His doctor just told him he has an ulcer.
“It’s stress-related,” he tells me. “Doc says I need to learn stress management.”
“Okay,” I say.
“So.” He pauses. “What the hell is stress management?”
We both laugh.
“Well,” I say, “stress is how the body reacts to a demand. And there are better and worse ways to react. Stress management is about letting go of worse ways and learning better ones.”
“Like worry. Worrying is a common reaction to stress, but not very effective. Solves nothing, eats up lots of time and energy, can even make you sick emotionally or physically. You worry much?”
“Sure,” he frowns.
“Okay,” I say. “I did too. One reason was I couldn’t distinguish important stuff from unimportant.”
“That’s me,” he says. “Everything feels like an goddamned emergency.”
“Right. Then I learned to prioritize. I used the three-box trick.”
“I made a list of everything I worried about. Then I broke that list into three smaller lists, which I put into three imaginary boxes. I labeled the boxes Must Do Now, Should Do Soon and Can Do Later. It made things a lot more manageable.”
“Okay,” he says, “that makes sense. But some things can’t be put into boxes.”
“What are you thinking of?”
“Problems I can’t solve and can’t let go of.”
“Like how the economy is hurting my business. And my dad’s skin cancer. And how my wife and daughter can’t stop fighting.”
“Oh,” I say. “For that you need the fourth box.”
“What’s the fourth box?”
“It’s labeled Can’t Do Shit. It’s for all the stuff you can’t control, like the economy and acts of God and other people’s relationships. It’s my favorite box.”
“Because putting stuff in it helps reduce my stress more than anything else.”
“Really? Doesn’t it make you feel helpless?”
“The opposite of helpless, actually.”
“Because when there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I have to do. So when I put something in that box, I can let go of it. It stops being a problem, stops being a demand. And when I redefine it that way, I get back the time and energy it’s been costing me.” I smile. “And I feel a little bit stronger.”