Someone recently asked me what I think of when I hear the word “stress.” It was definitely a thought provoking-question that gave me pause. Admittedly, stress is something I struggle with, but lately, I’ve wanted to go deeper to understand the true impact of stress on my life and the lives of others.
I’m not the only one dealing with this issue. Americans are busier than ever, so much so that social scientists have coined a new term—time poverty—to describe our extreme leisure deficits.
No one truly wants to be busy all the time. Even those who love the hustle (and I’m certainly one of them) enjoy taking a break or going on vacation occasionally. So why is our society hell-bent on becoming time-poor?
Columbia University professor Silvia Bellezza found that people who others believed were busy were also perceived as important and impressive. As a result, being busy is a well-established status symbol, the Birkin bag of career and social achievement (if only getting a Birkin were that easy).
Status symbol or not, we know stress isn’t good for us. Not only does this kind of hectic lifestyle rob us of much-needed time off, but medical professionals have also linked the undue pressure we put on ourselves to countless chronic health conditions—many of which are fatal. This pace isn’t sustainable, and something’s got to give.
Work smarter, not harder
There’s a widely accepted notion that the best employees work the hardest, spending the most time and effort on their work, no matter the cost. This simply isn’t true. Activity for the sake of activity doesn't always equal a better outcome.
Psychologist and professor Adam Waytz put it this way, ”Evaluating employees on how busy they are is a terrible way to identify the most creative and productive talent. Yet many firms reward and promote only people who display how ‘hard’ they’re working.”
To put this in a practical perspective, think about the last time you worked on a big project. Were you most productive when focused, uninterrupted, and well-rested? Or was your best work achieved with divided attention, when you were tired and overwhelmed? We all know which yields the best result.
Obviously, you work better when you’re focused and fresh. Busier might feel like you’re accomplishing more, but it doesn’t mean you’re getting more done in the long run.
Completing a task takes far less time when you’re concentrated and uninterrupted rather than feeling scattered and pressured. Working longer hours with more tension has a compounding effect, exponentially increasing the amount of work you have to do while decreasing the time you have to do it.
You can produce better quality work in less time when you’re well-rested and clear-headed. Alternatively, if you’re too exhausted or distracted to do something well, why bother working at all?
Know your boundaries
That’s a boundary. Recognizing when enough is enough. Knowing when you’re too overworked and tired, and choosing to put the work aside.
This article is called "Confessions of a Stress Addict" for a reason. Just like perfectionism, this is an issue I struggle with. On the one hand, my work is inherently stressful because it requires me to be busy. On the other hand, I absolutely love it.
When I’m teaching, I honestly don’t feel like I’m working. When I’m traveling, I’m excited about my destination, the students I’ll meet, and the connections I’ll make when I get there. I’ll be the first to admit my lifestyle is just a little crazy. At the same time, what I do feeds my soul.
So, what feeds yours?
Answering this question helps you develop boundaries to welcome the good and deflect the bad. We all need to think about how we want to live and set appropriate boundaries to make it happen.
I’ve accepted a certain level of tension and busyness in my life because that’s the nature of my work. The boundaries I’ve created are for what I can reasonably control, so I can be as present and prepared for the things I can’t.
For example, I’ve worked hard to prioritize quality sleep. There’s no way I can maintain my schedule and do everything well without rest. I also try not to work too late at night and carefully consider the necessity of travel before agreeing to go somewhere for work.
Setting and sticking to my boundaries isn’t always easy, but standing strong when I can is the only way I stay healthy and sane.
Letting go to live better
Asking critical questions always helps. Is the project worth my time and attention? Will I have to travel? Does the travel impact the rest of my schedule? How many days am I teaching that week? Having conversations and negotiating with myself has been an excellent tool for me to filter out taking on work that isn’t a good fit.
I’m beginning to accept that maybe doing less can help me live more. Thinking about opportunities this way has been tough, though. I struggle with FOMO, so voluntarily giving up a chance to visit an event in person takes a lot of courage for me.
When I let go of the guilt about deciding that attending an event via Zoom will coordinate more gracefully with my established schedule, I give myself, and the people there to learn from me, the gift of my presence, clarity, and focus. I’m so much better at what I do when I’m not harried or exhausted.
Whether we’re spread too thin by our careers, family commitments, volunteer obligations, active social lives, or a combination of all four, stress can camouflage itself among the things we value. The pressure can feel like background noise, always humming behind the scenes, waiting to disrupt our day with tyrannical thoughts and physical duress. Why give it so much power?
Even though we all feel the negative effects in our lives, we can conquer these emotions by intentionally setting boundaries and letting go of what we can. Stress will always be there, it’s how you manage it that really matters.