Last night I was doing a little behind the scenes work on HelpfulHabits.net – delving into the coding, the nuts and bolts that ensure all my profound words of wisdom (or at least a bit profound and a little wise I hope ) pop up neatly on your screen. Of course, despite the fact that I’ve been building websites off and on since 1998, the inevitable happened…I broke it. After hours of hard work, I was left with a jumbled onscreen mess that looked more like a undiscovered Jackson Pollock masterpiece than a website; a broken website that left me feeling (and probably looking) like the figure in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ at that.
But this isn’t a story about my PHP programming incompetence, it’s about my response, because as my stress levels inevitably began to rise, I made a fatal mistake – I kept on going. Despite my sky-rocketing stress levels, I stubbornly tried to focus harder, to work faster and to harness all my powers of creativity and reason, to one all-consuming end: to fix my broken baby.
But the problem was, as the speed of my mind gained momentum, my thought process became increasingly out of kilter with reality.
I started skim reading jargon-filled resource after resource with all the gusto of a savant with a photographic memory and a copy of the Yellow Pages. I flitted, and then countlessly re-flitted through file after file of the website’s backend coding, anxiously searching for the mischievous gremlin in the works. And all the logic, creativity and mental clarity I was so desperately trying to harness…well, that just totally evaded me. I might as well as driven to the nearest zoo, handed over my laptop to the first available chimp and said, ‘Hey, sort this out…there’s a banana dipped in honey for you if you do!’
Programmed for Stress
I don’t usually let myself get embroiled with stress like that – I know it’s completely counterproductive. But whilst I know that stress and problem solving don’t make good roommates; I nevertheless fell back on an old piece of social conditioning: the subliminal belief that stress is an unavoidable part of work and productivity: an emotional response that shows you’re keeping busy, that shows you’re challenging yourself and that shows you’re working hard.
In fact, we live in a world where being stressed is almost a badge of honour – ‘Oh I’m so busy, there’s just always so much to do, I’m under the same amount of pressure as a grape in a wine press…but I’m coping. Like Nixon “I can take it. The tougher it gets, the cooler I get.” ’
We have this tendency to succumb to this warped idea that somehow stress is a good thing, that it proves that we’re working hard, pushing ourselves to our maximum capacity. And as part of that stress loving, masochistic mentality, we try to ride it out – we try to push on through the stress barrier – no matter how much pain it’s causing us and no matter how counterproductive it’s turning out to be.
It is, like I said, a deep rooted cultural program, one that even the most stress wary (or weary) of individuals can find themselves defaulting to.
‘If I’m not stressed I can’t be working hard enough – I’m being lazy’.
Stress and Stupidity
For me there’s a serious drawback in defaulting to this socially ingrained default belief though, because I can’t work under pressure in the slightest. The second there’s a deadline or a degree of urgency, my mind flips a switch and goes into half-wit mode – nothing makes sense, I can’t retain information, I can’t recall information, I can’t write…I can barely speak. Being stressed is for me a very bad place to be.
But whilst I’m extreme in my response to stress, the mind dumbing effects of stress are universal – being stressed doesn’t make you brighter, it makes you uncreative, illogical and muddled. Stress makes you stupid…it makes you act like a chimp.
So whilst many of us carry around this bizarre idea that stress is a good thing because it acts as some sort of perverse litmus test of productivity, the reality is that stress is simply a litmus test of stupidity – the higher your stress levels rise, the greater your resemblance to Forrest Gump will be.
Get stressed and you’re just a stones throw from sitting aimlessly on a park bench and profoundly exclaiming, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates.’
Stay Calm – Keep Your IQ
The simple truth is that stress isn’t a positive indicator of productivity and staying on top of things, it’s a negative indicator of being overwhelmed and stretched too far. Our physiological stress response didn’t evolve to help us to get things done; it simply evolved to get us to run away from things we fear. Imagine there’s a very hungry, sabre toothed tiger stalking you, what would your stress response be telling you then? Stay around and play with the nice furry creature with the snarly, salivating mouth or…run like hell?
