Philosophical Strategies to Help Deal with a Tough Job

Many hands on a trunk of a tree

Production tree work can be complex. The demands on our time and physical and mental energy can be great. At times, the list of tasks we need to accomplish can force us into what I call a “feeling of overwhelm,” a feeling that, no matter how hard we try, the tasks will never get done. If a job goes over (its allotted time), if something gets damaged, if someone gets injured – these are major concerns for tree crews working in the field.

Crew leaders are responsible for a great deal daily. Safety, production, efficiency and company reputation all add up. It is easy for a sense of helplessness to cause physical and emotional stress. The research on the effects of stress on our bodies and minds is sobering. Therefore, developing tools, techniques and habits to counteract the feeling of overwhelm, and its resulting stress, benefit us not only physically but emotionally as well.

The job of production arboriculture will always be stressful. There will always be demands on the people performing the work. In short, tree work will always be a hard dollar, but it need not ruin your life nor become stifling and unmanageable. You can have a long, successful, injury-free career. Like all things worthwhile, it takes planning.

Full disclosure, it ain’t easy! Also, there is no one silver bullet for all people, all crews and all companies. However, this condition of overwhelm at work is as old as humanity. As such, there are many ideas and suggestions from the past and present we can look to for help and guidance on our journey.

The following is a list of seven of my favorite philosophy-based methods to help tree workers and/or crew leaders deal with overwhelm, overload and stress experienced on the job.

Definitions

Before we begin any philosophical conversation, we must first define our terms. One term that will loom over our conversation is production. There are many ways to look at what production means to a tree crew or tree care company. The one I like comes from Tim Ard, longtime industry trainer, who defines production as “efficiency accomplished safely.” By focusing on efficiency, we use our time and resources to maximum advantage. By doing so safely, we do not incur lost time or money in accomplishing a task, not to mention the human cost if an injury occurs.

This brings us to the definition of what is a safe activity. Again, many ideas and words could be used to define safety or being safe. Looking to the world of general industry and heavy manufacturing, I discovered a wonderful way to define safety. It has three parts to the definition. First, look for and list all reasonable hazards. Part two, define a plan of action to eliminate or mitigate the hazards. Lastly, execute the plan.

By using this as our definition, we can put action behind the saying, “Let’s be safe.” To be safe, we must recognize the hazards, develop a plan, then execute the plan. This is what I mean when I tell a crew or a climber to “be safe.”

Focus on what you can control

A key tenet of Stoic philosophical thought is that of control. There are two categories of things to a Stoic: things we control and things outside of our control. They wisely recommend we spend our time and focus on what we control.

Stress and overwhelm can develop when we try to take on too much, such as when we see before us a seemingly endless list or a multitude of tasks impossible to accomplish promptly. We need a system to sort out what to focus on. By dismissing what we cannot change, we narrow the possibilities and can therefore focus our attention.

So ask yourself, of all that lies in front of you to decide, do or choose, “Is this matter within my control? Am I the one who can change it?” For example, you do not control the weather. So do not worry about it. What you do control is safe action. Can you safely work in the current conditions? At what point does the weather make a job or job task inefficient or unsafe?

Another example is the inevitable equipment breakdown. Yes, proper maintenance is a worthy investment. However, things break! Don’t let the unexpected breakdown outside of your control lead to rushed decisions or a feeling of needing to go faster. If the equipment is essential, decide to stop until it is available. If you can work efficiently and safely without the equipment, then restructure your plan to accommodate the change. Both of these are within your control.

Don’t suffer in your imagination

Seneca the Younger, Roman senator and Stoic philosopher, said, “We often suffer more in imagination than in reality.” This happens when we lose the perspective of the present moment and instead focus on the future or what could happen, or, conversely, on the past and what did happen. Stay grounded, stay present. The past can guide but cannot be changed. The future is unknown.

Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher and the accepted founder of Taoism, tells us, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “Worry is like paying interest on a debt you don’t owe.” Worry will not solve problems and will only add to the sense of overwhelm and stress.

Worrying about a job next week or wondering if you will win the bid wastes energy. Of course, you should preplan and prepare for the unexpected. But this should be done through constructive action and thoughtful planning.

Even in the moment, we can divert unnecessary energy from our immediate job tasks. Take large tasks one safe step at a time. Don’t let the next seven limbs you need to rig over the house distract you. Focus on the one limb that needs to be rigged now. Complete it safely, then focus on the next. On complex climbs or jobs, let the work come to you, don’t rush ahead in your imagination and worry about it.

Is this essential?

Of the things we can control, there will be priorities. By asking yourself, “Is this essential?” you can sort the list of things you control even more and hone your focus more acutely.

Gary Keller, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Keller Williams, the world’s largest real estate franchise by agent count, has a wonderful method for determining the essentiality of action. In his book The One Thing, he recommends we ask ourselves, “What is the one thing I can do such that, by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” This is an excellent way to prioritize all the possibilities and be as efficient and effective as possible.

