Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Chillax: 10 Rules for a Stress-Free Life

I just looked up ‘chillax’ in the Urban Dictionary, not because I’m so behind with the times that I don’t know what it means, but simply because I wanted a nice, succinct, as well as illustrative definition that goes beyond ‘a combination of chilled-out and relaxed’.

Urban Dictionary obliged by offering the following:-

To loosen or reduce the level of stress by employing a more relaxed and groovy outlook.

I like that definition, even if the word itself is just a bit on the chavy side: – the sort of thing a truant 15 year old with a penchant for gold chains and Kappa tracksuits would say as he loitered around the entrance to Tesco, patiently waiting for an opportune moment to swipe a 3 litre bottle of White Lightening.

If I’m losing you here, my apologies; all references to British culture at its finest I’m afraid…hope the Wikipedia links help.

Shows how much I know though; I’ve just learned that White Lightening cider has been discontinued…which means a whole generation of UK delinquents will grow up deprived of the heady excitement of feeling their legs give way simply from sniffing the fumes of irresponsibly cheap, 8 percent volume cider.

All I can imagine is that sales of glue, aerosols and lighter fluid have soared; or maybe they’ll start importing 190-proof Everclear.

Back to the point…‘Chillax’

I was first introduced to the term ‘chillax’ sometime last year when our current Prime Minister, the silver spooned David Cameron was criticised for being just that…too chillaxed.

To be a good PM the rationale went, you had to take the role seriously…and taking the role seriously meant that you had to submit to the burden of intolerable stress; complete with chronic insomnia, dangerously high blood pressure and probably no sex. Unless the job left you balanced precariously on the knife edge between a nervous breakdown and a massive, probably fatal coronary, well then, you clearly weren’t giving the job your all.

Here it seemed, David Cameron fell short…he was just too chillaxed.

He liked playing tennis, drinking lots of wine at the weekend and playing Angry Birds on his iPad. He even enjoyed going on holiday and spending a little bit of his free time with Mrs Cameron…he probably still had sex with her too.

The sheer chilled out, indifferent arrogance of the man…definitely not PM material. Noooooo!

Success Antithesis: Stress

Now in my opinion David Cameron falls short in many respects.

But as far as his work ethic is concerned, he secures my vote with unquestioning allegiance…the scary sycophantic type that runs the risk of propelling despots to dizzying heights of world-stability threatening power.

But why my open devotion to his oft condemned, some might say cavalier, work ethic?

Well, it boils down to this…

One of the few things that my near 40 years of my existence – and what a surreal, middle-age contemplating thing that is to write – have taught me for sure is that stress and work don’t mix. In fact, stress and anything don’t mix.

Yes, we’re often brainwashed into the belief that we’ll gain a competitive edge by charging around as if everything is oh so important, so life or death; as if living under a constant pressure to perform will somehow spur us on to success.

But everything isn’t that important; and the blunt truth is that acting as if it does, just never helps.

Quite the contrary. It leaves you crippled with anxiety; not to mention creatively dumbed down to the level of a Politburo bureaucrat and as knee-jerk irrational as Kim Jong-un on LSD.

Personally, that’s not the type of guy I would want to give unrestricted access to the big red, apocalyptic button.

No, b****cks to that… I’d rather give the job to one of the juvenile supermarket loitering, school absentees…even Nigel Farage at a push.

If David Cameron likes to chillax, and in so doing stays calm, creative, rational and albeit debatably intelligent in the process, that sounds pretty good to me. In fact, I might just start my own one man public rally to give him the job of PM for life.

His policies might suck but at least the chances or him, or the UK, being the instigator of World War III are as inconceivably remote as those of the Dalai Lama and New Zealand.

“Come on bros” I can hear him saying at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, “We is all in dis togetha. Why let that Mr Kim get under your skin? You know he’s just a nob who likes to dress like Dr No and gets off on his collection of Soviet-era mid-range missiles. My little sis is scarier…just chillaaaaax and forget about him!”

So Yesterday

I grew up imbibing a similar work ethic to those who are so quick to criticise our allegedly unacceptably chillaxed PM.

The ethos goes: – Work is hard, so you better make damn sure it feels hard. It has to stress you out.

If you don’t feel like that, something is basically wrong….you’re not pushing yourself sufficiently to warrant success.

