This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.
There’s no shortage of data showing that work-related stress is keeping people up at night—and then causing them to drag through the day. In their popular New York Times piece, “Why You Hate Work,” Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath underscore the personal and collective energy crisis we’re all feeling: Tight deadlines and ever tighter budgets on the one hand, nagging guilt that you should be expending your energy somewhere else (work if you’re at home, home if you’re at work) on the other.
At the risk of being highly controversial, I’m going to just say it: It’s not just the work that is the problem. I think it’s all in your head.
Not in the sense that you are imagining it. Your relationship with work, the 24/7 hours and ceaseless flow of communications which make it hard to turn off are unquestionably real.
But the responsibility is on you, and me, and all of us to build our own resilience to it. The tide is high, the current is strong and of course, you can’t stop the seas from rising—or change the tides by yourself. You also don’t have to stand out there by yourself and let the waves knock you down, over and over. Balance is perhaps a myth, especially these days, in this business environment. On the other hand, actively balancing can be the key to navigating the predictable pulls and forces that govern your days. You either figure out how you can withstand, endure, and catch your own momentum within it, or you’re going to suffer its negative effects.
Just like the ocean, stress isn’t “good” or “bad.” Reframing it as a force to respond to, like tides or weather, is key to changing how you feel and function every day. And one way to do this is to be mindful of certain forces and habits which make us susceptible to the undertow of stress.
HABIT #1: “I have to take this.”
Just because you have your phone with you doesn’t mean you have to answer it: Answering your phone when it rings – at dinner, at home, at the gym – doesn’t make you a worthy or responsible professional; it alone won’t determine your worth and value. Resist the tide and instead of interrupting your meal, give yourself some work-free time and give your client a call back. Later.
While the urge to jump at every call may seem like a dutiful, dedicated response, at best it’s a reactive habit; at worst it’s anxiety about not doing everything that’s expected of you, the moment it’s expected. Reframe requests from others as what they are: requests. Not 911 calls.
HABIT #2: “They can’t do it without me.”
Never is this belief more rampant than around vacation time, when the idea of being away and unreachable seems like a bad idea. But while your contributions and presence at your job are no doubt critical, the idea that nothing can’t function without you may not be true, and can do more damage than good. In the worst case, this idea keeps you from taking vacation, period. If in fact your office or team can’t function without you, that may seem as if you’re invaluable, but what it means is that you haven’t empowered others around you to do what they need to do to keep things moving.
HABIT #3: “I don’t have time for this.”
The “busy” excuse works for almost anything—avoiding meetings and lunches, parties you don’t want to attend, projects that don’t appeal. But while you’re unquestionably busy, time is relative. Meaning: When you say you don’t have time for something, you’re saying it’s not a priority.
The first things we blow off when we are stressed and short on time are often the very things most likely to help us—sleeping, eating, moving around. Basic human activities get short shrift, and we end up paying a price in terms of our energy, focus, and resilience.
You don’t need oodles of time to manage your stress. Try adding or reframing a few habits to reshape the ebb and flow of your days: I’m talking about a few moments of quiet in the morning, 20 minutes of physical activity (which is about the time it takes to rush out and get another latte) to refresh and refocus, and grabbing an extra hour of rest at night. A meal with friends or family without the pressure of everything else in your life coming to interrupt you via your smartphone.
As we say at meQuilibrium, “Time is the coin of the realm.” The illusion of “not enough time” is a culturally sanctioned idea, but in reality, all you have is time. That’s it. And if you choose to spend that time believing there’s nothing you can do about the stress you feel, you’ve wasted it.