While we all know that some stress can help us be more productive, too much of the wrong kind of stress not only impairs performance but can cause long term and serious psychological and physiological damage.
Each time we are stressed, our bodies react as if to a real threat and go into “flight, fight or freeze” mode which floods our system with all sorts of chemicals including adrenal and cortisol. Too much of these chemicals reduces the white blood count and impairs our immune system as well as causing problems with blood pressure and heart function.
And stress is not just about what or how much you have to do – it is how you react to such pressures and each individual will have a variety of different stressors. The meaningfulness of what you are doing will also have an impact. And there’s evidence to suggest that our personality affects how we perceive and manage stress. For example, are you an:
- Emotional inhibitor (Bottle things up)
- Emotional ruminator (Dwell on past upsets)
- Toxic achiever (Inappropriate competitiveness, anger and hostility)
So how do you beat stress? This is a huge question which merits a serious and lengthy response. There are issues to do with your general wellbeing and how happy you feel with your life overall, to the relationships with people around you and whether you feel that you are in control.
However, in this short space I would like to recommend a book that I found both amusing to read and helpful – “Crazy busy – Overstretched, overbooked and about to snap” by Dr Edward Hallowell which I first read in December 2007. It is full of strategies for handling a fast paced life but many of the ideas (e.g. screen sucking, gigaguilt) have remained so vibrant to me as I have witnessed, amongst my clients and colleagues, a growing and worrying tendency to some of the problems outlined.
Just over half the book describes the problems with modern life that many of us are only too familiar with. He starts by describing the many facets of the increasingly fast paced life that we all lead and the challenge of trying to take back control, identify the important things and concentrate attention on them. He looks at the medical disorder ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) – where people rush, feel impatient, lose focus mid-task, bubble with energy but keep forgetting what they’re doing, feel powerless with all the stuff around them and have great ideas but fail to complete any of the many tasks they have. He mentions the control paradox – by trying to control life as much as possible, you run yourself ragged, thus losing control in the process. He suggests that we stay busy to avoid looking into the abyss, busyness can keep a person from keeping up with the issues that matter and that acceptance, not busyness, brings us to a peaceful place.
He tackles the myth of multi-tasking (which he calls “frazzing”) and reminds us that in sports, the better the player you are, the more focused you become. And so advises us to put our Blackberries away and focus on the task, or person, at hand. “Lingering is a lost art…if we’re not careful we’ll get so busy that we’ll miss taking the time to think and feel”. He says it is the renegade spirit of people which loves to play – with ideas, numbers, algorithms and programs – and if we are too busy we lose this ability.
He refers to two great thinkers. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who showed that our state of highest functioning as well as greatest joy – a state he called “flow” – is where we rely on the special talent Malcolm Gladwell described in his book “Blink: The Ability to Think Without Thinking”.
He addresses the oxymorons of modern life – connected anonymity (the ability to connect online intimately yet remaining completely anonymous) and social disconnection. He says that virtually every person who consults him as a psychiatrist suffers from some form of disconnection. This, with social isolation, can lead to or exacerbate depression, drug and alcohol abuse, poor tolerance of frustration and a tendency toward violent behaviour. He suggests that we count the number of minutes we spend each day with live human beings.
He advises that emotion is the first key to the best of modern life. He says that the small actions such as shaking hands and maintaining eye contact set a positive emotional tone which in turn brings out the best in people. At the heart of making the most of life today is the ability to treasure and protect your connections to what you care most about and thus the main problems in modern life today are caused by neglecting what matters to you most. He mentions numerous studies of successful people in business which emphasise the importance of focusing on what you do best and sticking with it.
The second key is rhythm – his word for the complex set of neurological and physiological events that create the apparent effortlessness of a person doing complicated work well. As a person practices any activity, the planning and executing of it moves gradually from one part of the brain to another (the cerebellum acts as the automatic pilot of the brain).
