Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nine Ways Successful People Defeat Stress

Stress
Stress (Photo credit: topgold)
by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Harvard Business Review blog: http://blogs.hbr.org

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World to Power Influence and Success

Dr. Halvorson is available for speaking and training. She’s on Twitter @hghalvorson.

Feeling stressed? Of course you are. You have too much on your plate, deadlines are looming, people are counting on you, and to top it all off, you still have holiday shopping to do. You are under a lot of pressure - so much that at times, you suspect the quality of your work suffers for it.

This is life in the modern workplace. It is more or less impossible to be any kind of professional these days and not experience frequent bouts of intense stress. The difference between those who are successful and those who aren't is not whether or not you suffer from stress, but how you deal with it when you do.

In the spirit of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, here are nine scientifically-proven strategies for defeating stress whenever it strikes.

1. Have self-compassion

Self-compassion is, in essence, cutting yourself some slack. It's being willing to look at your mistakes or failures with kindness and understanding - without harsh criticism or defensiveness. Studies show that people who are self-compassionate are happier, more optimistic, and less anxious and depressed. That's probably not surprising. But here's the kicker: they are more successful, too.

Most of us believe that we need to be hard on ourselves to perform at our best, but it turns out that's 100 percent wrong. A dose of self-compassion when things are at their most difficult can reduce your stress and improve your performance, by making it easier to learn from your mistakes. So remember that to err is human, and give yourself a break.

2. Remember the "Big Picture"

Anything you need or want to do can be thought of in more than one way. For instance, "exercising" can be described in Big Picture terms, like "getting healthier" - the why of exercising - or it can be described in more concrete terms, like "running two miles" - the how of exercising.

Thinking Big Picture about the work you do can be very energizing in the face of stress and challenge, because you are linking one particular, often small action to a greater meaning or purpose. Something that may not seem important or valuable on its own gets cast in a whole new light.

So when staying that extra hour at work at the end of an exhausting day is thought of as "helping my career" rather than "answering emails for 60 more minutes," you'll be much more likely to want to stay put and work hard.

3. Rely on routines

If I ask you to name the major causes of stress in your work life, you would probably say things like deadlines, a heavy workload, bureaucracy, or your terrible boss. You probably wouldn't say "having to make so many decisions," because most people aren't aware that this is a powerful and pervasive cause of stress in their lives.

Every time you make a decision - whether it's about hiring a new employee, about when to schedule a meeting with your supervisor, or about choosing rye or whole wheat for your egg salad sandwich - you create a state of mental tension that is, in fact, stressful (this is why shopping is so exhausting - it's not the horrible concrete floors, it's all that deciding).

The solution is to reduce the number of decisions you need to make by using routines. If there's something you need to do every day, do it at the same time every day. Have a routine for preparing for your day in the morning, and packing up to go home at night. Simple routines can dramatically reduce your experience of stress.

In fact, President Obama, who assuredly knows a great deal about stress, mentioned using this strategy himself in a recent interview:
You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day ... you'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia - President Obama, Vanity Fair.
4. Take five (or ten) minutes to do something you find interesting

If there were something you could add to your car's engine, so that after driving it a hundred miles, you'd end up with more gas in the tank than you started with, wouldn't you use it? Even if nothing like that exists for your car just yet, there is something you can do for yourself that will have the same effect ... doing something interesting. It doesn't matter what it is, so long as it interests you.

Recent research shows that interest doesn't just keep you going despite fatigue, it actually replenishes your energy. And then that replenished energy flows into whatever you do next.

Keep these two very important points in mind:

First, interesting is not the same thing as pleasant, fun, or relaxing (though they are certainly not mutually exclusive). Taking a lunch break might be relaxing, and if the food is good it will probably be pleasant. But unless you are eating at the hot new molecular gastronomy restaurant, it probably won't be interesting. So it won't replenish your energy.

Second, interesting does not have to mean effortless. The same studies that showed that interest replenished energy showed that it did so even when the interesting task was difficult and required effort. So you actually don't have to "take it easy" to refill your tank.

To read further about the other 5 tips to defeat stress, go to: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/12/nine_ways_successful_people_de.html
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