A little bit of stress is probably a good thing because it kicks things into gear, protects us from harm, gets things done, and honestly speaking, the human system works in a way that when we get a little stressed out, there’s an urgency, an adrenaline rush. Sometimes, we chase after that.
But what about the countless other things that we ignore, glorify, and pretend are not there? It could be a result of us having to contend with the daily traffic gridlock on the way to and from work. It could also be a result of conflict at home, financial problems, or just our kids kicking up storms of tantrums on a daily basis.
OR…there could simply be no reason for it because we imagined it.
Now, think about that for a moment to see if you’ve ever been in such situations?
We’re wired for movement and fear immobility
As with many in-depth studies, the most recent studies on stress are done within the United States. According to a recent one, 1 in every 5 employees is either experiencing or have experienced extreme cases of burnouts.
It’s quite unsettling for me to read that in those people, they tend to shut up, keep quiet and bear with it when they’re bothered by stress. Is it because it’s simply seen as a weakness? There’s an Instagram account @mastinkipp that I follow and he posts snippets of his talks on the social media account.
He contends that people have a hard time sitting still when they’re wired. He argues that we’re made for mobility, for movement, for action, for doing something…anything. And that is why so many people fail at meditation. Human beings have a morbid fear of being immobile because being immobile, to our brain, means ‘we will be eaten’.
And if you think about it, you’ll find it to be true too. That’s the primal part of our brain that evolution has yet to improve on.
That’s why we run around so much, we try to get as many things done within the shortest period of time as possible, and we end up being stressed because we’re wearing too many hats and juggling too many balls all at the same time.
We don’t want to be viewed as ‘not doing our best’. We yearn for praise, compliments, and we want people to see that we’re getting shit done.
If your friend messages or calls you to ask you how life was, there are two preferred answers:
- “My life is awesome. I have nothing to worry about and am lounging around by the poolside right now.”
- “I am so busy and my work is very important to the company/boss/business.”
Even if it was true, we never say “Gosh, I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders and I feel like collapsing right here. Please call an ambulance but don’t tell anyone.”
The likely answer would be “Yeah, I’m alright. What about you?”
Slowing down and achieving one thing at a time
When I am stressed, I try to do as many things as I can.
Yes, I’ll make dinner. Yes, I’ll complete the article. Yes, I’ll get the kids back from the mall. Yes, I’ll help make that phone call. Yes, yes, yes.
That’s when I am headed for a burnout…if I don’t put things into perspective.
Getting one thing started and finishing it before doing something else can have a great impact on our minds, and ultimately our health.
I’ve gotten Gretchen Rubin’s book ‘Happier at Home’ a long time ago. The pages of the book are now browned and look like it belongs to another decade. But instead of scrolling through my Twitter, Instagram or Facebook timelines, I sometimes pick out a random book from my bookshelf and start re-reading something I’m done with.
Gretchen Rubin wrote about clearing her home, which is a part of making a home a happy one, from stuff we don’t need, use, or appreciate anymore. The book was published quite some time ago so, she’s ahead of Marie Kondo in this respect, but she wrote about clearing her home shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, corner by corner, and it rang true for me.
Instead of being frantic about the whole plan, she broke it down into little pieces that she knew she could handle and it reduced her stress by a whole lot. As long as she gave herself ample, reasonable time to get it done, it WILL be done.
New York Times writer, Tim Herrera, also wrote something about this in his Smarter Living column and the title of the article is Today, Do that One Thing you’ve Been Putting Off. He mentions the fact that all of us have that ONE thing we keep putting off. Something we dread doing and yet know will eventually catch up with us.
Psychologists call this self-sabotage although I see it in a less dreary light. I just call it procrastination until we don’t have a choice anymore.
Don’t beat yourself up for putting it off for this long — that’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just act now to set things right. — Tim Herrera
Studies have shown, time and time again, that lowering the bar and achieving them leads to an increase in dopamine levels in our bodies. On top of feeling like ‘things are achievable’, we get pumped up for the next tiny task to complete.
James Watson of The Double Helix wrote this in his 1968 memoir: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work”.
Smaller roller coasters
Imagine if you’re really afraid of roller coasters and you’re standing right there in a theme park full of them because your other half, children, parents, friends, or partner think that roller coasters are fun.
