Many things in daily life cause stress, but our response can be simple. The mistake we often make, however, is to pile on more stress by complicating the way we deal with things. Here’s what we should do instead.
First, it’s important to recognize that there are really only three ways to respond to stress. We can take action to change things. We can change the way we perceive things. Or we can come to terms with the fact that some things are beyond our control.
We spend a lot of time worrying about things we can’t control and fretting over things that might happen. We worry and stress even when the odds are with us and even when there really isn’t much we can do anyway. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
What if you could work through your daily tasks a little more smartly, recognizing and applying such wisdom to make your experience go more smoothly?
Focus on tasks, not strategies
Action cures many ills, including worry. When we stop too often to reconsider our strategies, to fret about risks, and to re-jigger our plans, we not only lose ground, we incur a greater mental burden.
I’m all for strategic planning. Making sure you are heading in the right direction, considering contingencies for expected and unexpected hurdles, and detailing plans of action are huge factors for success. But these exercises can also be an emotional crutch for worriers. We can find solace in planning when the true need is for action. Oftentimes, the best way to evaluate your strategy and plans is to execute against them and learn as you go.
Action helps abate anxiety because, at the end of the day, action is what matters. It feels good to move forward and to cross things off the list—even the smallest things.
Working on tasks is an obvious form of action. If you simply make a list and then do the things on the list, you will have a largely successful day. And the sense of progress that comes from taking action lowers stress and increases motivation.
One idea is to make your list and then tackle the most difficult issue of the day first. With that behind you, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and momentum that can carry through the day. Another idea is to put even the smallest things on your list and then cross them off when done, which also provides a sense of accomplishment and progress. However you choose to approach it, having a specific list for the day at hand is key.
Don’t leave yourself with a list of broad goals or big projects to stare at and make you feel like progress may never come. That has the opposite effect. Instead, make a new list for the day every day and then work that list.
Reframe threats as challenges
When we get defensive, we shut down lots of options and we focus on trying to keep safe above and beyond all other priorities. If you follow that path, you will constrict yourself and create lots of stress.
If, instead, you reframe the situation to view it as a challenge, you can begin to envision what it will take to succeed. The situation is the same, your perception of it is different.
Why bother? Because this shift opens up what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” where you start to see your limitations as temporary obstacles to overcome. In the field of education, where most of her work is done, she shows that there is a big difference between someone using self-talk language like “I am not good at math” versus a statement like “I’m not able to solve this calculus problem yet.”
The key word there is yet. Rather than establishing an identity that is equal to some temporary status of learnable skills, the shift separates the skills from identity and makes clear that progress in developing skills is simply a matter of time and practice.
The work and the obstacles may be exactly the same, but the approach can keep you from needlessly “beating yourself up.”
The magic in reframing in this way is that it shifts the focus from worrying about something you can’t control (“I can’t believe the boss expects me to file this report in an hour. It’s going to be horrible.”) into a more intriguing challenge, (“How can I best approach getting this report done in an hour? What are the most important things to focus on and what needs to fall by the wayside in order for it to be as valuable as possible given the constraint of having only an hour to work on it?”).
Getting through your daily workload is a tactical challenge. You will have a plan for the day and that will almost inevitably get upended. Viewing what comes your way as a health challenges can help you focus your time on working the tasks at hand while relieving you the stress created by focusing on the negatives. For me, this is where a lot of my best lessons come from. Whether I succeed or fail at the particular challenge, I always learn something when I view it as a challenge and not just some bad stuff that is happening to me.
Give yourself a dose of daily gratitude
There is a lot to worry about in the world right now. It’s easy to get caught up in the endless worry cycle that fuels our media and is pervasive in other areas including work. But that is a downward spiral of despair.
While exposure to all the difficult things that you can’t control cannot be eliminated, you can control your ability to recognize the positive things in your life.
I don’t compare my life right now to the pre-pandemic “normal” times, I compare it to the height of the lockdown. Compared to then, I am thrilled to be able to safely move about, see people, access things, and enjoy life the way I can today. Sure, there are limitations, but there is also a great deal of freedom and enjoyment.
Maybe your job or something at work is difficult right now and also well beyond your control. Maybe you can’t reset the company strategy or resolve the budget crunch or forge a new strategic alliance to save the day. But you probably also have things to be thankful for and appreciative of.
Being grateful for having a job when so many are out of work is a great place to start. Maybe you have some coworkers that you really enjoy working with. Perhaps there are some small successes in your area that you can celebrate. Maybe you can be thankful to be able to convert your commute time into a cup of coffee with your spouse in the morning or some time to practice your golf swing in the backyard before dinner.
If you learn to recognize small positives each day you will improve your attitude and lower your stress. Each day may require a lot of work and a lot of effort and be really challenging. But there are undoubtedly also things happening in your favor. By consciously recognizing them and appreciating them, you will become happier and less stressed.
Have a successful day
A successful day is one where you make progress lowering your anxiety and stress by taking small steps. You won’t get it perfect, and that’s ok. It’s all one big experiment and you are simply trying to make incremental improvement whenever possible.
With only three ways to respond to stress, there are only three things to remember:
- Take action by focusing on tasks not strategies.
- Change the way you perceive things by reframing threats as challenges.
- Accept what you cannot control by focusing on the good that is also there with daily doses of gratitude.
If you can do those three things—and you can, you can get your daily work done with less stress.