This post is part 4 of a multi-part series on how to eliminate stress at work with strategies informed by modern scientific research and ancient philosophy. To get instant access to the complete series, as well as exclusive bonus content that I don’t share on the blog, click here to download the free guide.
Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of strong leaders, each with their own unique work style and strengths. But for all their differences, there’s one trait I’ve observed that all of them share.
No matter what the circumstance, the best leaders I’ve worked with never let the highs get them too high, or the lows get them too low. They consistently act rationally and logically, rather than following the pull of their emotions.
And as I’ve grown throughout my career, I’ve come to realize that without emotional mastery:
- It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at your job
- It doesn’t matter how strong your technical chops are
- It doesn’t even matter how hard you work
Think about it. If you’re an emotionally wound-up ball of stress at work, research suggests you won’t be able to think clearly, or creatively.
If you’re prone to fear on the job, you’ll always be afraid of taking risks, of trying new things. When it comes time to choose what to do, or what to say, you’ll always choose the safe option, even if it’s not the right choice for your company or for your career.
And if you’re prone to righteous outbursts of anger, people aren’t going to want to work with you. Take it from the guy who once got so pissed off he slammed a chair into a wall in the middle of a meeting.
For most of my life I’ve worn my emotions on my sleeve. And as I’ve taken on more work and responsibility in my career, I’ve found myself more vulnerable to these types of counterproductive emotional states.
Which is why, as part of a broader project I took on to reduce stress in my life (which I documented in a comprehensive guide to stress reduction that you can download here), I researched, tested, and refined strategies to help address these toxic emotional states at their roots.
Here are three you can get started with – one to address anxiety, one for fear, and one for anger.
Strategy 1: Build a play habit
During a particularly nasty bout with stress and anxiety, I came across Charlie Hoehn’s Play it Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, which completely redefined how I approach work-life balance. In sharing his personal struggles with anxiety, Charlie wrote something that could not have resonated more had I written it myself:
“For years, I’d mentally blocked myself from having guilt-free fun. I was a workaholic who was extremely adept at rejecting everything that wasn’t productive. I couldn’t enjoy any form of leisure if it didn’t earn money or help my career.”
My story was little better than Charlie’s. My Type-A personality had turned work, and the stress relief from work, into a mission-driven, soulless pursuit. It was making me miserable. Even when I made time for fun, it was purely for the purpose of recharging for more work. It was never fun for fun’s sake.
In Play it Away, Charlie speaks to the transformative impact that play had on his stress and anxiety. Having nothing to lose, I took his guidance, and built a “play ritual” into my days and my weeks.
Every day, I forced myself to do something I found fun, just for me, as a way of decompressing from work.
The results were astounding. Having fun alleviates stress. Who would have thought?
Even though the stresses my work created were no less demanding, my play ritual crushed the underlying anxiety that made stress so challenging to deal with.
Here are a few practical pointers to get the most out of “play”:
- Actually play. Play isn’t synonymous with “taking a break.” You need to find activities that have a noticeable effect on your state. Watching TV doesn’t count. Neither does tricking yourself into thinking something like your workout counts as play if you’re not actually enjoying it.
- Play every day, even when you “don’t have time.” It’s when it’s hardest to carve out time to play, when life is at its busiest and most stressful, that it’s most important to do so. Even 10-15 minutes can make a huge difference in your state, and the productivity benefits from that break are almost certain to outweigh the time lost, which means there’s really no excuse to not take that break.
- Eliminate guilt. You can’t effectively reap the benefits of play if you’re plagued with a chronic sense of guilt while doing so. If you’re feeling guilty by playing, reframe your “play” to look at it the same way you think about eating, or sleeping, or exercise. You’d never feel “guilty” about these things, since they’re necessary to maintain your physical health. Similarly, look at play as necessary to support your emotional health.
What defines play? For everybody it’s different. For me, it’s lifting weights at the gym, or hiking with friends, or writing for my blog. Find your play, make time for it every day, and in no time, you’ll realize a marked reduction in anxiety.
Strategy 2: Fear-setting
Many people know Tim Ferriss for the productivity advice he’s shared on his blog and in his book The Four Hour Workweek. In my opinion, however, one of the most valuable things he’s spoken about has nothing to do with productivity, and everything to do with emotional self-management.
In a recent TED talk, Tim discussed “fear-setting,” an exercise based on stoic philosophy designed to help people reduce and overcome their fears. It provides a helpful framework for analyzing our fears, enabling us to better manage them. This, in turn, helps eliminate the downstream stress that fear creates.
