This post is part 2 of a multi-part series on how to eliminate stress at work with strategies informed by modern scientific research and ancient philosophy (Part 1 can be found here). 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.
As a compulsive Type-A personality, I’ve researched and tested virtually every productivity “hack” and stress reduction strategy under the sun. And after years of research and testing, what I’ve discovered is that, quite frankly – most advice on reducing stress and increasing productivity is horseshit.
Tell me if you’ve heard any of these gems before:
- Limit your to-do list to more than one (or three, or five) important things before (which would be nice if I got to pick and choose what I wanted to work on, instead of having tens, or hundreds of to-dos handed down from higher up on the corporate food chain)
- Ignore the urgent and unimportant in favor of the non-urgent and important (which assumes that I alone, not my team or my managers, get to decide what is classified as urgent or important)
- Check your email only once or twice a day (which, face it, is only realistic if you’re a “lifestyle entrepreneur” or you work for the Amish)
And I could go on.
At its core, all of the bad and/or impractical advice you see about reducing stress and increasing productivity share a common fatal flaw. They assume a degree of control over the work you have to do in the office and the stress you’re subjected to while doing it.
They lack an understanding of where stress actually comes from and how it impacts productivity. As a result, the resultant solutions are rarely effective.
So let’s take a look at where stress actually comes from, so that we can separate the wheat from the chaff and chart our own path toward stress-free productivity.
Candidly, the roots of stress are not complex. In fact, the vast majority of stress can be categorized into three distinct sources.
1. Acute biological stressors
Due to the way our brains are wired, there are certain things that will inherently stress us out. The same chemical triggers that used to fire when encountering a lion on the savannah now fire when somebody cuts you off on the freeway during your commute, or when you get into a heated discussion at work, or when a customer is yelling at you on the phone, or when you’re facing a crippling, unrealistic project deadline.
2. Cumulative stressors
In contrast to acute stressors, cumulative stressors are the things that aren’t stressful in isolation, but become so when we’re faced with too many of them. It’s the difference between having to respond to 5 emails and having to answer 500 of them. It’s the crippling sense of overwhelm you feel when looking at a to-do list that’s 50 items long.
Even the most exciting, engaging, high-impact work can drain us physically and emotionally if we’re faced with too much of it. This creates phenomenon at many companies that I like to call the human foie gras problem. Just like they use a feeding tube to force feed ducks with rich delicious food in order to make the foie gras, overstretched professionals are “force fed” too many items to deliver with the time and energy they have, increasing stress.
3. Our perceptions to stressors
It’s no secret that some “handle” stress better than others. It follows that there must be a set of personality traits, or mindsets, or other factors that distinguish how two people faced with the same stressful event process it differently.
These characteristics can be thought of as a filter through which the external stressors we face our amplified or muted in their impact. And in that way, they can be thought of as their own root cause for the stress we experience in the office.
Addressing the root causes of stress
To summarize, stress comes from three distinct causes:
- Acute stressors: Things that are inherently stressful
- Cumulative stressors: Things that are not inherently stressful, but become so when you’re faced with too many of them
- Our perceptions: How we assess, internalize, and emotionally respond to external stressors
Most approaches, like the ones above, focus exclusively on tackling acute and cumulative stressors. Things like “reduce the number of things you have to do in a given day” (intended to reduce cumulative stressors. Or “focus only on the things that are most important” (intended to eliminate acute stressors). This is ultimately a flawed approach.
Let’s start with acute stressors. Let’s face it, most acute stressors – client fire drills, angry customers, last-minute, “drop everything” requests from your boss or executives – are completely outside of our control. So strategies focused on trying to reduce exposure to these types of stressors aren’t really realistic.
What about cumulative stressors? Is it realistic to reduce the amount of work on your plate? I recently saw a laughable piece of productivity advice from a well-known “expert” who said that you should never, ever focus on doing more than three things per day.
Hah! My ass would have been fired a long time ago if I tried to stick to that one.