I often see new crew leaders trying to do everything by themselves. They fail to delegate tasks others can do. Not only does this lead to overwhelm and the resulting stress, but it sends a message to the crew that they are not trusted.

When faced with many tasks as a crew leader or climber, ask yourself, “Is it essential that ‘I’ do it?” One of the key aspects of leadership is delegation. Your crew is there to support you. The administrative staff in the office and the sales representative are all part of the support team. Learn to delegate and receive help. If this team does not exist, then start to build it in scale with your company and/or crew.

Prepare in advance

Things are going to go wrong. Jobs are going to go over. Rigging is not going to work as planned. The weather is going to stop being perfect. Know this. Develop plans and processes for the mishaps and unpredictable nature of our jobs. Not everything you try will be a success. You will experience failure.

By accepting this now and when the inevitable happens, you will more easily stay grounded and present and not get swept up in the emotion and drama of the moment.

This pertains to communications as well. Whether it be with your crew, your clients or the general public, we all will have to deal with people who, in Marcus Aurelius’ (Roman emperor and Stoic) words, “will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” By knowing this, we can develop strategies and plans to deal with the many unpredictable and possibly unpleasant situations in advance. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Take time for reflection

Not everything works. This is a simple fact. Therefore, you must take time to reflect on what you tried and whether or not it worked. Failure is inevitable, but only becomes detrimental when you do not take the time to learn from your failures and adapt. If a job went over, determine why. If a climb took longer than planned, figure out where the time or efficiency was lost. The list of what did not work is long! However, also look at successes. What did go well? What equipment saved time and energy? It is not all about failure!

Do this as a crew or company. There are hidden lessons in all wins and losses. Also, having more perspective will only help you arrive at solutions or conclusions faster. Do it systematically and regularly. Develop a process, then schedule a time to review. A look back at a job gone right or wrong is an excellent tailgate meeting topic! When there is a definite win – a compliment from a client, a job done well under time – then celebrate and acknowledge. If you are the supervisor, make sure you note the suggestions and act on them. Nothing kills a “suggestion box” quicker than if it is never emptied and the ideas are never used.

Take time to recover

Tree work is demanding. You need a break physically and mentally. Schedule rest and stick to it. Move beyond eating well and drinking enough water, though both are highly important! Give your mind a rest and find ways to regulate the emotion and stress the job can cause.

Take time to engage in something you enjoy. Taking a walk to shift focus and exercising to release pent-up emotion and energy add to your efficiency and do not detract from it. Develop a means of taking time for yourself or engaging in a hobby. It will increase your productivity when used effectively and give your mind a much-needed rest. Take the attitude of “little and often” over the long haul when it comes to rest and recovery. Even short amounts of time will make a difference. Waiting for vacation and/or pushing through are sure ways to burn out, decrease production and possibly be injured.

Keep perspective

It is easy to get lost even in the present moment, to be so focused on the minutia of life and work that you forget the larger picture. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”

His words remind us that good and bad alike shall pass, and the world will carry on. Our time and space here are important, but such a very small part of the whole. Again, Marcus gives us words of perspective: “You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind … and clear out space for yourself … by comprehending the scale of the world … by contemplating infinite time … by thinking of the speed with which things change. Each part of everything; the narrow space between our birth and death; the infinite time before; the equally unbounded time that follows.”

When we take time to see the whole, the small can become clear and we can understand better the true importance of things and how and why we should change them if necessary. When a job is long and tedious, remind yourself why you got into tree care in the first place. Think about all the good your work has done for clients, communities and the environment. Trees are wonderful organisms that breathe the world in and breathe it back out. You are a vital part of helping trees fit into our yards, towns, communities and culture.

Summary

There are no easy answers that will help you reduce stress and overwhelm. All of the seven strategies listed here will take time, effort and discipline. Not all of them will work for everybody, but given a chance, most will. Make them your own; that is to say, give them a shot, then adapt them to what resonates with and for you. Anything worth doing will require effort. You will try and you will fail and you will succeed. Just know the effort put forth will pay dividends.

Anthony Tresselt, CTSP, is a consultant serving as director of safety and training for Arborist Enterprises, Inc., an accredited, 31-year TCIA member company based in Manheim, Pennsylvania. He is also a writer, philosopher, student of gravity and independent trainer based in Manheim. His writing and thoughts can be found on his blog, gravitationalanarchy.com. His books can be found on Amazon. He is a co-founder of The Arborist Boot Camp (thearboristbootcamp.com), a transformational training experience for new tree workers. He is also a co-founder of Leadership Performance Mastery, an online, self-paced, transformative leadership course for anyone looking to improve his or her leadership, regardless of whether they lead one or a thousand (valuebasedleadershipjourney.com)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Click to listen highlighted text!