The signs of stress are easy to spot. It’s the solutions that can be hard to come by.
If you’ve stopped exercising, can’t sleep and are eating poorly, you’re heading down a road that could lead to a disastrous destination. And if you’re far enough along this destructive path that you’ve abandoned your hobbies and interests, can’t find time for friends or family and are obsessed with work day and night, you may actually need an outside intervention. Don’t be too surprised if it comes unsolicited at the hands of a doctor or lawyer.
It’s best to recognize the early warning signs and address them before someone else does. Here are 10 common signs you’re under too much stress – and suggestions for what to do about it.
1) You’re chained to your desk. An editor at the Chicago Sun-Times once said that he couldn’t take time off. He was afraid the place would fall apart without him – and he was terrified it wouldn’t. If you think the universe depends on you, you’re headed for a high-stress breakdown. Hire people who will do a better job than you ever could, and then celebrate their successes, get out of their way and recharge your batteries regularly.
2) You can’t play nice. A demanding attitude rarely reduces stress, so if you find yourself berating waiters, flight attendants or reservations agents, make a habit of taking an extra minute during every interaction to thank them – and be specific, if possible. In trying to cheer up those who are doing tough jobs, you might also boost your own spirits.
3) Your mind races in circles. You think the root of your stress is that you spend all of your time in a state of intense focus. But really, most people under stress are re-plowing the same field over and over. They confuse this obsessing with focus, but it’s really the opposite. Problems typically get simpler as you work your way through them, so make sure your solutions involve reducing complexity. Then work on execution in bite-sized pieces that are less demanding than the larger initial problem. When your stress is under control, focus will come more easily.
4) Your favorite phrase is “you’ve got mail.” Email may have become a mindless stress reliever for you; but like most things, it’s a two-edged sword. If you’re disciplined, it’s a time-saver. But if your use of it goes unchecked, it morphs into a constant interrupter, a pestering reminder of all you’re having a hard time responding to. So turn off your email – for hours at a time –and work on developing the discipline to check in on a regular schedule and not more frequently.
5) You wallow in self-pity. If you find yourself feeling under-appreciated, change your surroundings – or, at a minimum, change your attitude. Replace self-pity with gratitude, or better yet, find a way to serve those less fortunate than you. In the process, you’ll discover you have a lot to be grateful for, and you’ll be surprised at how transformative that realization can be.
6) You’re always running late. Make a commitment that you’ll be five minutes early to every meeting and every event, and then tell others about it as a way forcing you to curtail the activities that are making you late. This will rarely reduce the quality of your thinking or your work, and it will usually help you re-frame your priorities and focus on your accountability and deliverables.
7) You never take a mental break. I once had a set of partners who bought tickets for me and my wife to take a week’s vacation and promised that none of them would answer calls from me or report anything to me during the trip. At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself; but soon, I lost myself in a book. When I “woke up” I was in another century, as it were, reveling in language, culture and history – things I love, but had forgotten about. Taking mental breaks every once in a while creates opportunities for learning and enjoying new things. To incorporate them into your daily life, set up rules for yourself. One of mine is not to work on airplanes – and since I do a lot of flying, I now do a lot of reading.
8) Your phone has become an appendage. Never turning off your phone, or even worse, being unable to even put it down, leaves you open to constant interruptions. Although I can’t seem to do it, I know busy people who set “office hours” for themselves during which they even block out personal interruptions. The analog to the phone being on all the time is the office door that’s always open. Be sure to give yourself some quiet time to think, to plan, to reflect in a place where there’s no phone and no one walking through the door, even if it’s just for 30 minutes a day.
9) You’re impossible to please. The food isn’t good enough, the hotel’s not convenient enough, your income isn’t high enough. You don’t have enough resources, a strong-enough team, sufficient support from others. The solution to these seemingly external problems is to turn inward and change your mindset. One of my mantras, which I developed when I noticed this warning sign in myself, has become, “I have all I need.”
10) You live in the past or the future. You reminisce, telling stories of past glories. Or you await the future, unable to really start living until a certain goal is behind you. Both of these are signals that you’re living outside the present, a habit that only leads to more stress. Being present in the moment, enjoying the conversation, the meeting, the people and the challenges as they come up will reduce stress.
Over the years, I’ve learned that we can intentionally change our attitudes, habits and self-talk. It’s not a matter of avoiding stress altogether – in fact, some stress can help keep us on our toes. The trick is to monitor our time and attention, to get feedback and to re-calibrate our schedules based on what we learn.
Like a recovering alcoholic, I have to commit every day to smelling the roses. I’ve concluded that to do otherwise will create a form of success at the cost of failing in what matters most: Finding peace from a life well lived – a peace that won’t come from promotions, status, fame or fortune. -Joel Peterson, Chairman, JetBlue Airways