Stress is *never* good – Part 2 – Wake Up

In my previous post, I gave some insight that I’d gained following a course on the “Challenge of Change”. To recap for you, stress is bad but it’s a choice, there is no such thing as a stressful situation but rather it’s how you choose your response.

Again, a disclaimer that this is based on my experience with the excellent programme called “The Challenge of Change”, which I very much recommend. These are my reflections on what I learned,

Of course, that knowledge goes only a small way to taking the steps to actually be able to deal with stress, with a view to reducing and eliminating it.

There are a number of things we can do, to start to deal with this stress.

1. Being Awake

Have you had one of those experiences when you’ve been driving or walking to a destination and your mind has been on other things, and when you arrive there you are struck with that sense of “how did I get here?”, and you reflect that you can’t really remember what’s happened on the way. It’s clear that you must have been putting one foot in front of the other, or changing gear, or making turns and directions but you’re not really aware of having don this.

Sometimes this is how people behave in other life situations.

This is also very apparent in work. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings that I’ve been in, or the number of 1:1s with my manager where they are clearly not “in the room”, not paying attention, mind on something else. In some cases you actually get to the point where they confess, most likely because you’ve asked them a question that requires a response and they say “sorry, my mind was somewhere else”, which is evidence enough. We should also reflect on the times where we have been, or are that manager. Even if we manage to listen to what people say, I confess that many times my mind is running away to think about other things.

It’s not just being distracted and not focused in physical interactions with people but it’s also about focus of thought when you’re working. I’m sure you can think of periods of work where you have felt “sharp” or “focused” or “in the zone”. These periods feel productive and tend to involve less of getting stuck and more of getting work done. The opposite is also true. I can recall many (too many) times when my work rate has slowed to a stop because my thoughts have been somewhere else, or I’ just can’t seem to focus on anything. I sometimes joke that “I’ve earned my money today”, referring to the times I’ve actually managed to be productive.

There is also the point about being physically awake, with enough sleep! If this is particularly challenging then try “The sleep revolution – Anna Huffington” which I found really illuminating.

Being awake then consists of a number of things including physical tiredness, diet, and focus. There are several things that you can experiment with to move you to a state of being more awake, and thus taking steps to reduce stress. Here are two ideas, and some practical tools:

One of the many definitions of meditation is “The ability to abide in the present moment”, and as evidenced by the increase in popularity of meditation and calm apps. I have personally found that 10-15 minutes at the start of each day does lead to improved focus. As an example after having a daily meditation practice for around 3-6 months I started to notice many aspects of peoples behavior that I had not previously noticed. It was as if I had a heightened perception to people that may be struggling, and could see things that other people missed. This meant that I was able to spot potential issues much faster, and able to make useful interventions.

I started with the excellent Headspace, which I liked as an introduction as Andy was really down to earth and easy to listen to. Headspace felt like it took away some of the myths of the hippie nature of meditation and some of the more wacky associations. Since then I had a period of using no apps or tools, and more recently I’ve moved to The Waking up course by Sam Harris which I’ve found really excellent in deepening my meditation practice.

One very simple exercise to try is to have a whole day at work (or home) being awake and engaged. For me that means:

  1. active listening to people in meetings and 1:1s and taking genuine interest in what they say.
  2. only focusing on a single task at a time
  3. taking notes and actions
  4. no social media, audiobooksor other distractions
  5. smile and verbally interacting with people you come into contact with

Think you tick all 5 on the list most days? If you do then great, but my experience is that I rarely do, and neither do most people in most organisations.

I’ve tried this several times, and when I’ve got home at the end of the day I’ve been really tired, it takes effort!

2. Controlling Attention

If you feel overwhelmed sometimes, then that is understandable. Our minds are pretty busy. In a typical day we receive lots and lots of inputs all trying to trick us into believing they are important. We get facts on the latest business proposals and work data, we have interrupts from social media, the gossip in the kitchen, the task list, the text messages and much more. Figuring out what we need to take action with and what to ignore can be draining. Improvements in technology and travel also contribute. 30 or more years ago travel was more difficult, and someone else usually helped with booking things. We had people to ask in shops, and the thought that you could do your own tax returns, or even publish your own website were crazy. Now, we do it all, and the promised robot helpers only really clean your carpet.

Your mobile phone used to make calls and possibly texts, but now is your calculator, social life, game system, personal assistant, shopping list and might even control your lights.

