How to Harness Stress for a More Productive Life
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.
Unmanaged stress is a problem that tends to create more problems. It can impact your sleep, which decreases your performance ands can stress you out even more if you don't address it.
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 presented 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 a lot of 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, 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 eyes. 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 stimulate" your mind, which is distracting, counter-productive and can also result in burnout.
Chronic stress negatively impacts the quality of your life
This is what we usually call bad stress: it eats 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 versus bad stress
Not all stress is necessarily 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 stimulation that can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression, impaired performance and other negative consequences.
According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, work that requires endurance 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
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.
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 favour or a request is to agree, then you probably find yourself regularly biting off more than you can chew and sometimes regretting it.
There’s no point in always having a full plate that overflows. It can keep you from the things that actually matter.
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 burned out 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 five minutes of cardio a day can help achieve this effect. Incorporating 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.
Automate and outsource where possible
Letting go of things isn't about giving up power. It's about empowering yourself by taking your own time and attention into your own hands so you can invest it in what really matters.
Spending five minutes to an hour to automate or outsource some of your current processes can take some of the stress off your plate permanently.
Consider using services like IFTTT (for your personal life) and Zapier (for your work life), to cut down on the time and effort you spend on frequent and repeatable tasks.
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
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, it's hard to compartmentalise 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 stress isn't about how much work you have, but rather about how you react to it.
Whether it's painting, writing a blog, taking up a class, starting a side business or attending a meeting, having something you can always control, especially when life gets out of control, can give you an ongoing outlet for any type 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.
Take time occasionally escape 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 op 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.
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 your relationship with stress and being self aware thereof, when we're burned out and 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 here. So change the way you think about stress to live a better, less busy life.
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 great 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.
This is part of what's known as Eisenhower’s Principle or the Importance/Urgency Matrix
The Urgency Matrix tool ultimately helps you surface value and if a task will 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 for too long, so it's better to get a head start on them before that time expires.
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 slow you down 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 consequences and they should be the first ones you look at when you're thinking of what to put off or just say "no" to.