The mere sight of roller coasters stuns you into silence and turns you into stone…but you don’t say anything about it because, then, they’d think you’re weak.
You don’t have to avoid roller coasters for the rest of your life but you, also, don’t have to love them from hereon. Take on the teacup or the carousel rides first. And when you feel like it, slowly move on to the ones you think you can manage without passing out.
This gradual progression is still progress, that’s what it is. The only difference is that you’re taking it on one at a time.
Not only does this work in people’s everyday lives, but it has also been shown that incremental progress helps with work lives too. Whether you’re trying to come up with an app or solve a major scientific mystery, everyday progress, the small wins, can make a world of difference in the way we feel. And without a smidgen of doubt, the way we feel determines our overall performances at work and life.
That’s why checklists work
If you’ve never worked with a checklist before, you should give it a shot. Give it a try.
You’ll have that one major goal with a deadline but after slicing them up into the tiniest bits, start checking them off one by one. You’ll see that every check mark produces an immense sense of accomplishment. Progress begets progress.
You’ll feel badass.
A study done by Harvard Business Review revealed that the human inner work life leads them to the progress principle. The best days of a worker was indicated by progress, the worst days are unsurprisingly marked with setbacks and disappointments.
I know it’s not rocket science but we all need a reminder about how we, humans, react to the things around us. Whatever we conjure based on our environment and achievements are reflected in the results we deliver. The 12,000 people who participated in the Harvard Business Review study expressed more warmth, peace, and happiness on days when the participants made progress, no matter how small.
Break things down and believe in the law of motion
This technique has been given many different names before and they range from ‘micro-progress’ to ‘the 10-minute rule’, but I am left befuddled when people continue to put emphasis on stress being a powerful motivator.
In certain circumstances, yes, stress can be a motivator that propels you forward and onward…but almost always AWAY FROM DANGER.
If there is no danger, is the stress we put on ourselves doing more harm than good? We know procrastination and putting things off until the last minute isn’t the answer either but do we have to hang and swing along with the pendulum like a helpless goblin?
I’ve come a long way from being that procrastinator teenager and if you don’t already know, I’ll share it here. The only way to break out of that cycle is to say ‘Screw this, I’m doing it’. The law of motion will set in. I’ll use a very simple example which is something most of us have to do, anyway, and that’s housekeeping.
I hate doing repetitive things and I delay it to a point where people get frustrated with me. I know it’s not a good thing but during my early years, being the stubborn mule that I was, refused to budge. In my young mind, I thought that if I ignored it long enough, it will either get done or disappear.
Well, no. Dust doesn’t disappear. THAT much I found out.
Once I moved out of the sanctity of a place that came with a daily housekeeper and had to deal with picking things up that needed picking up or deal with it forever being there, I realized that all it took was that first step.
The law of motion dictates that after cleaning up one drawer, you’ll feel like you’ve saved the world and you’ll feel like cleaning up another drawer. And then the next and then the next.
When I felt like I had to clean the whole house on my own, I felt stressed out and overwhelmed, so, I avoided it and pretended it didn’t exist.
But when I started clearing up 5 to 7 drawers, happily I might add, it felt awesome.
So, here’s what I suggest. Let’s write down a major life goal. It could be anything from retiring in 5 years to starting a business, ANYTHING.
Sit down and break that goal up into tiny little, manageable pieces and then decide on a reasonable timeline and deadline. One of the things I’ve also learned is that none of this will work if there is no deadline, so, there has to be one. You can break it into tiny 5-minute tasks or day-to-day ones, whatever works for you.
Once you have that pinned down, you’ll feel a commitment to it. Bear in mind that there WILL be down days where you get nothing done, but this shouldn’t set you back for too long because you’re going to do a little catching up if you missed a deadline.
I am no Guru of Do-It-All even as I am writing this but if there is one thing I can say has improved, it’s that I feel better about myself now compared to the me that I was 8 to 10 years ago. I don’t glorify stress anymore. I don’t let other people give me unnecessary stress either. I know now that in order to get things done, stress is not the best motivator for me. I need a calm mind, a strategy, and achievable goals.
At the very least, when I look at my schedule, I don’t see a rabbit hole into the depths of the unknown universe of uncertainty. Instead, I see baby steps that I can take in the right direction.
And if I follow that path, things WILL get done.