My kids annoy me by playing on their games console whilst also watching Netflix in the background. I cannot fathom how they do this, and even more why they do it, but this is all totally normal.

However, even though we think we are able to do several things at once, it’s not actually true!

Earl Miller is a scientist at MIT and he says of our brains that we are…

“not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

Remember our good friend cortisol from the last post. Well, multitasking creates a feedback loop, which has the effect of creating a reward for the multitasking and encouraging us to seek out more options for doing something else! Perhaps this is one of the reasons we’ve all got Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts, so that we scan try and keep filling the void.

So being able to control our attention and focus on specific tasks can help reduce load, and therefore work to reduce stress. But how?

First and easiest step is to look for distractions and remove them. One of the simplest things you can do is remove work email (or even personal email) from your phone, or at the very least turn off notifications so that you’re not being interrupted all the time. Whilst you’re there take a look at how many apps are actually set to allow notifications and can interrupt you. You may be surprised.

Another idea is to use tools to help the brain focus for short bursts, with artificial rewards when you manage it. One such technique that I’ve experienced is the Pomodoro technique which employs a simple process of using a timer to time short focused periods of work with short breaks in-between. I’ve seen people using egg timers or the very useful time timer (TM) for this purpose.

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
  3. Work on the task.
  4. End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

There are also a number of useful apps available that are designed to help with your focus such as https://freedom.to/. or the Flora app (https://apps.apple.com/app/flora-stay-focused-together/id1225155794) and there are many more.

3. Becoming Detached

hand drawing of three houses

This very bad diagram was one that I used to explain the concept of being detached.

In drawing 1) we have a house which represents what’s going on in our brain as we try and deal with the inputs that we receive. We also have a load of “stuff” outside, in this case represented by the water outside the house (see those wavy lines). The house always has two doors, just like your house, let’s say a front and back door. In this case the strategy employed to try and deal with everything it to ignore it. Keep the door shut. Keep the things we don’t want to deal with and engage with outside and stay in our happy nice warm and safe house. This is a tactic that many people employ and it can work for a while. But the problem is that eventually the weight of the water becomes too much for even the strongest door and bursts in, overwhelming the person in the house and creating a right old mess that is hard to deal with and leaves the house damaged and stinky possibly for ever. Bad (note the stick person is not smiling)

In drawing 2) We have another tactic, where we are letting a little bit of water into the house and allowing our feet to slosh around in it. This might seem a little better but in fact it suffers from more issues. We get the feeling that we are dealing with things, but in reality we’re not and we’re creating an illusion that we are. At least in 1) we know that we’re not dealing with things. Here there is a risk that we think that we are, whilst still allowing the pressure of water to build up until, just like in 1) it all comes crashing in. Same bad outcome (note the stick person is still not happy)

In drawing 3) we have opened the back door and the front door, equaling the pressure and letting everything flow through the house. We are also sitting up in the loft which gives us a couple of advantages. Firstly, even though the carpet downstairs is getting dirty and wet, our feet are nice and dry. Also we get a good perspective of what it going on, we can see quite a bit from the loft and we can choose when to jump down and get involved in things and if we choose not to then we’re not sloshing about in mucky water.

So the principle here is that by becoming detached we can gain a new and helpful perspective on some of the things that are going on and choose to engage with them in potentially different ways.

Conclusions

You should know by now it’s never a conclusion! All this has been has been a couple of posts on the nature of stress and how to deal with it, something that I come across personally and with clients.

However, let’s close with some things that you can start to take positive action on right now.

Designed to increase your ability to “get up in the loft” and become more detached 

  • Consider starting or expanding a mindfulness practice using an app or just following an online guide
  • Practicing being “awake” for at least a full day at work or home
  • Observe yourself for an hour / morning / day and then write reflections on what you notice especially focusing on the amount of input and how awake you feel
  • Talk though some of your current worries with someone you trust 

Designed to improve your sensitivity 

  • Try asking people how they are feeling, and practice being interested in their answer 
  • Observe and try to note people who show sensitivity to others. 
  • Slow Down 
  • Try out different ways of delivering tough messages 
  • Share others joy 

Designed to make you more flexible 

  • Notice your thinking, and worrying about what ifs 
  • Try building more novelty into your life 
  • Establish positive accountability relationships (mentor / coach / trusted friend) 

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