He talks a little about the need to find hope when you’re down (positive thinking). He describes the phenomenon “gemmelsmerch” – a force that tugs at our attention all the time and distracts us from whatever we’re doing. He then talks about the F-state – frantic, frenzied, forgetful, flummoxed, frustrated and fragmented and warns against making sure that you do not merely make your life faster and more full of data – more difficult to follow and keep track of – in an effort to make it more fulfilling and suggests you look at the paradox of labour-saving devices that take up so much time. He talks about “screensucking” – wasting time engaging with any screen. “Leeches” being people or projects that waste your time and attention and “lilies” that make you feel fulfilled and satisfied. “Doomdarts” are obligations you have forgotten about which suddenly pop up into your consciousness like a poisoned dart. EMV – Email Voice – the unearthly tone a person’s voice takes on when is reading an email while talking to you on the telephone. “Gigaguilt” refers to the guilt a person feels over missing something even while knowing that keeping track of everything is impossible and having enough time to please everyone is equally impossible. “Taildogging” is going faster or pushing harder – on yourself, your children, your business, your spouse, simply because other people are doing so. “Pizzled” – a combination of p***d off and puzzled is how you feel when a person, without asking or explaining, brings out his or her phone to make a call while you are together. Helpfully, he notes that women have a harder time then men. He coined the term “blind baseball” – where the players have blurry vision and the field is in constant motion.
He goes on to some strategies and remedies to achieve the C state (calm, cool, collected, concentrating, creative, co-ordinated, courteous). OHIO – Only handle it once. Using your morning burst (or whatever time of day when you feel mentally at your freshest). Minimising junk time, conversation interrupts and pile-on (Just say “No”). He says you must guard against being an “Info Addict” – so alert to what is going on in the world that you fail to do anything yourself – and the “Spray Effect” – when you try to put your attention on too many things at once. He suggests that you keep alert to the warning signs that you are about to become overloaded (know your juggling limits) – and to take a break at that point. Deal with toxic worry (sometimes depression starts with a lack of mental focus).
A memorable statement he makes is “Attention is like money. If we don’t watch how we spend it, we waste it”. And talks about how our brains are becoming stuffed with stunning information that you will soon forget. Instead of a thoughtful life they savour, people are in danger of living superficial, sound bite lives they barely notice. He unpicks the common association that fast is smart – and describes the differences between people who are fast processors and those who are slow processors.
He challenges us to consider where we do our best thinking. He says that many people answer in the shower or in the car. And he suggests this is because what a person does at work is too goal directed and contaminated by gemmelsmerch to allow the free play of ideas that great and creative thinking requires. A shower promotes good thinking because it induces a state of comfort, calm and relaxation and stimulates all five senses and your mind is free to go where it wants. Today’s world provides us with too much information and not enough thought – what separates a great innovator from the mere data gatherer is the ability to stop gathering data and think about what has been gathered.
The central solution is to have a system to make sure that you do what matters to you and to find the right balance between control and lack of control. He says that most sages urge us to make the most of the moment and to never forget that any day might be our last. He urges us to constantly ask ourselves “Am I doing what I really want to do?” and “Am I doing what most matters to me?”. He warns that once fear starts to govern your use of time, you cease to be true to the best of who you are and, paradoxically, you give up your chance to live a genuine life.
Towards the end he suggests that you do a systematic assessment of your use of time and assess the value received for the time invested. He goes beyond the usual work based categories and considers electronic time, intimate time, wasted time and creative time. He then argues that you consider the effort in order to assess the “worth it” factor. Helpfully provides grids for you to do this analysis.
He summarises his ten key principles to managing modern life:
- Do what matters most to you
- Create a positive emotional environment wherever you are
- Find your rhythm
- Invest your time wisely so as to get maximum return
- Don’t waste your time screen sucking
- Identify and control the sources of gemmelsmerch
- Slow down
- Don’t multitask ineffectively
And provides an alternative summary of “C activities”:
There is much advice on how to improve your ability to pay attention – for example: get enough sleep, watch what you eat, exercise, reduce distractions, balance structure and novelty, do what you want to do, build variety into your career, vary individual tasks, have human moments, don’t expect your attention to last indefinitely, stretch your brain every day, combine work and play, encourage deep thinking by engaging in active debate and find joy every day. There are many more suggestions and I would recommend the book to those who are interested in learning more strategies to beat stress.
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