And that’s exactly what you should do – take on board that primitive survival message and instead of trying to push through or fight it…back off and walk (or run) away.
That instinctive message your stress response is telling you, ‘I can’t cope with this, get me out of here.’
But You Can’t Just Drop Everything…Can You?
When you’ve got a million and one pressing things to do, ‘take a step back and walk away’ can sound like a pretty unrealistic piece of advice I will admit. But the fact is, regardless of how unrealistic or impractical that advice may superficially appear, it’s worth assessing the practicality and the effectiveness of doing the opposite – working with that stress.
Does feeling stressed, and therefore overwhelmed and anxious really help you to work productively – do you really make the right decisions when you’re stressed, do you really think clearly, or are you in actuality, left in a situation where you can’t see the wood for the trees?
Of course, I can’t answer that question for you; maybe you really do find that a certain level of stress gives you an edge. In fact, I appreciate that a lot of people do indeed find that a bit of pressure – for example, a deadline at work or a looming exam – helps them to focus their mind. But I know one thing, I’m not one of them – as I’ve said above, stress strips me of my creativity, as well as my mental clarity and agility.
Sometimes I will feel an illusion of focus whilst I’m stressed, but it is just that, an illusion. It’s only when I look back and realise how little I actually achieved (if anything) that I realise how utterly ineffective, if not counterproductive, being in that stress induced, illusory state of focus really was.
Maybe if you reflect on your own previous performances you’ll find the same. But either way, the simple point I’m making is if stress helps you to work more effectively…then great, feel stressed; but just don’t kid yourself that a certain emotional state is helping you to achieve more, when the reality of the situation – the results of your efforts – clearly paints a different picture.
Being under the misapprehension that stress is helping you to be more productive when the opposite is true…well, in my book at least, that would be even more ridiculous than the advice I’m offering you here
So Really…Walk Away From Stressful Situations
So if you’re like me, and you know deep down, getting stressed about something doesn’t actually help you to achieve anything, the obvious advice is to not get stressed…to stay relaxed.
And to that end, the basic strategy I’m advocating here – stepping back from a stressful situation – is in one form or another, the only way I’ve ever found to put that advice into practice. In other words, to literally run the other way from the sabre toothed tiger.
My own golden rule (that I broke to my extreme detriment last night) is immediately STOP what you’re doing whenever you start getting stressed, regardless of how counterintuitive stopping may seem at that moment. If whatever you’re doing requires the slightest amount of mental power in the form of creativity, logic, analysis and evaluation, mental clarity, lateral thinking, speculation, intuition, curiosity, enthusiasm etc. – you’re simply flogging a dead horse if you continue to push through in a stressed-out state.
Do anything (positive, healthy and constructive) you can to regain your composure. Examine your perspective: are you blowing the importance of what you’re doing out of all proportion? Is it really such a big deal? Sometimes when I used to write articles for a living for example, I used to get so stressed out about writing that I simply couldn’t write a coherent sentence. I used to attribute so much significance to my work that the fear of failure would be all-consuming. Simply asking yourself, ‘Is it that important?’ really can help you to regain a healthy indifference to what you’re doing. Similarly, reminding yourself of the simple fact that stress isn’t a helpful emotion (or for that matter, any kind of positive indicator that you’re working hard) can be enough to break the cycle. A point I really wish I’d reminded myself of last night!
Alternatively, concede defeat…to the battle, but not the war. Drop everything and do something different – something, anything within the boundaries of decency and the law, that takes your mind off the immediate problem.
Again, it can feel extremely counterintuitive, but it’s amazing how your brain comes up with solutions all on its own when it’s just given some space. Stop for lunch, read a magazine, go for a walk…or a run; do some filing or surfing if you have to look busy, but disengage from the problem. I’m sure from personal experience you’re aware how answers to even seemingly unfathomable problems can hit you like a bolt of lightning when you take time out; or how re-approaching a problem after a refreshing break can give you a new, useful perspective at least. But if you need any convincing, take me as an example: After I finally stopped banging my head repeatedly against a brick wall last night, and instead had a coffee, some toast and a half hour break twiddling away on my guitar, my brain miraculously rebooted into smart mode and turned solving and sorting the root cause of my broken website into a few minute’s child’s play.
