Everyone experiences varying degrees of stress throughout their lives, whether it’s from your job, the demands of running and growing a business, or a personal life that sometimes gets the better of you.
But "stress is bad" is a far too common and simplistic way of looking at this problem.
Our relationship with stress is actually a lot more complex. It's not just about how we overcome stress, but how we understand it, manage it, and harness it to lead more productive lives.
What causes stress?
According to psychologist Walter Cannon, who coined the “fight or flight” concept, the primary function of stress is self-preservation.
In many cases, it’s a useful response to challenges or threats that gets us mentally and physically ready to tackle them. Stress affects your brain's chemistry in a way that can result in better attention, more cognitive activity, and even enhance your senses.
But in other circumstances, where it has no practical purpose to serve or sticks around longer than it needs to, it can be distracting and have negative consequences.
Stress is ultimately how we react to stressors: actual or perceived challenges to our ability to meet our actual or perceived needs.
Stressors can be external or internal:
- External Stressors are changes in your environment, your work conditions, a completely unfamiliar and scary task you have to complete, or events that are usually outside of your control, like deadlines, a rainy day, or bills to pay.
- Internal Stressors usually include thoughts or behaviors, like how well you eat and sleep, or feelings of anger and anxiety.
However, not all stress is the same. It can be broken down into two main types: acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress can give you superpowers
We’re all familiar with this kind of stress. It’s the kind of stress that wakes us up to the challenges or thrills of the present, which can be useful if we're facing a real threat with real consequences (like an important deadline).
If you're a serial procrastinator, for example, chances are you've gotten used to needing a decent amount of acute stress to get you in the zone. And that usually means a deadline staring you in the face. When you look at it that way, time constraints are just one "stressor" that results in a productive amount of stress.
However, episodic or frequent acute stress, especially common in chaotic lifestyles, can "over-arouse" your mind, which is distracting, counter-productive, and can result in burnout.
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Chronic stress negatively impacts the quality of your life
This is what we usually call bad stress; it wears away at you over time. It's often the result of ongoing environmental conditions, such as a job you don't like, an unhealthy relationship, or financial strains.
Chronic stress can impact the quality of your sleep and actually accelerate aging. We can't always help the sources of chronic stress in our lives. But stress, as mentioned before, is the way we react to stressors and that we can control at least to some extent.
Good stress vs. bad stress
Not all stress is bad.
Some people thrive under stress and need the pressure to be just right before they dive into a task. Others meticulously plan ahead in order to avoid unnecessary pressure at all costs. Neither approach is right or wrong. It’s just important to be self-aware of how you personally react to stress and the nature of the tasks in front of you.
The right amount of stress can help you be more productive in some cases, and without any stress at all, some tasks would be hard to focus on. But it goes without saying that too much stress can result in over-arousal that can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression, impaired performance, and other negative consequences.
According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, work that requires endurance (routine and mundane tasks or ones that require a steep commitment of time to complete) can actually benefit from higher levels of acute stress. However, you can usually focus better on new or unfamiliar tasks without too much pressure.
How to deal with stress: 6 strategies to try
Now that we understand a bit about what causes stress and how it impacts our lives, let's explore some strategies for more effectively managing it.
It's no coincidence that the following, in some way, not only encourages us to change our perspectives, but also the way we spend our most finite resource: time.
Prioritize what’s important over what's urgent
Between work and life, it's often hard to avoid a full to-do list. And with so much going on, it can be hard to figure out where to start when every task seems to carry a similar weight.
That's why having a reliable process for prioritizing your workload is a must for managing stress.
It can be easy to prioritize work based on how easy it is or how much time it will take, but a popular method is to evaluate each of your tasks based on two criteria:
- Importance: Does it contribute to your ability to meet your own personal and professional goals?
- Urgency: Does it have to be completed soon and are there negative consequences if you choose to ignore it?
“The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
This is part of what's known as Eisenhower’s Principle or the Importance/Urgency Matrix:
Draw this matrix out on a piece of paper next time you feel swamped and you might find it works a lot better than a traditional to-do list.
This tool ultimately helps you surface value—will a task actually bring you closer to your goals?
That's why you choose what’s both important and urgent first, and get that out of the way because of the weight of its value and the time-sensitive nature of it.