It’s the old ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality; a mindset that sees work and relaxation, never mind enjoyment, as irreconcilable opposites; as much so as Achilles and Hector, William Wallace and Edward Longshanks, Sherlock and Moriarti, Maverick and Iceman, Dr. Who and Davros. OK, I’m getting carried away here.

The point is, it’s a warped way of looking at work that actually tries to make things as difficult as possible…even when they’re easy.

Thanks to crashing and burning a long time ago with that mindset – and having little to show for my efforts – my mindset is quite different these days.

I’ve learned:

  1. It’s all b*****ks
  2. Approaching things with a sense of calm and avoiding as much as possible any ‘brain strain’ are prerequisites to success, not their nemesis.
  3. Stress isn’t an indicator of effective performance. Far from it…it’s a red light alert that you’re pushing yourself way past your comfortable limits…either in terms of ability or workload. It’s a sign you’re overwhelmed.
  4. Try too hard and you’ll be scuppered by the psychological law of ‘reversed effort’ i.e. the more effort you put in, the less you seem to achieve. Ever tried to get to sleep, feel more confident, be more organised or to be more focused? It’s a rhetorical question; we’ve all been there. Counter intuitive though it is, trying too hard is counterproductive…as well as masochistic.
  5. Avoid perfectionism at all costs and let go of expectation. Let go of all those performance anxieties about your work: whether it will make the grade, whether people will like or value it, whether it will get you a promotion or a nice 5 bedroom house with a swimming pool overlooking the sea (which I’m ashamed to admit has always been my materialistic Achilles heal). Instead, simply ‘do’ for the sake of doing; the paradoxical truth is that you’ll achieve a great deal more.
  6. We work most productively when we’re in a state of flow: that special state of consciousness where one becomes so engrossed in what one’s doing right now that everything else – all our distractions, even our sense of self and time – just fade away. It’s during such periods of such total immersion that we’re at our most mentally agile and creative. Nothing inhibits a state of flow more surely than stress…it will crush your ability to enter a state of flow; leaving you functioning with all the mental prowess of Simple Jack. I’m prone to stress… I know that feeling all too well. When I feel stressed, I feel positively retarded. Not Rainman or Forrest Gump retarded… full retard.
  7. Following on from the above, stress totally undermines your ability to stay focused in the present; and instead makes you vulnerable to neurosis and self-doubt. You squander valuable mental resources as your mind leans towards recalling past failures, as well as worries for the future. In one form or another you start thinking, “I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes” or “What if I don’t deliver?”.

So with all those bullet points made, the simple truth is that maintaining a sense of care free indifference is basically vital to your emotional well-being; and contradictory though it sounds, to you success in life.

Let the Magic Flow…

Putting aside David Cameron’s persistent inability to come up with sensible policies for a happier Britain (Maybe Dave, we really should slash the foreign aid budget before the UK sinks under the weight of the floods and the influx of Eastern Europeans into the sea?), it is nevertheless when you’re chillaxed that the magic happens:

You’re more creative…so the ideas flow. You’re less susceptible to burnout…so you work harder, for longer (although, because you’re not stressed, you don’t feel like you’re doing so). And thanks to your relaxed, light-hearted attitude, challenges don’t seem quite the feat they otherwise would, and problems don’t seem quite as foreboding…so you stay enthused, motivated and more resilient.

Basically, It takes a lot to derail you when you’re chillaxed.

Not surprisingly, anything you can do to maintain that calm state of mind – including changing your work ethic – is a good thing; it’ll actually boost your performance.

So here are the top 10 stress-fighting strategies I think you’ll find invaluable in helping to you to ‘loosen or reduce the level of stress by employing a more relaxed and groovy outlook’…I hope they help you to embrace the power of the chillaxed mindset.

Like all life strategies, some of them will work for you all of the time, some of them some will work for you some of the time, but not all of them will work for you all of the time.

On a side-note, unlike the great man whose words the last sentence owes itself too, I doubt that anyone after the next general election will be saying of David Cameron, ‘Now he belongs to the ages… the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever known’.

Sorry Mr Cameron, for the political bashing; I do think your policies really suck – they’re almost as bad as Ed Miliband’s – but nevertheless, I do, like I said before really admire your work ethic.

And running the risk of being overly apologetic, sorry too, to anyone unfortunate enough to be wading through this post sentence by sentence. I’m sure wading through a small flooded village in the South West of England in hurricane force winds, with hail stones the size of golf balls ricocheting off one’s flimsily protected, water drenched,  cagoule covered head, would be preferable.

