Uncharted Waters

May 23 2018   12:24PM GMT

Reducing Stress from Work

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser


Stress BallImagine for a moment that you step into a therapists office, complaining of stress. You ask what to do and the therapist asks you for your ideas. You suggest running, watching a ball game, taking a nap, having a few beverage with friends, talking a walk, or watching TV. The therapist replies “It sounds like you have some good ideas.”

Today I’m going to talk about a totally different way to manage stress.

The Reality Of Stress

Say you take that walk, watch that movie, or do some other form of self-care.

When you wake up, the cause of the stress will still be there.

If the cause of the stress is a deadline, then the deadline will be closer. If it is a work task, then more time will have passed without progress on the task. If it is a relationship that is strained, then more time has elapsed without the two of you talking or resolving your issues.

Worse, we’ve now run into the paradox of coping.

The Paradox of CopingCopying With Stress

Unchecked, stress tends to increase. Coping allows us to live under stressful conditions without resolving them.

Coping behaviors allow us to live with a situation that continues to get worse and worse over time. This is not a prescription for success.

Let’s talk about what stress is, and how we resolve it.

Resolving the Stress

Imagine a list of everything that is bugging you. The unpaid bills, the special relationship that is going wonky, the jerk of a boss, the extra ten pounds around your belly, plus your back is killing you.

Each little thing adds up, and as I mentioned, they will tend to get worse over time.

You don’t need to cope.

You need to resolve the stress.

So go back to that list. What can you actually do something about?

The weight. You can diet and exercise.

The back. You can go see a doctor. Diet and exercise will help.

The deadline. Forget watching a movie and instead get the task knocked off.

Resolving a few sources of stress will reduce your total stress level. Start small; niggling things you have to do but haven’t got around to yet. You might be able to knock off half your list on a Saturday afternoon. With a small list to manage, your brain will feel less … swelled.

When It’s Out Of Your Control

Stress Out Of ControlAbout this point someone will point out that they are an impossible situation. Their tiny little  town only has one company with a real IT shop, and they need to stay in that town to take care of their ailing parents. Their girlfriend has six small children and terrible disease, and he can’t leave her. Hurricane Katrina took their house and the insurance company won’t pay up.

And all of it is true.

Now take a look at how much time he spends in front of the television every night. Imagine if he took that time and using it productively to resolve the stress.

Get a second job. Earl a realtor’s license earned at night. Make open source contributions. Perhaps take a self-study course to earn an IT certification. Teach yourself HTML5 and Javascript on the front-end, databases, rails or .NET on the backend. Search indeed.com for remote jobs and figure out how to qualify for one. Start an Amazon Drop-Ship Business. Go to yard sales on the weekend and start an eBay business.

The point here isn’t to “be awesome”; it is to create a disruption that makes the old cause of stress irrelevant. Suddenly instead of a bad boss, you’ve got enough revenue to quit the day job, or training to get another one. Instead of being lonely, you’ve got a new hobby, new routine, new place you go to interact with people.

Today, right now, I have an article deadline. I wrote this piece.

What are you doing today to not cope with stress but instead resolve it?

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  • efficacy
    Well said Matt! I have been repeating this (in one form or another for years). There are a few aspects which might be worth pointing out, though.

    First, remember that this is not universally applicable. You and I live in a world where most work is project work, which needs to be done (often by a particular person, often by a particular time) and will accumulate if postponed. However, there are other forms of work; some examples:

    * stream work, which keeps coming, but individual work items will expire if not done (think retail or (cynically!) ER)
    * pool work, where anyone from a (large?) group of people can take on each task (think call centre)
    * response or vigilance work which is rare but important, and can have large gaps between activity. (think lifeguard, firefighter)

    I'm sure you can think of others.

    In such cases, the "coping" strategies you mention can actually be useful in decreasing or releasing the kinds of stress associated with the work.

    Second, we are above all learning creatures and need to be careful of how we balance activity and "rewards" so that physically and psychologically we learn useful things. Using the approach you suggest can contribute to a "deadline-driven" way of working, where the only reward is a kind of satisfaction from completing tasks. Faced with such a stressful pile of work, only the items due immediately will be worked on. After a while, the "reward" becomes associated exclusively with the deadline, and it becomes much harder to work on longer-term, potentially more important, work such as preparation, planning or "sharpening the saw". This can be very hard to break out of.

    Finally, I'd like to share the metaphor I use when describing this kind of situation.

    Consider a snowplough. If it has a blade like a bulldozer it can make progress at the start, but the snow builds and builds until no more progress is possible. You can take a break, but the snow is still there, and more may even be falling to add to it. Real plough blades are angled, however, so that as the snow is pushed it is moved out of the way. Every yard forward is a yard of snow cleared and the work is sustainable with much less effort. Even if more snow falls, it doesn't add to the original problem, and can be cleared on its own when the plough comes this way again.

    Thanks again for a great post.
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