Something happened at a point in my career when I became overloaded. It didn’t happen all at once, but when I finally realized how “stressed” I was, it was too late. Home obligations piled up; community commitments grew, and the jealous mistress of work called at all hours of the night. The spiraling cycle of stress unwinds, and soon there’s a sense that there is no way to get everything done. Let me tell you a little secret, It can’t.
I have struggled to try and maintain balance in all aspects of my life, but I’ve realized that “balance” is a myth perpetuated by Pfizer, the makers of Xanax. Early in my career I was anxious to find relevance and importance, and I took on far more than I could ever accomplish. I joined boards, volunteered for special projects at work, and then one day I walked into my office and saw that I had unread emails, voicemails, and a to-do list that was a mile long. Oh yeah, and I realized I had a swim meet later that night, a stacked day the next day, and then I was traveling for the rest of the week. After breathing in a brown paper bag for 10 minutes, I realized that I had to figure out how to manage the stress.
Stress will kill you.
I’m not a psychologist, and I did not stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. However, these following steps have helped me manage some of the stress in my life.
#1. Know What Drives You
Whether we have discovered it or not, we are driven by a purpose. It impacts all the decisions we make.
Do you know yours? We all have the same amount of time, and if we spread ourselves too thin we are known for nothing, but capable of everything. Often, we find ourselves doing great work, but it is incongruent with our purpose; thus the work drains us and creates unresolved stress.
I wrote a piece a while ago about discovering your purpose. If you have not read it, take a minute to think about your purpose.
My purpose is to unleash potential. Whether home, work, or non-profit, I desire to make things better than the way I found them.
2. Make a list
With so many mounting pressures it feels like everything is competing for your time and attention, but you are “the decider” when it comes to your priorities. When I grew up, you were supposed to provide a rote answer about your life priorities (i.e. God, Family, Pet Iguana), but I think priorities change at different stages in life.
So, what’s crucial right now? Write out the 5-7 most important areas of your life today in no particular order. Set a reminder to review that list tomorrow and then again in one week. Once you’re sure that the list captures all of your priorities then rank them. This list should serve as a lens.
Note: most people forget to include themselves in their list. You would not plan a trip without a vehicle, you can’t plan priorities without care of yourself? Would you board an airplane that hasn’t been maintained because the airline had too many flights to make? With forgotten checklists and hurried schedules, mistakes will happen–for the aircraft and you.
Here’s my list:
- Provide for my family.
- Grow mentally, physically, and spiritually.
- Be a bad ass in my work. Or do the kind of work that would have made my dad proud.
- Have a little fun.
- Share my gifts.
- Invest in people.
Under each of these items, there are very time-specific items that are priorities. For example, under “Provide for my family” I have the following priorities: (a) braces for kids’ teeth, (b) save for college tuition, (c) transportation needs for the family, (d) renovate house, and (e) exposure to activities like music lessons, athletics, and travel.
In each area of my life, I’m able to determine whether that task fits within a priority. If it does, I do it. If it doesn’t, then I have an easy out.
3. Make time for your health (at least a little)
The easiest to-do item to neglect is your personal wellness. Exercising and eating well are two of the easiest things to ignore. We tend to eat on the go in and leave no room for regular our health. Just carving out 15-30 minutes a day of distraction-free walking and eating fruit or vegetable and each meal is an easy start.
In February 2014, I began a practice of working out every day using a program called T25. I have, more or less, kept the routine since then and transformed my body and mind to crave regular exercise. It has also slowly impacted my diet, but much to my wife’s chagrin, the desire for beer still remains. This may be one of the most significant relievers of my stress.
4. Kill the Alerts
You work too much. I work too much. We all work too much together, and our constantly connected world isn’t helping. Here are some interesting stats on the mobile invasion:
- A Pew Research study found that “44% of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.”
- A 2014 Tecmark research project reveals that, on average, smartphone users reach for their phones 1,500 times per day.
You will never be able to put it in a box if your phone is in constant in a tug-of-war for your attention.
I have applied three steps around alerts:
- Turn off email alerts. If people want to get in touch with me, they text me.
- I added my wife and my boss as VIP contacts.
- Also, I use a liberal time with the do not disturb feature (8:00 AM – 7:00 AM).
Those are the only ways to contact me outside of normal hours. Those channels are rarely abused and give me the ability to unplug.
5. Deal with Issues Once
One of the biggest stressors for me is carrying unresolved issues, which happens when I don’t solve an issue and “sit on it” for a few days. When you sit down to read an email, respond, delegate or delete. Worse yet, when you read an email on your phone that you will “deal with later,” you carry that unresolved issue like a ball and chain. There is no sense in carrying that “undone” task around once you’ve put your mind to it.
I wish I had the time and discipline to check email only twice per day, but I’ve found that difficult. Instead, I try to only respond to email from my desktop once about mid-morning and once at the end of the day. Some are quite disciplined about 7 AM and 1 PM, but I like that early morning time to actually get 1–2 tasks complete. Regardless, carving out specific time to wrangle that darn inbox is better than being in and out of it throughout the day.
6. Put that Stress in a box
We are always processing multiple stressors at any moment. These floating problems even hold my dreams hostage. Not everyone can compartmentalize, but with practice you can give yourself the freedom to focus on what is sitting right in front of you–without getting all Zen on you, intentional presence, we’ll say. I’m not saying to avoid entirely–left unresolved, those stressors will wreck you, but you cannot consistently process all that’s in your mind all of the time.