The truth is, unless you’re an entrepreneur or a senior executive, the quantity of work you have is largely dictated by those above you in the corporate food chain.
Since reducing exposure to acute or cumulative stressors can so often fall outside of our control, the real secret to reducing stress lies in improving your resilience to these stressors.
At a high level, here are the two fundamental strategies that can help you do so.
Strategy #1: Cultivating the right philosophical mindset toward stress
The right mindset serves as a filter to dull the potentially harmful impact of unhealthy workplace stress. It can help you reframe obstacles as advantages, and stressors as growth opportunities.
Specifically, there’s one key mindset shift you can adopt – something I call the “control mindset,” – that is scientifically proven to transform how you perceive and experience stress.
The control mindset – that you are 100% in control of your stress – is as simple to understand as it is challenging to adopt. It calls for you to stop looking at yourself as a victim of external stressors, and to accept control over your stress, through both the external actions you take to reduce stress, as well as how you internally reframing stress.
Why is the control mindset so important to adopt?
First – a sense of control provides motivation for action. The more convinced you are that there are things you can do to reduce your stress, the more motivated you will feel to discover what these steps are, and incorporate them into your own life. Conversely, refusing to take ownership over your own stress and simply blaming the stressors themselves will never inspire you to take action.
Second – establishing the control mindset has a psychological and physiological stress-reducing impact in and of itself.
Consider the contrast between what scientists have termed “internal” vs. “external locus of control.” People with an external locus of control believe that what happens in life is determined primarily by external events. Those with an internal locus of control believe that what happens in life is determined by their own actions.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, “Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer lifespan.”
What this means is that the less control you feel you have over your stress, the more stressed out you’ll become, which can further reinforce a sense of helplessness, which further increases stress.
Strategy #2: Nurturing a stressproof internal state
Our reactions to stress, and the extent to which it can have a harmful impact on our life, are dictated to a large degree by our internal state. There are simple, science-backed strategies that are proven to transform your internal state in a way that makes you more resilient to stress.
What do I mean by “internal state”?
The best way to understand state is as the filter through which we experience the world around us. It can be divided into four discrete components – physical state, mental state, emotional state, and spiritual state, and deficiencies in any of these “states” leave us more vulnerable to the impact of stress.
Each of these components plays an integral role in how we process and experience stress.
Our physical state determines how much energy we have available to endure the stressors around us. Stressors feel much more pronounced in a poor physical state (e.g. 2 hours of sleep, hopped up caffeine and sugar) than a prime physical state (8 hours of sleep, healthy diet). Taking physical care of ourselves improves our physical state and provides more energy to manage daily stressors.
Our mental state provides us with the cognitive bandwidth we have to deal with external stressors. Since each stressor we deal with requires a discrete amount of attention and mental focus to endure or manage, we can become “overwhelmed” when the number of stressors we face exceeds the mental bandwidth required to deal with them. When this happens, even the smallest of stressors can cause undue frustration and anxiety. To nurture mental state, we need to adopt strategies and tactics that help us make more efficient use of finite cognitive resources so that we don’t burn out.
Our emotional state produces the emotional filter that dictates how we interpret what happens to us. The worse of a mood you’re in, the more acutely painful new stressors feel. Improving emotional state requires the development of “emotional mastery” – seeing things that happen to us objectively and not subjectively, and learning to identify when emotions are unduly impacting our perception of a stressor.
Our spiritual state connects us to the higher-level meaning we attach to your work. The less intrinsically meaningful you perceive your work to be, the harder it becomes to endure stressors and setbacks. This is why it’s key to link your work to a higher sense of purpose, and continually revisit this purpose when times get tough.
Each of these areas provides opportunities to increase overall resilience to stress. Collectively, taking control of your state across ALL of these areas is the best way to insulate yourself against the impact of external stressors.
This all begs the question – how exactly are you supposed to go about feeling “in control” of your stress? And what specific steps can you take to improve your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual state?
That’s what I’ll be covering in detail in the next few entries of this series.