That sums up the efficiency drag stress can cause: – it can turn a problem you could easily resolve in a few minutes into an issue that’s beyond the scope of your abilities. Don’t give it that power – walk away, regain your composure, start again with fresh eyes.
And the same strategy doesn’t just apply to resolving specific problems; it can be put to scarily good effect on a grander scale as well!
Walking Away From Your ‘To-Do’ List
If I feel overwhelmed by the number of things I’ve got to do in a day for example…I STOP. I remind myself that I can only give my full, undivided attention to one thing at a time; and to that end I consciously prioritise the tasks ahead of me. I often mercilessly cull a long list of ‘to-do’s’ down to two or three priorities for the day – priorities that are either ‘important’ or ‘important and urgent’.
Those classifications may sound a little ambiguous, but they’re not. ‘Important’ simply signifies those things that make a real difference in your life, not the trivialities. You see people rushing around like headless chickens all day, totally consumed with stress. How much of what they’re doing is really ‘important’? How much of the phone answering, tidying, letter writing, errands, meetings, responding to ‘urgent’ requests etc. etc. is actually making a positive impact on their lives? You’ve guessed it…probably not all that much.
The trick is of course, to be able to make a distinction between ‘important’ and ‘trivial’ – to be able to see the wood for the trees. How you make that distinction is naturally deeply subjective, but one question that always helps me (and one which you’ll find repeated in any good book on productivity, time management or balanced living) is ‘Will this make a difference to my life in a week, a month or a year’.
Whilst people tend to drop everything to answer the phone (breaking their focus and further limiting their time in the process) that single question long ago put my phone on perpetual silent mode…if they think it’s ‘important’ they’ll leave a message; if I think it’s ‘important’ I’ll ring them back.
I’m sure you’re getting the idea here…culling your ‘to-do’ list down to the truly ‘important’ can free up a lot of time and in so doing, remove a great deal of pressure and stress. And with all that freed up time what can you do? You can focus on those really important things…the things that make a real difference, with calm mental clarity. You can do them to the best of your true ability.
Walking Away From Everything Else
The same advice is similarly applicable to your roles and goals in life – because there really is only so much you can effectively focus on whilst maintaining your sense of calm and control.
Have too many different activities in your life, or perform too many functions and inevitably, life becomes convoluted; and of equal importance, your efforts in any one area become diluted. As Alexander Graham Bell once said, ‘The Sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus’. Spread the sunshine of your time and mental energy too thin and likewise, you might cover a multitude of areas of your life in tepid warmth, but that warmth will never kindle a fire – you won’t excel at anything. But of course, this article isn’t about diluting your talents, it’s about avoiding stress; and the simple truth is that doing or being too much in life is a sure fire way of getting more of it.
So in a ‘day-to-day’ and ‘role and goal’ sense, taking time out to reflect on what’s really important to you (and then ruthlessly culling the trivial) is a really good way to reduce your stress levels. And just as importantly, your regained composure will enable you to give your all – your time, your resources, and your energy – to those things that really do matter.
Do less, do it well and do it stress free. The less you have to focus on in life, the less pressure you’ll be under – both emotionally and time wise – and consequently, the calmer you’ll be. And the calmer you are, the better you’ll perform. It’s the ultimate win-win situation.
For me, my ‘important’ things in my life are my family, a few close friends, writing, making a positive contribution to the world, growing positively as a human being, playing my guitar, reading and living healthily…and believe me, there’s a great deal of overlap in there.
Everything else though, is way down the trivial list; and keeping my important list small, my trivial list big and walking away from stressful situations is how I personally manage to stay relaxed, productive and sane!