Stick with it though, it’ll get more helpful. End of side-note.

So finally, here really are my top ten stress-busting strategies… coming for someone who needs them more than most:

1. Limit Emotional Investment

I used to make tasks – even everyday mundane one – almost unbearable, by focusing more on the ramifications of what I was doing rather than the task itself.

‘I don’t want to do this now, I want to do something else instead’. ‘Maybe this isn’t the best use of my time’. ‘It’s going to stress me out’. ‘I don’t want to have to strain my brain’. ‘I don’t know if I can do it’. ‘This is so important I’ve got to do well’. ‘Maybe I’d do better if I did this some other time, when I’m in a better frame of mind’.

Those, and many more neurotically charged thoughts went through my mind.

The simple truth is that all that analysis burns you out before you’ve even started, and not surprisingly makes you extremely susceptible to procrastination.

So limit the emotional investment you put into things: – don’t worry about the consequences of what you’re about to do; don’t expect any particular level of performance from yourself; let go of all that emotional baggage…just start.

Neurosis and performance anxieties simply never help. So instead of trying to egg yourself on by frightening yourself with the nightmarish potential consequences of failure, simply let your performance be determined by your present levels of interest and enthusiasm.

Yes, sometimes that’ll mean you perform very badly – your performance will be apathetic, lacklustre and indifferent. But more often than not, you’ll find that your natural drive to do things well will kick in.

That’s an instinctive, very automatic drive that is only ever hampered and suppressed when you care too much, when you set the bar too high.

2. Disengage Your Frontal Cortex

The frontal cortex is the gatekeeper of awareness. It’s the part of your brain that’s always monitoring the appropriateness of your actions; just like a parent picking up a kid whenever he slumps his shoulders, talks with his mouth full or doesn’t say thank you.

But whilst this constant monitoring of behaviour ensures we act with a degree of decorum, the downside is that it stifles creativity and performance. Why?

Because we never function at anywhere near our best when we’re more concerned about other people’s impressions of us. When we focus the spotlight too heavily on ourselves and our actions, our mental resources are diverted from what should be our primary concern: the task.

I could tell you here to have a drink or two, because that pretty effectively puts the frontal cortex off duty. But that of course, isn’t a viable, healthy, long-term solution… although, thanks to a glass of Merlot that’s exactly what I’m doing right now.

But a better solution is to routinely occupy your mind with simple tasks that keep your mind focused but unchallenged.

In addition to drinking Merlot, I sometimes juggle, go for a run or play familiar pieces on my guitar; all tasks I find engaging but simple. But in reality, even washing the dishes will do.

That focus on the mundane seems to switch off the pre-frontal cortex in a similar way to alcohol, leaving you less inhibited and less concerned about the appropriateness of your actions; with the fortunate upside of course, that your intellect remains firing on on all four cylinders.

Thanks to the Merlot of course, mine is unfortunately, probably firing on three at the moment.

3. The Indifference Perspective

Stress feeds on us seeing things as important.

Believe me, I suffer(ed) from OCD (you’re never completely cured) and the stress I could evoke out of the most trivial thing – because it seemed important to my deranged way of viewing the world – was quite spectacular.

‘Oh…my bare food has just come in contact with a coin on the carpet. Where has that coin been? Maybe the last person to touch it had AIDS! Fuck…I’m going to die – horribly, slowly, my emaciated corpse-like body on a drip in a hospital bed!!!’

The antidote?

Take a leaf out of the Stoic handbook and refuse to see anything as important.

It can sound nihilistic, and the funny thing is, maybe it is.

But it’s the practical benefits of this potentially nihilistic attitude that are important.; because by not seeing anything as being important in the grand scheme of things, it’s remarkable how much better, and how much less stressed you feel.

Take it from someone who used to get stressed if they stood on a coin bare footed, stood within a hundred meter radius of someone sneezing or a fat person (don’t ask); if that nihilistic attitude can alleviate mental illness; what can it do for someone with a hopefully saner outlook on life?

Just say ‘Fuck It! It doesn’t really matter anyway!’

4. Bin Perfectionism

In my mind, perfectionism is the most insidious, cancer-like, corrosive personality trait to infect, corrupt and enslave the human spirit.

