Before I wrote the first word of this article, I pictured you in my mind. You, my friend. I saw you in one of two settings:
- The middle of the night. You are frustrated and stressed and decided to Google something like “work keeps me up at night”
- The day after a bad night. You are bleary-eyed and annoyed and wish you were home in bed right now.
Or, you are chipper and slept well, and I don’t know why you’re here. Hi anyway…welcome to the party!
This is not an article about counting sheep or taking vacations. There are many useful resources on the internet and elsewhere to help you with treating the effects of stress through exercises that calm the body and quiet the mind. Don’t neglect those treatments; just don’t look for them here.
My specialty is helping my clients analyze the causes of their work-induced stress and implement strategies to nip the problem in the proverbial bud. That is the focus of this article.
However, it is not optimal to be completely stress-free. Where there is little stress, you typically feel unmotivated. Where there is high stress, you may feel overwhelmed and unable to perform. A moderate amount of stress, well-handled, activates creativity, motivates you to complete tasks, and helps you feel alert and alive.
So, you need some stress. But, how do you keep it in that sweet spot where it improves performance but doesn’t keep you up at night? You find out what your stress triggers are and implement strategies to mitigate them. Here are three examples.
Trigger: My colleagues depend on me…too much.
Strategy: Work yourself out of a job.
The best career advice I was ever given was by my first boss, the brilliant Ellen Williams, who said, “Melissa, strive every day to work yourself out of this job.” She advised me to improve processes and empower others so much that my role would become obsolete, and I would be indispensable in positions above mine. I was promoted five times in the seven years I worked at that company.
Are you indispensable in your current position? Then there you will stay and your stress levels will continue to spike into the unhealthy ranges. So, work yourself out of a job with the following strategies:
- Make sure that you are not the only one who knows how to do your job. Document your procedures.
- Motivate and empower your colleagues to make decisions without you. If you are the only one who can approve certain actions, then work stops whenever you are not there.
- Crosstrain others on the skills that you uniquely possess. Help them become the expert spreadsheet developer in the group. Create a training class. Mentor someone.
Trigger: I procrastinate.
Strategy: Make it harder to do so.
I have a healthy relationship with procrastination and even use it from time to time to as a sweet reward. However, sweet things can rot your teeth if you enjoy them too often. Human nature is to avoid unpleasant things so don’t hate yourself when you do, but be smart about it.
Try these strategies to lessen the likelihood and impact of your procrastination:
- Include a verb in every entry on your to-do list. Read, call, email, review, buy, etc. If the to-do is action-oriented, it is easier to get started on it.
- Pay attention to your productive times of the day and plan your more cerebral tasks for those peak hours.
- Include fun rewards on your to-do list and delay completing them until the less desirable tasks are done.
- Focus on your future self. Procrastination is caused by an overemphasis on the “Today Me” rather than the “Tomorrow Me.” Think about Tomorrow Me and be kind to her.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. Work in 25-minute increments. You can do anything for 25 minutes, even that distasteful task that’s languishing on your list.
Trigger: I have more to do than I can possibly accomplish.
Strategy: Change your mindset or change your situation.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish. One of the exercises that my clients find most enlightening is when we create an accurate and comprehensive list of everything that they need to do between now and the foreseeable future. They have an epiphany when they realize that they are set up for complete failure. There is no way they can check off everything on this list in the expected timelines.
Here are some mindset shifts that need to occur in this situation:
- Prioritize making and managing your to-do list even if you “don’t have the time.” Without it, you cannot make a cogent business case about workload reallocation and only come across as a whiner.
- Understand that your to-do list is never empty. As things roll off, others roll on. The goal is not to empty it, but move things along the path to completion.
- Use your calendar as the shield it is meant to be. I’ve written an entire eBook about this because I think it is so important. Your calendar should reflect your priorities.
However, sometimes it is not ridiculous to consider changing your job, industry, or even career. I made this difficult choice a decade ago.
Remember, my bleary-eyed friend, the goal is not to live a life that is devoid of stress. That would be boring. Work to stay in that sweet spot where you are focused and motivated to perform well.
Now, get some sleep.
Are you ready to feel balanced and effective at work and in life?
Read my eBook Love Your Calendar…and be monogamous.
Dr. Melissa Gratias (pronounced "Gracious") is a work psychologist who helps overwhelmed and underappreciated businesspeople be more focused and effective. Since 2007, thousands of people have graduated with honors from her onsite sessions, distance coaching, productivity seminars, and corporate consulting projects. Based in Savannah, Georgia, Melissa is available for nationwide consulting and speaking engagements. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 912-417-2505. Sign up for her free monthly e-newsletter or visit her website, melissagratias.com.