We all get stressed when meetings pile up, commitments take more time than expected, and unexpected demands jump in front of our once neatly organized schedules.
But what about the stress that doesn’t come from outside expectations, but that comes from deep inside. That nagging feeling that you could be doing better, should be doing better, and aren’t living up to your fullest potential, meaning you must be some kind of huge failure who should probably just give up?
That internal negative thinking is something many of us experience, but we don’t often give it much thought because it’s usually just humming quietly in the background. But the problem is, even as it hums quietly in the background, our own negative self-speak is undermining our ability to do great things, and causing us to feel the kind of ongoing low-level stress that can actually damage our mental and physical health over the longterm if it’s not kept in check.
Today we’re going to take a look at a couple of strategies for reducing stress day-to-day by reframing and recalibrating the way you think about yourself and your performance, so you’ll actually be more productive and better at your job, while also feeling a little bit happier too. Sounds like a win-win, and I love a good one of those.
Expecting every single task you do to win you wild accolades and praise, while also moving your career forward ten steps, is a path to disappointment and frustration. Setting proper expectations for yourself and your work is key to feeling satisfied by your accomplishments and overcoming feelings of inadequacy and underappreciation.
How can you set proper expectations?
Align your goals with team goals. In other words, make sure you are working on the right things. If you know what your company or manager thinks is most important, you can make sure your work is moving things in that direction, where you are likely to feel the biggest impact.
Look at the big picture. Making progress on your public speaking goal can include everything from making a spreadsheet of conferences you want to pitch, to actually giving a talk. Don’t discount the importance of that spreadsheet step, even though it comes with much less public praise and satisfaction than giving a talk does. Consider the value of the tasks you do in the big picture to remind yourself of their bigger impact.
Do a post-mortem. People are notoriously bad at estimating how long tasks will take them, and many of us also are over-confident in our abilities to learn new skills, take on extra jobs, and tackle unfamiliar goals. When a project feels like a failure, take an objective look at where you slipped up. You’ll get perspective on two things: you’ll likely see the realistic ways in which you messed up (ie. not because you’re a failure, but because you were lacking ______ skill or experience), and you’ll also get knowledge into how to plan for this kind of project better in the future with more positive results.
If you struggle with perfectionism, you probably already know that it’s a tough habit to break. After all, wanting to do things perfectly is kind of admirable, isn’t it? Doesn’t it reflect a commitment to good work?
Well, the “idea” of perfectionism does. But in practice? Perfectionism actually hurts teams, products, and people, because perfect isn’t possible. So by chasing an impossible goal, you guarantee that you’ll miss the point at which a product is totally good enough to ship, or a new skill is ready to show your manager.
“Perfect is the enemy of good.” It’s a common saying for a reason.
No one expects you to be perfect, so chasing perfectionism for its own sake is actually a waste of everyone’s time. Your company needs you to deliver, not deliver something perfect. So do your friends and family and peers. So how can you stop chasing the perfection dream?
Set priorities. Being perfect or making something perfect is impossible; but being or making something amazing, delightful, smart, or well-timed is extremely possible. Hard-workers do that every day, by chasing their biggest priorities that matter (of which perfection is not one). When you’re doing a project, try to identify the top 3 adjectives you want to describe the project, or top 3 goals you have for a product. Then pursue those tirelessly, and allow the rest to be good enough.
Think about impact. Striving for perfection means endlessly working on something you’ll never be satisfied with. Instead of chasing perfection as a goal, think about the other ways your project will impact your team or your customers or yourself. Will it hit the market at a game-changing time if you release it right, for example? Focus on impact goals rather than perfection, since that is what everyone else cares about anyways. No one else is looking for you to be perfect; they just want you and your work to add the most that they can, so look for practical solutions and driving forces instead.
Do you tend to jump from calm to irate in no time at all, the second something surprising or negative happens? We all appreciate people who are patient with us, and I think part of that is because we know how difficult it is to be patient.
Luckily, becoming more patient is a skill that you can teach yourself. Seriously! It’s all about committing to increasing your levels of patience, and practicing a few key techniques:
Note your patterns of exasperation. The more aware you are of what frustrates you, the better prepared you’ll be next time a similar situation arises. Nobody likes to feel frustrated or blow up at someone who doesn’t deserve it, so put an end to it by seeing it before the feeling can overtake you. Talk yourself down, and make notes when you are clear-headed about how you’d like to handle this kind of situation in the future, so you have a plan ready.
Stop thinking in catastrophe mode. Jumping to the worst case scenario may have kept us safe when humans were roaming the plains, susceptible to attacks from predators at any moment, but today — it’s just not as useful. Most situations that we freak out about aren’t life-or-death emergencies, and we need to learn to not jump to the worst conclusion. Start training yourself to moderate your expectations. When you feel yourself panicking about a potential catastrophe, take a moment to walk yourself back. Think realistically about the worst that could happen, and then really ask yourself how likely the worst is to happen anyways. Most of life is moderate and not crazy, so set your expectations based on reality, not imagination.
Listen to your body. When frustrated feelings start to arise, get in tune with your breathing and your body. Unclench fists, take slow deep breaths, focus on slowing down your heartbeat. Your physical triggers influence your mental state, so focus on cooling them down and your brain will follow. (This is also a great way to detach from a situation to keep it from escalating. By focusing on something else, you don’t allow yourself to keep running over frustrating information and getting more worked up.)
Let’s make it happen
This week, practice keeping your general anxiety level at moderate. Do some journaling about your anxieties, and then go down the list and address each one with some rational, reality-based thought.
Consider worst case scenarios, but then think back on similar real-life situations you’ve already lived through. How did those go? Why would this time be any different? Think about solving or preventing problems that have actually happened in the past, but keep yourself in the realm of reality.
Writing things down makes them more real, so take the time to actually journal these ideas out. It will also help you stay grounded, even as you think about staying grounded. :)
What are your best tips for combating stress and staying calm? We’d love to read them in the comments!