning and positivity to flourish.

No matter how big your worries are, I can guarantee that you’ll find solutions faster and easier… if you begin by doing jumping jacks under a cold shower, listening to ACDC while eating chocolate.

Every technique you’ve ever read about works. Every philosophy and attitude is a winning one.

It’s just that when you attempt to use them while your head is on fire, figuratively or literally, your mileage will vary.

Give yourself and your tactics the best possible chance. In times of crisis a powerful emotional state your only priority.


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  1. Hey Peter,

    A smashing post! Yes, all the drama and most of the problems in our lives take place upstairs. If our head is on fire, you’re so right that we can’t do anything with the rest of our body.

    I know I sound like a broken commenter record — we teach folks to torch their own heads. Wish we’d stop doing that to the next generation and ourselves. And now with physical exercise taking a back seat to testing ad infinitum it’s making kids crazier earlier. It took me years to uncrazify myself!

    I do some form of exercise or creative inbursts daily. Walking/biking keeps me on a more even brain keel. And singing – takes me to the land of possibility.

    Thanks for this! Giulietta

    1. Hey Giulietta, good point about the kids. I absolutely agree with you. They’re treating highschool kids for “stress” these days with pharmaceutical drugs. Running outside to kick a ball around could be a better option.

  2. Peter–
    Great post….and true enough! Recent sudden (and OMG-I-hope-only-temporary) cash flow crunch made me sea sick. So I put on a snorkel mask, immersed myself in the Gulf of Mexico and watched fish dart in and out of coral that had been growing thousands of years. Then I took a nap. After putting out the fire in my brain, I grabbed a sheet of paper to list all the resources we have to bridge this issue and keep it from happening again. Then I made a gratitude list. Then I shared the problem, the plan, and the gratitude with my Significant Other and we drank some proper Valentine champagne. Nature and gratitude are game changers for me.

    1. Hey Cory,

      Sounds like you’ve figured out your perfect combo of “state changing” behavior. And it WORKS right? The insurmountable is transformed to “doable”.

      Great to hear your trip went well 🙂

  3. Peter –
    I was having a very aggravating morning with insurmountable and Idonwanna problems. Then, I read your article.

    I decided it was too cold to go for a walk around the block. So, I’m driving to the nearest enclosed shopping mall with intention of walking at least two miles.

    I feel better already.

  4. Off at a tangent completely (but certainly relevant in some dimension) if you like ACDC, have you ever listened to Hayseed Dixie (a brilliant bluegrass cover group)?
    There are few crises that will survive one of their songs.

  5. Not just for grown ups…

    I have to thank you for your tips of child management during those rough times this year when my daughter decided to assert her drama skills… and continue to do so at loud, undeniable, epic proportions.

    You’d suggested breaking the state by suddenly – and suprisingly – doing something unexpected and also laughably hilarious. Grab her and run outside in the street to hop on one foot. Wear a silly hat and sing opera. Run around the house full speed.

    It worked. No one – no one – can see solutions when the sh**t’s hitting the fan. But after 15 minutes of fun and laughs… well, life seems a whole lot more manageable. 🙂

    (Update: the summertime dramatic explosions have ended. We’re now into skillful, sneaky manipulation involving money bribes… Ah, how children grow. Let’s talk, eh? :P)

    1. Haha yes! I forgot about that – a perfect example of the “break-state” rule in action.

      It’s a good sign that she’s moving on to new, more sophisticated tricks lol. After all, it’s just more proof that you’ve raised a super clever kid.

  6. This is such a great description of how lost we can get. I have walked through this swamp of “oh my God, oh my God.” It’s like having a brain-wipe. You forget everything you know how to do. I got lost there for longer than I like admitting … because I even forgot how much you can do when you shift your emotional state. Thankfully, I finally remembered, and I’m on my way back … and the process inspired me to start my website. Now my top priority is managing my state, and everything else falls into place.

  7. Timely. Had a major server attack over the weekend – I wasn’t the target, thankfully, but it took nearly 3 days to bring it all back online.