Nothing will undermine your ability to perform more; nothing will lead to you questioning your ability more; nothing will give you such an inferiority complex than striving for perfection…the unobtainable.

I used to do so – another hardcore OCD trait I’m afraid – and it made my life a living hell. I simply saw error and failure in everything I did. Sometimes I still do.

Don’t fall into that trap.

Accept that perfection is an unobtainable mirage in a desert of neurotic despair, a phantom of achievement that’s simply there to haunt and taunt you like a poltergeist of Paranormal Activity franchise like malevolence.

Let go of that self-destructive, unobtainable perfectionism. Change your focus towards doing as well as you can, instead of attempting to eradicate imperfection.

Imperfection will always exist, and the more you focus on your deficiencies – both in your character and in what you do – the more you’ll find.

Strive to do well – but don’t even strive too much at that (because of course, you also want to limit the emotional investment you put into things) – and be content with that.

5. Be Authentic

OK, as personality traits go, inauthenticity is probably as every bit as much as insidious, and tumour-like corrosive as perfectionism.

Inauthenticity puts you under a perpetual spotlight of approval…everything you do is contrived with a manipulative end result in mind: You want to be liked, respected, loved or whatever…so you act in a way that seems appropriate to the end goal.

But doing so leads to massive cognitive stress and strain as you attempt to tailor and filter every action to the approval of your audience.

Fuck it…let it go.

Like Abraham Lincoln so profoundly said, accept that “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”

Let go of the struggle to impress in its entirety and instead take a leaf out of Liam Gallagher’s book and live by the ethos, ‘I need to be myself…can’t be no one else.’ And as he said when Robbie Williams criticised his new album for not having any choruses…‘I’d rather shoot myself in the balls than take his advice!’

Well said Mr Gallagher, that is authenticity in action! And I’d rather shoot myself in the balls rather than be anything other than authentic in character, positive in my dealings with others and genuine in spirit.

6. Accept things as they are

How much stress in your life is caused because of the discord between what you want and what you have – between your reality and your perceived ideal?

We’re not simply talking about ‘wanting’ in a material sense here – for example, wanting more money, a bigger house, a better career or a car with cream leather seats – we’re talking in every conceivable sense.

Whenever you want anything to be different from the way you find it – for example, that the world should spin on an axis of fairness and justice, that Eskimos shouldn’t club cute little seals, that people should be respectful, that people shouldn’t stink out train carriages with packages of pickled onion Monster Munch and buckets of KFC, or whatever, you’re wanting something…and the resulting stress, frustration and resentment causes you a great deal of emotional pain.

The answer?

Try to live by the words of the Serenity Prayer:

‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.’

Come to appreciate that silently stewing over a problem does nothing to resolve that problem – it’s entirely self destructive. Let those emotions manifest themselves only when you’re able or prepared to take action to bring reality into line with your ideal. Learn to live in peace with the rest.

Oh…and how about this for an apt illustration: Like a right-wing extremist ignorantly denying the Holocaust, WordPress’ dodgy iPad app simply refused to acknowledge that the last 30 minutes of focused writing on this post had ever taken place – erasing it from history without so much as a look of guilt or empathy.

My first reaction was of course, ‘I don’t believe it…you can’t be fucking serious!’

And then I remembered what I’d just written, and took the only sensible path open to me: Without frustration or irritation, I wrote it all again. :-)

7. Be Present

Much of our stress arises from our almost compulsive need to infect the present with the past and future.

We allow our past experiences to shape our beliefs – mostly negatively – about what we’re capable of in the present. Likewise, we fuel our anxieties by ruminating on the potential negative consequences of our failures.

Where does all this insecurity and anxiety get us?

Well, one place it doesn’t get us, I’m sure you’ll agree, is any closer to our goals.

The answer of course, is to shut off all that background mental noise – to be completely present. How?

Two strategies I find monumentally helpful are firstly, to simply refuse to dwell on any thoughts about the past and the future as and when they bubble into my consciousness; and secondly, to constantly improve my ability to enter a state of flow – the state of mind where you’re entirely engrossed in what you’re doing.

Here’s the easiest way to achieve – or at least improve your ability to enter – flow:

Close your eyes, focus on your breathing – the sensation of the air entering your nostrils and filling your lungs. Just focus on those very immediate sensations for a couple of minutes – either before you start a task, or whenever thoughts of the past and future start to infiltrate the present.

