“I am overwhelmed with stress!” – is what I have been hearing from my team a lot lately. And it makes sense, we are in the middle of the year, this year’s deliverables are due within the next few months, and on top of that, we started planning for next year. When they turned to me for advice, I shared all my knowledge, experience, and skills. They were pretty happy with the list of tips and best practices, so I decided to also share them with my audience here.
This article gives you tips and tricks to reduce the unnecessary stress in your work-life and gives you the tools to organize your life, get your career back in control, and be more successful at what you do.
Time to read
Time to read: 12 minutes (150 wpm).
Stress at Work – you are exposed to it every (work) day. It is good for you because it makes you change, adapt, grow, and tackle difficult tasks and challenges. And it is bad for your because it shuts down your immune system, your digestion and increases your heart rate and blood pressure.
Prolonged periods of stress can lead to a number of diseases and mental problems mostly because it makes you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, tired, and unhappy. And while some stress is inevitable and good for you, you should try to reduce your exposure to stress to the bare minimum.
Most important tasks
There is nothing more stressful than a long to-do list which you face every day. The feeling can be overwhelming. But if you look at your to-do list, can you honestly say that it is full of important tasks?
There is a great analogy of a large glass jar that you have to fill with rocks. First, you can start by putting the really large rocks. Then, you poor some pebbles. After that, you can fill the remainder with sand. And finally, when it appears that there is no space left – you can pour water, beer, or another liquid.
Well, the most important tasks are the big rocks and the jar is your to-do list. If you don’t start with the rocks but with the pebbles, then your whole day will be full of unimportant (maybe even avoidable tasks). And you will keep accumulating big tasks, keep getting follow-up emails from your bosses, and you will keep feeling overwhelmed.
I do not want to go in depth about MITs (most important tasks) here but this is a link to my article on this topic: Task Management – 9 Tips to Improve Your Productivity.
So, you have defined your most important tasks (I suggest 3, 2 of which are work tasks and 1 is a development task but more about that in the article above). Then what do you do?
You have to physically place them on your calendar if you want to have time to work on them. You can use literally any calendar app – the process is what matters. The greatest energy-drain in your work life are the meetings (the interruptions). Most people only schedule them on their calendars and try to squeeze tasks in between. No, no, no! You have to schedule everything including breaks and especially family events.
Sacrificing your personal life (family dinners, birthdays, anniversaries) has a bigger negative impact on your life than anything else. Feeling guilty for not being there on your son’s science project or your daughter’s big competition, is a stress factor that will continue to haunt you down the line even months after the event.
Tips and tricks for scheduling
- Start with the personal events. These should be your immutable time slots.
- Add all meetings – these are the interruptions and you have to plan around them. However, you should ask yourself: Should I be in that meeting? Will I contribute? I am the decision maker? Will I learn something from it? If your answer is “yes” on any of these questions – add it to your calendar and attend. If it is “no”, then do not attend the meeting and don’t add it to your calendar.
- Schedule pauses, breaks, and lunch around the meetings.
- Allocate time for the MITs which are not meetings. My best approach is to disconnect (go away from my desk or in a location where I can be alone) during these time slots and make sure that I tackle all my MITs for the day.
- If there is space left, add your other tasks for the day. I am not efficient if I have more than 6-8 tasks on my plate.
The best approach that I have found in my life for time management is the Pomodoro technique. More about it here: Time Management – Using Pomodoro Technique.
If you are like most people, you have to accept that you suck at multitasking. Think of the effort it takes to multi task as if you were a computer: do work; receive interruption; save state; store state; switch context; do work; switch context again; retrieve state; load sate; continue working. If you just need 5-10 more minutes to finish your current task, resist the urge to switch immediately and stay concentrated. If you cannot avoid it, then make sure you save the state of the task.
Furthermore, when you receive a new task (email or a request from colleague), if it takes less than 2-3 minutes to do it then just do the task. Saving a task usually requires more than 2-3 minutes and loading can cost you twice as much.