Then you should consider what's important, but not urgent. These tasks can become urgent if left alone too long, so it's better to at least get a start on them before that time comes.
After that, you can figure out what's not important but urgent. These are generally tasks like answering emails, attending meetings, and paying bills on time. They aren't the most valuable tasks on your to-do list, but they are time-sensitive. So when you're swamped, you shouldn't let these tasks burden your mind since not doing them ultimately won't impede you on your way to your goals.
Finally, we have tasks that are neither important nor urgent. These are tasks you can often turn down at the moment without any real consequence, and should be the first ones you look at when you're thinking of what to put off or just say "no" to.
Say “no” more often
Saying “yes” to unfamiliar opportunities can help you live a rich and interesting life. But saying “no" is how you live a productive one.
If you tend to be a “yes person” whose default response to a favor or a request is to agree, then you probably find yourself regularly biting off more than you can chew and sometimes choking on it.
There’s no point in always having a full plate that overflows. It can keep you from the things that actually matter. Using the decision-making matrix above, you can spot the unimportant task that you can safely decline in most cases.
Saying no can be hard, especially if you're the type who feels obligated to help others out. But you can’t look out for others or do your best work unless you look out for yourself first.
When you're overburdened and still saying yes to everything, apply TED speaker Derek Sivers simple heuristic:
If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.
Change the way you look at working out
The goal of working out doesn't have to be the pursuit of your peak physique. Instead, you can make it about your mind and well-being.
Exercise releases endorphins that act as your body's natural pain killers. They can relieve tension and improve the quality of your sleep, thus reducing your stress levels. Even 5 minutes of cardio can help achieve this effect. Making exercise a regular part of your lifestyle can change the way you react to stress.
Similarly, you can also work out your mind with mindfulness meditation. Studies have shown that meditation can help give you more control over how your mind reacts to internal stressors, such as the unproductive thoughts that provoke anxiety.
Take time occasionally to unplug from the world
In a study on social media and stress conducted by the American Psychological Association, they found that "constant checkers" reported higher levels of stress compared to those who didn't check their social media feeds as frequently.
Those who constantly checked their email, specifically, actually reported some of the highest levels of stress.
As much as technology enables us to do more and has become something we can't live without, it's also what keeps us constantly connected to our work and everything that's going on in the world.
Every once in a while, especially when you're over-exerting yourself, try to opt out of social media for a bit:
- Turn off your notifications on your phone and other devices to disconnect for a while.
- Use the Stay Focusd Chrome extension to block social media sites for a time.
- Connect face to face with friends to blow off steam and combat loneliness
Automate and outsource where possible
Letting go of things—letting go of control—isn't about relinquishing power. It's about empowering yourself by taking your own time and attention back so you can invest it in what really matters.
Here's an example of an IFTTT applet for collecting user-generated content that automatically downloads photos under a specific hashtag and saves them to Dropbox.
Make it a habit to regularly evaluate the processes you repeat to find ways to make them simpler to reduce the amount of effort they demand. It's a small investment of time with a huge, long-term reward.
Start something that's personally meaningful to you
In French, we call it your "raison d’etre". In Japanese it's "ikigai". In English, it's your purpose. It's a concept that exists in many different cultures and languages. But whatever we call it, it's the idea of having something meaningful that you can always look forward to.
Putting all your eggs in one basket can be dangerous for your well-being, whether it's a job or a relationship or anything. If something goes wrong there, it's hard to compartmentalize it without other things going on in your life.
It might seem counter-intuitive to create more work for yourself to make your life less stressful, but again, stress isn't about how much work you have. It's about how you react to it.
Whether it's painting, writing, running a blog, taking up a class, starting a side business, or attending a meetup, having something you can always control, especially when life gets out of control, can give you an ongoing outlet for any pent up stress.
Creative work, in particular, can actually help you recover from the stress put on you by all your other work, reducing the potential and frequency of burning out.
Understanding the role of stress
Sometimes stress can be a burden that feels beyond our control. But oftentimes, it can be a powerful source of productive energy.
Redefining our relationship with stress and being self-aware of it, when we're overburdened and when we're not feeling the right amount of pressure, can be one of the best "productivity hacks" out there.
Because stress isn't inherently bad. It's one of the reasons we're still around, after all. So change the way you think about stress to live a better, less busy life.