You’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed and composed you feel; and how much more efficiently you breeze through tasks.

8. Single Task

We live in an age where multi-tasking is considered the norm, even an essential for productive living.

The truth however, is that it’s a delusion fit for a psychiatric ward. Why?

Simply because we work exponentially more effectively when every synapse of our attention is focused exclusively on one task; when we’re absorbed in that state of flow.

And the simple truth is that ‘flow’ and ‘multi-tasking’ are as incompatible as ‘comfortable flying’ and ‘Ryan Air’, because by definition, multi-tasking involves spreading your attention between multiple tasks.

And don’t think for a second that you can simply flit from one task to another and immediately enter a state of flow with each. Psychologists estimate that it takes an average of 11 minutes to regain focus every time you’re distracted or interrupted. In other words, you lose valuable minutes with each multitasking shift – minutes which would have been far better spent engrossed in one task, from start to completion.

The paradox therefore, is that through multi-tasking, you run the real risk of getting nothing done.

For the sake of efficiency – not to mention a more chillaxed mindset therefore – learn to do one thing at a time.

Think of tasks, as Dale Carnegie suggests, as grains of sand running through an hourglass. Always remember that just like the hourglass, you’re unable to efficiently process more than one grain of sand – one single task – at a time.

9. Don’t Rush

Not only do many of us attempt to multi-task, but we try to rush through the things we do as well.

It’s as if juggling several balls in the air isn’t enough, we’ve got to get those balls moving quicker than Neo Kung-fu fighting Agent Smith.

But if multi-tasking makes us prone to inefficiency, how much more inefficient do we become when we make ourselves vulnerable to all the errors, misjudgements and thoughtless ill-preparation that arises through rushing?

No, rushing through a task doesn’t help any more than attempting to multi-task. On the contrary, it just increases the odds that you’ll screw things up; and guarantees that you’ll be left as stressed as a doctor working on a budget-cut A&E ward in Shrewsbury after an England vs Wales game.

The problem is of course, that time tends to be limited for even the most sacred of tasks; and that being the case, rushing often seems like the only viable option.

But it’s not; there’s an alternative.

I’m not a huge fan of many of the time-management strategies touted, and I’m less of a fan of many of those who tout them.

But one piece of advice offered by Brian Tracy that I’ve always found remarkably effective is the Rule of Three:

To take only the three most important tasks you have to complete – the one’s that’ll have the greatest positive impact on your life – and to focus on them exclusively until completion.

It’s simply amazing how much time we free up when we cull all but the essential from our schedules…the low priority tasks that offer next to no positive return on investment, but seem to take up such a disproportionate amount of our time.

Ruthlessly cull those out.

Ask yourself whether what you’re doing is really going to make a positive difference to your life.

If the answer’s no – if it’s something that in the cold light of day proves to be something you’re doing simply out of routine and habit, a misplaced sense of obligation, a triviality that may seem urgent but is ultimately unimportant, or simply to make yourself feel or appear busy – stop it.

Find the three most important tasks that’ll truly make a positive difference to your life…today, this week, this month, this year, and focus exclusively on those.

None of us need to rush the three things that represent the most important use of our time. To focus on just three things is easy.

And if we do focus our time intelligently on just those core essentials and say to hell with the rest, we quickly find we have all the time in the world. We can approach everything we do calmly, thoughtfully, creatively and with a sense of non-urgent peace of mind.

10. Oh Yes… No 10

The reality is that I could go on and on, spoon feeding you with strategies to reduce your stress levels.

But it all boils down to this: Stay light-hearted, don’t care too much about anything, don’t invest too much mental energy in anything, focus on doing instead of worrying about the consequences, see work as a playful challenge as opposed to a matter of life and death, forget the past, forget the future, concentrate on the here and now and let your interest and curiosity guide and dictate your actions.

If there is a number 10, it is simply to chillax – to enjoy life as opposed to seeing it as one big emergency, wrought with life-or-death challenge after another.

It’s not. As Mark Anthony said in Rome – ‘I always feared failure, but now it is here I realise there is nothing to fear. The sun still rises… the water still tastes good.’

Life is for living positively… all else – success or failure – is incidental.

Thanks Rich for the inspiration. You’re a true friend :-) And to my Supernova B.A. who makes life worth living. :-) :-) And of course, to my Mum who happily and patiently reads every word. :-)

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