Especially if you are in a leadership position, you will not shine if you take more work on your shoulders. Leaders delegate, empower, reject, or push back. This is a very hard skill to learn but it pays off fast and for the rest of your life.
Imagine that you have to be out of the office for a month. It happens suddenly and you have a few hours to plan who takes over your responsibilities. Imagine also, that you will have limited access to email (1-2 hours a day). Plan how you will delegate your responsibilities and gradually start doing it.
How often do you say “no” to incoming requests? Another huge power-drain in your life is when others delegate their responsibilities to you. I am not saying that this is wrong but you have to be conscious of the other tasks on your plate and their priorities.
- “Why am I receiving this request?”
- “What would happen if I allow it just once? Will there be more similar requests to follow?”
- “Would doing the work help me grow, unblock someone else, benefit the organization or the company?”
- “How does the priority of the new request line up with your other priorities?”
- “Do you have to knowledge and skills to fulfill the request?”
If you decide to push back be upfront. Avoid explicit tic-for-tat answers. Try to push back in a collaborative way. Ask the requester to help you understand why you are receiving this. Ask about urgency, priority.
Sometimes when people transition to another position or get a promotion, they think that keeping their old responsibilities is important for their future success. This cannot be further from the truth. Not all the skills that made you a successful YYY, would make you a successful Sr. YYY. Every time when you move up or sideways, you have to re-evaluate your skills, role, and responsibilities.
Feel free to review your responsibilities from time to time and make sure you still need and benefit from all of them. Can you delegate? Can you push back on the old responsibilities and request to transfer them elsewhere?
No matter what you do, the greatest satisfaction comes from being present and mindful of what you are doing.
When in a meeting, close your laptop, turn off your phone. Do not hesitate to walk out if your presence is no longer required and if you feel that you are not contributing to the meeting.
When you have lunch, close your laptop, turn off your phone. Be mindful of the experience of eating. Converse with your colleagues if you are together.
When you walk to work, stop the music, don’t think about work or prepare for the upcoming meeting. Be there, feel the steps, notice the streets, the trees the cars.
When you go home, do not check email on your way to the car. Look at the people around you, notice the setting sun.
When you work on a document, don’t check email, or the IM application, or Facebook. Book yourself a conference room and immerse yourself in what you are supposed to be doing.
Developing a daily routine, as counter intuitive as it sounds can bring huge benefits to your health and stress levels. When you get into the habit of getting to bed at regular hours in the evening and waking up at regular hours in the morning, your body will get used to that and will supply the needed energy as soon as you need it. Have lunch around the same time, get into the office around the same time. Let the creative part of you be at its best during the work hours.
If you like to dive deep into my daily routine suggestion, then these posts are for you: Practicing Discipline – The Ultimate Daily Routine for Entrepreneurs and Frustration-free Morning Routine.
How to you relieve your stress? Being aware of this is also very important. As I said you cannot avoid accumulating stress but you can reduce it and give yourself time to vent.
My personal favorite is sports (walking). The purpose of the stress hormones is to put us into a fight-or-flight mode. The goal is to give us the power to escape the danger. This usually happens by fighting or running. My stress relief mechanism is running or walking.
During a particularly stressful day or after a very stressful meeting, I will go out and walk around the office. No purpose, no thinking, no judging. I will be mindful of my own steps, shifting the weight from one leg to the other. When I get back to the office, I will be reborn. The stress hormones would have fulfilled their purpose and would be exhausted in the process of walking.
If you feel overwhelmed with stress at work, you have to do something about it. Some stress is a good thing and can be very positive for you but a lot of stress, every day, for many days can be very harmful. Therefore, learning how to reduce stress and how to regain control of your work life will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, depressed, and burnt-out.
I have been accumulating the tips and tricks that I describe in this article for over a decade and they have benefited my team. Feel free to read and adapt them to yourself and to share them with your teams.