Here’s how it works:
- Clearly define your fear, transforming your emotional gut reaction into words. Say, for example, you’re scheduled to deliver a big proposal for your team to the senior leadership at your company, and your fear of underperforming or messing up is creating stress. Here, you’d want to define every single thing you’re afraid might happen. For instance:
- You might get asked a question you don’t know how to answer
- Your proposal might get shot down by one of the attendees at the meeting
- You might underperform, and the executives will think less of you
On and on and on. List it all out – even the craziest, most unlikely fears bouncing around in the back of your mind.
- Put together a plan to proactively prevent each of your fears from manifesting. If you’re afraid of underperforming during the meeting, plan to put extra practice time into your presentation. If you’re afraid of getting surprised with questions you don’t know how to address, consider a pre-meeting with some of the attendees to understand their perspective and pre-emptively tailor your presentation in a way that addresses their concerns.
- Imagine each fear occurring in vivid detail, in spite of your best efforts to prepare. From there, come up with a list of ways that you could repair the “damage” from each fear. So, say the presentation bombs. What options are at your disposal to repair your reputation, to get the project off the ground, or to fix whatever else might go wrong?
- After analyzing what you can do to repair the situation, quantify on a scale of 1-10 (1 being no impact, 10 being death) how much your life would be permanently impacted. What you’ll find is the vast majority of things we fear happening in the workplace have minimal long-term impact. Even a fireable offense can be bounced back from – you can always get another job.
Sometimes, fear holds us back from taking action on something important. In those cases, Ferriss recommends that we contrast the impacts of the thing we fear coming to be (as defined in the fear-setting exercise above) with the impacts of not doing the thing. You may fear having a tough conversation with a coworker or your manager and put it off – but what does the future look like if you fail to do so? What is the cost of inaction?
Even when fear doesn’t hold us back from doing our best work our living our best lives, it can have a crippling impact on our stress levels. That’s why fear-setting is so important – because by eliminating the impact fear has on our state, you’ll not only make better decisions at work, but less stressed out while doing so.
Strategy 3: Radical acceptance
Some experience stress as fear, others as anxiety, but for me, it’s always been anger. When things don’t go my way, my natural inclination is to get angry. Like, “hulk smash” angry.
At its core, anger and frustration result when we experience a gap between our expectations and reality. You expected a colleague to deliver something to you on time – and it’s late. You wanted your new marketing campaign to drive incredible results – and it fell flat.
For me, dealing with anger and frustration at work has been one of the biggest roadblocks on my journey toward a stress-free work life. So it’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve.
And to be honest, it’s not something I’ve completely mastered.
As a self-professed hothead, the best way I’ve found for dealing with anger is what I call “the acceptance strategy,” which calls for accepting your anger at a situation and working with it more productively.
Here’s how it works:
When you have control over what angers you:
Channel the anger into a constructive solution. Anger and frustration, used appropriately, can be a powerful tool for generating internal motivation and driving change. After all, it’s frustration with the status quo drives entrepreneurs and innovators to start companies to make the world a better place. It’s frustration with our society that inspires revolutionaries to lead movements for social change. When you’re upset with how something transpires at work, don’t just stew – get to work on fixing the problem, using your anger as fuel.
When you don’t have control over what angers you:
Readjust your expectations. For things that aren’t in our control, using anger to spin our wheels is counter-productive, since if it’s not something that’s in our control, then failed attempts to control it will just lead to more anger and frustration. The only rational response when something infuriating happens that’s outside of your control is to accept your anger instead of fighting it, and accept the reality of the situation, instead of holding on to “what should be.”
Any given frustrating situation has its own mix of controllable and uncontrollable elements. Use the acceptance strategy to concentrate that frustration on things you can control, and for the things you can’t, accept reality, instead of further frustrating yourself by refusing to accept reality.
Different people experience stress differently. But make no mistake – the resultant anxiety, fear, and anger share the same root cause. On the flip side, because of that, each of these strategies can be applied as a panacea to any emotional “symptom” of stress, because each of them addresses stress at its roots.
Emotional self-management can be tough, especially for people like me, who run hot. I’ve found that it’s typically the most passionate and driven people, who are most invested in success, who struggle the most with emotional self-management. For most people, their emotions are a double-edged sword. Overinvestment in work can produce tremendous results, but it can also yield stress-inducing anxiety, fear, and anger.
Which is why it’s important to implement habits and strategies to get ahead of these emotions. Doing so can allow you to realize the benefits to your work that emotional investment can provide, without suffering from the stress-inducing, work-compromising, misery-generating downside.