When I realised I was totally stressed out I found myself questioning not just the way I approached work, but how I was running my life. Why I was stressed out is another story, but years of turning up to work each day and pushing that big, old boulder up the hill, without any apparent end in sight had taken their toll.
I was worn out, worryingly unfit and heading for the rocks. This is what being chronically stressed out looks like on the inside.
To be clear – I enjoyed my work – working in healthcare is such a great job to do. But I knew that I'd reached the end of some sort of road and I had to make a change.
So I took out a notebook and jotted down what I wanted to change.
Here's what I wrote.
- Lead a happier, more purposeful life.
- Regain control of what I spent my time on.
- Make better use of technology to help me do this.
- Cultivate a more positive mindset.
- Become increasingly mindful.
- Get some new tools to help managing my life a bit easier.
- Get fitter.
I decided to take action and over the next few months I managed to shift myself into a better place. It's not been easy, and not everything has worked the way I expected. Here's what I've learnt.
1. Start With What You Want
Any change starts with a need or want. My list of seven wants gave me a clear picture of what I wanted for myself. You could do what I did. Find a quiet place and just write down a list of all the things you want to change. Your list will be different to mine – it doesn't matter. Your list is what you want to change.
I found having a list like this was really helpful. I keep it in Devonthink. Whenever I needed an incentive to carry on, I just looked at the list.
Now I understood what I wanted, the next step was to work out how to do it.
2. Get On Top Of Your Stuff
David Allen describes the avalanche of paper and other material which rain down us as "stuff". We all suffer from it and it's getting worse. How many in-boxes have you got? Here are just some of mine.
- The place I put my post at home.
- My physical in-tray at work.
- My work email in box.
- My personal email in-box.
- My LinkedIn notifications.
- My Twitter stream
- My Facebook notifications.
- My Instagram feed.
- My RSS reader.
Amazingly, I could go on. There's just so much stuff these days and so many ways for it to reach us, its a wonder we ever get anything done.
Like many people, I realised I was drowning in stuff. I learnt that the most important trick is to be able to triage stuff into three mental piles.
- Important stuff
- Urgent stuff
- Non-urgent or non-important stuff.
I built some new workflows and got some new tools to help me organize all my stuff into these three categories. There are loads of ways you can do this and I’ve tried lots of them myself. Here are three of the best.
- Getting Things Done – David Allen
- Getting Results the Agile Way – J.D. Meier
- Zen to Done – Leo Babauta
These systems will help you control and organise what comes your way. The most important advice I can give you is to find a way of doing this that works for you and then use it consistently.
3. Tackle Your Mindset
As I started to get better organised, I learnt something else. I discovered that doing more wasn't what made the difference. Being more focused on the things that really mattered to me was. Doing more was actually getting in the way.
A book that really helped change my mindset was The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. He brings together the evidence which shows that happiness drives success, not the other way round.
As a leader, my mindset is important. If I'm having an off-day then the chances are this will spill over into the people around me.
Have you ever worked for a boss that was fearful?
These attitudes, when they persist, bring everyone down.
I found a good place to start is by writing a personal manifesto. I asked myself these questions:
- What do I stand for?
- What matters to me?
- What does good at work look like to me?
- How do I want to be seen by others?
- What do I want people to say after I've gone?
Another useful practice is to keep a daily journal. Just write down each day three things you're grateful for and what you enjoyed or did well.
4. Get Some New Tools
It can feel like drudgery to think about how to be more organized. Selecting some new tools can play a big part in overcoming a reluctance to settle on a routine. So, whether it's a beautiful Moleskine notebook and fountain pen, or the latest software, just make sure you're comfortable with your choice.
Picking good tools made it easier for me to stick to my plan and manage day to day.
The basic choice is between using digital or non-digital tools. I don't think there is a right way – what matters is you chose tools you like so that they become a pleasure for you to use. That way, you're more likely to keep using them.
5. Enjoy The Benefits of Not Being Stressed Out
So that's how I stopped feeling chronically stressed out.
Today I no longer feel stressed out all the time although there are still days when things pile up. The difference is that I always can see how what I do each day tracks back to the changes I originally wanted to make.
Beyond the personal benefits I feel, I now know there is evidence about what living a less stressed out life can bring. Here's a short list of some of the benefits.
- Improved cognitive functioning and better quality decision making.
- Increased happiness and well-being.
- Improved relationships.
- Lower risk of illnesses such as depression, anxiety and certain physical conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
I've been pleased with the results I've been getting. I'm continuing to experiment and I'll keep posting anything new that I learn.
And if I can do it, so can you.