    I stayed pretty zen throughout, but it can certainly lead to a heart attack if you don’t go for the sex and cupcakes. I mean, if you don’t try to focus in the right place. 😉

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  9. Hi Peter

    Just found your site from an @marketingwisdom link on Twitter, your post on why solopreneurs are destined to fail. So agreed with what you were saying that I clicked through to your blog and find this spot on post, which I completely agree with and which really resonated with me this morning – changing your internal state works! It’s been a while since I added another ‘help for entrepreneurs type of blog’ to my RSS, but I really like the whole look and vibe of your site and focus on business psychology, a refreshing change and I look forward to reading future posts. I find that often people can get so hung up by focusing on the latest business tactics, and then go into crisis mode trying to figure out why nothing seems to change for them (so often based in fear of a multitude of things, as highlighted well in your other post). Taking a step back to consider such patterns, triggers can often reveal a single constraint that, if action was taken to deal with that one thing, would majorly impact other areas causing frustration! Anyway, a subject dear to my heart, and I look forward to reading more.

    ATB Tamsin

    1. Hey Tamsin!
      I’m glad that you found your way here. I try to keep it fresh and different from all the “how to make money/grow your biz” blogs out there. I guess I’m trying to build an audience of people who realize that revolutionizing their thinking is the fastest way to produce high-impact results.

      Good to have you along for the ride!

      1. Thanks Peter really enjoying your blog (loved latest post on viewing fear as excitement…great way of running quickly towards something rather than away ….!) And couldn’t agree more, realising that revolutionizing ones thinking will lead to high impact results is spot on.

        Looking forward to being along for the ride. Have a great w/end and ATB


  10. Love this! Okay, I love everything you write but whatever.

    We should all tattoo “change your state” to the inside of our arms. Because when you’re deep in the sh*t it’s hard to remember to just GET OUT of said sh*t for a while.

    I’m a thinker by nature so going for a brisk walk (has to be at night … don’t know why) is better than any drug. It’s walking meditation because I don’t have to really think about anything yet I can let thoughts wander in and out of my brain without really worrying about or analyzing them. A tall order for a thinky type but walking works.

    I’ve come up with some good copy on my walks too … not that I was TRYING to. But all kinds of stuff enters the room when you’re not looking so hard for it.

    And yay for being ridiculous too! The world needs more ridiculous. So what James said is spot on (I have kids too …)


    1. Hey Karri, thanks for the kind words 🙂

      Physical movement is incredible for stirring up quality thinking. Also, the approach with kids (ridiculousness) is simply the best tantrum-busting technique ever. I don’t have kids, but every client I’ve shared it with says it works like a charm.

  11. Very nice post there Peter I almost agree to everything there. one thing that you missed out is hitting the sack. I usually switch off my brains deliberately and snooze for a while. Its sort of a meditation when I stop thinking and keep my mind blank for maybe a couple of minutes. this works best for me and might work for others too. Physical movement does have its benefits but sometimes there isn’t enough time for that at hand

    1. Hey Owais,

      Thanks for contributing – I did leave sleep out by accident. For me, when I’m in the grip of a crisis I never can sleep anyway… I usually have to go for a run and then plan a solution. Only then will my unconscious mind ALLOW me to snooze.

      I’m sure it’s different for others though.

  12. Peter,

    Cracking post, mate! I could have used this yesterday, so note to self: subscribe to the blog! (in all fairness, I thought I had, but just signed up for comments from last week’s post).

    I am going to have to give some of these suggestions a try. My stock standard state-changer is going for a run (or beach volleyball), but I need a less time-intensive option in my repertoire. I’ve gone the cupcake route, but find that my feeling of fear morphs into feelings of weakness for ingesting what is effectively a drug, albeit legal, to change state — and then the sugar crash thirty minutes later quickly erases any positive feelings I gained from the serotonin bath.

    That said, I’m super keen on the other ideas in your post and in your readers’ comments. Throwing ACDC (or Hayseed Dixie 🙂 on the iPod and doing 5 minutes of jumping jacks might just be the kind of kick in the brain I need. If that fails, there’s always the twenty minute power nap on the floor of the shower with youtube videos of cats playing in the background. (Just kidding, of course.)

    Thanks for the post, mate – great topic!

  13. My mantra lately has been “It’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”

    I repeat it to myself whenever I start to feel like I’m thinking my way out of things, or digging myself into a black hole. The most important thing when you’re stuck is just to go out and DO SOMETHING. After that, fake it till you make it! Great post, Peter.

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