The Stress Myth

dilbert-on-having-too-many-projects

There is a myth in our culture that stress is a good thing. People think that they work better, or that they’re only able to work, when they’re stressed.

I think it’s helpful to separate pressure from stress. Pressure is when we feel we have to really focus on getting the job done to the best of our ability because it’s not easy and we’ve got limited time. Under such conditions, we can enter ‘flow’, become fully immersed in what we’re doing and do it really well.

Stress, on the other hand, is the body’s response when it’s ready to flee, fight or freeze in the face of a physical danger, historically something like a sabertooth tiger.

Your heart beats faster, your muscles contract, you sweat so that you’re harder to catch hold of and digestion stops because there’s no point processing your last meal if you’re about to be eaten yourself.

Very few of us, thankfully, have to face physical threats in our daily lives. However, we often react in the same way to a harmless threat, like missing a deadline, a presentation or an exam, as we would to a tiger. It may not be as intense as if we were eye to eye with something that might bite our heads off, but it’s quite common for people to feel low-level stress on a daily basis.

Stress is one of the most toxic things for your health. It can cause high blood pressure, which makes heart attacks more likely, back and neck pain, muscle tension and stiffness, stomach pain, digestive problems, increased risk of diabetes, reduced sex drive, impotence in men, mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, sleeplessness, nervousness, inability to concentrate and decreased or increased eating.

And people say they like it?!

It’s also not good for productivity. The graph at the top of this blog shows that when pressure tips over into stress, performance plummets. This is because it becomes harder to concentrate, you make worse decisions because you’re panicking and you reduce your ability to relate to people.

From experience, I can tell you that what does work in being productive, is feeling positive, calm and focused: doing one thing at a time. You are more creative and productive when you’re focused on a result you want to achieve rather than an outcome you want to avoid, so work out what that is.

Get clear what it is you need to do, and then work out if you’ve got enough time to do it. If you don’t, see if you can do less or ask for more time. You’ll be surprised how willing people are to grant you it.

When you work, as I’ve suggested before, use the Pomodoro method and focus on a single task, take short breaks to stand up, stretch and move around.

Stress is bad for you, it’s bad for the people around you and it makes you les productive, so find a way of working that makes you feel good, for everyone’s benefit.


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