Carve out time for yourself to deal with the big, stressful issues.
On the home front, my wife and I spend a few hours on Saturday mornings to discuss the big family issues. Of course, other issues arise through the week, but this gives us an opportunity to address the bigger things regularly.
7. Let the important things bubble up to the top
I’m a firm believer that “inbox zero” is for those that don’t have enough to do. Smug, I know. Here’s the issue: because someone else thinks it is a priority doesn’t make it one of my priorities. If, in fact, it should be my priority, then I will know it. It will bubble to the top.
Now, I’m not suggesting you blow everyone off (this rule may not apply to your boss or your banker), but you don’t have to be on-demand with everyone. Pick once a day or once a week when you respond to the lower tier items.
An email should not take the place of a more proper form of communication.
- An email should not be a dissertation, that’s the job of a memo.
- An email should not “pass the buck.” While someone attempts to complete their task list, they bundle multiple issues into a single email and pass the buck to you.
- An email should not cover more than one update or ask more than one question.
- An email cannot take the place of a phone call when a topic needs some conversation.
In the famous words of Elsa, “Let it go.” My inbox bubbleth over, and I am okay with it. Occasionally, I miss something important, but when that happens, I usually get a passive-aggressive, follow-up email asking me “did you receive my email on Monday?” Usually the referenced email would have fit another medium better, but then I respond with some comment about how it was in my spam–because technically it probably was. Then I respond to them. 🙂
8. Learn to say no
Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks is to say “no”–whether to others or yourself. It is honorable to volunteer and it is burdensome to tell those that you admire and respect “no,” but it is impossible to say yes to everything. Being mindful of your priorities, what fits with your big priorities?
While it’s not readily apparent, you are the first person have to tell no. Do any of these fit:
- I need to do this for my career.
- If I take on this role, the community will recognize my accomplishment.
- It’s not really my responsibility, but I will “own it.”
- Sure, it’s only a few hours a month.
I am the king of overcommitment. Years of counseling may reveal why. Who knows?
When possible, I like to introduce another solution, “While I cannot join this cause right now, I have a few friends that would be great candidates.” Otherwise, I’ve just learned to decline and apologize. Delaying a response or making an excuse creates even more stress than just committing.
My biggest challenge is taking on the right amount of responsibility. With clients, I always consulted as though I owned the business. In jobs, I’ve always approached my responsbility as though I’m the CEO. Sometimes, I have to tell myself no and accept the proper amount of responsibility–commiserate with my authority.
9. Start small
Rome wasn’t built in a day. You don’t have to do everything at once. No matter how wide of birth you believe your ship of habits needs, you can make minor steps today. If you need to introduce wellness, start by taking a 5 minute walk around the block. It is a great idea, for example, to take a short walk before you actually walk into your home after a long day.
Start tomorrow. Plan to take a five minute walk. Increase it to 10 minutes a month later, and let a few emails ago.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. – Lao-tzu
I don’t make new year’s resolutions, and I’m fairly non-committal to major, life changes–they’ve tended to be unsuccessful in my life. Instead habit changes, like snowballs being pushed down a hill, pick up momentum and grow. My fitness program was a snowball. I committed 25 minutes a day for a week, then two weeks, and finally after 8 weeks, my body began to change and my diet followed.
10. Assess Yourself, Before You Stress Yourself
More than likely, you review project plans, progress reports, and task lists on a weekly basis, but how often are you reviewing your major priorities? At least quarterly review your priorities list and grade yourself by the stress-less system you’ve adopted.
Most importantly, allow yourself time to reflect on your life. If there are key stressors, why? What’s causing that one client situation or project to weigh so heavily on you. I didn’t have the tools or need to reflect on things like this before. Now, it is one of the most important aspects of stress management.
I had a client that would call at 9:00 in the evening and on weekends, and it stressed me out to no end. Now, I had other clients that would call or text in off-hours, but for some reason they did not bother me. Finally, I realized the difference. These calls were out of desparation and inviting me to share in desparation and panic. When I really evaluated why it stressed me, I realized I have plenty of my own stress without this add-on. Now, when I feel a client, boss, or even friend taking more withdraws than they are depositing, I discuss it with them.
All of these items just add another thing to do on your to do list, and you’ve just wasted 5 minutes reading this stupid post. Before you hit the panic button and kick the dog, take a deep breath. If anything covered here resonates, then invest time and try a few new techniques. Like maintenance of an airplane saves time and money in the long run, maintenance on your system may save you time and ultimately years in your life. My approach may not work for you, but something will.
There are ample self-help articles on stressing less written by well-known psychologists. The neurological and physiological impacts of stress are well-documented. I wrote this article because I sometimes feel limitless pressure of being a male in my 30s with a family to support and all the stress that goes along with it.
My dad was a John Wayne kind of guy, and he sometimes acted like succombing to stress was weak. Well, it’s not weak. Stress, is a formidable foe, and it will fold you at your knees. My body has sent me strong signals, and I’ve watched stress do the same to close friends. Don’t approach stress like managing it would be a nice pass time. Don’t tempt the gods by saying you are “tougher” than stress.
So… I bet you’ve found at least a few these to be ridiculous. Hopefully, you found a few to be helpful. Please leave me a comment and let me know what techniques or maxims you use.