April 2, 2013 at 9:40 AM ET
The average business professional has 30 to 100 projects on their plate. Modern workers are interrupted seven times an hour and distracted up to 2.1 hours a day. And four out of 10 people working at large companies are experiencing a major corporate restructuring, and therefore facing uncertainty about their futures. This may be why more than 40 percent of adults say they lie awake at night plagued by the stressful events of the day.
“People are asking me for answers,” says Sharon Melnick, Ph.D, a business psychologist and author of just released Success Under Stress. “Everyone feels overwhelmed and overly busy.”
Is there a way to maintain steady focus throughout the day? Is it possible to do everything that needs to get done and still have energy left over after work? How do you keep cool under so many demands? Informed by 10 years of Harvard research and field-tested by more than 6,000 clients and trainees, Melnick offers the following strategies to take your work stress down a peg, before it takes over your life.
Act rather than react
“We experience stress when we feel that situations are out of our control,” says Melnick. It activates the stress hormone and, if chronic, wears down confidence, concentration and well-being. She advises that you identify the aspects of the situation you can control and aspects you can’t. Typically, you’re in control of your actions and responses, but not in control of macro forces or someone else’s tone, for example. “Be impeccable for your 50 percent,” she advises. And try to let go of the rest.
Take a deep breath
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or are coming out of a tense meeting and need to clear your head, a few minutes of deep breathing will restore balance, says Melnick. Simply inhale for five seconds, hold and exhale in equal counts through the nose. “It’s like getting the calm and focus of a 90-minute yoga class in three minutes or less at your desk,” she says.
“Most of us are bombarded during the day,” says Melnick. Emails, phone calls, pop-ins, instant messages and sudden, urgent deadlines conspire to make today’s workers more distracted than ever. While you may not have control over the interrupters, you can control your response. Melnick advises responding in one of three ways: Accept the interruption, cut it off or diagnose its importance and make a plan. Many interruptions are recurring and can be anticipated.
“You want to have preset criteria for which response you want to make,” she says. You can also train those around you by answering email during certain windows, set up office hours to talk in person or close the door when you need to focus.
Schedule your day for energy and focus
Most of us go through the day using a “push, push, push” approach, thinking if we work the full eight to 10 hours, we’ll get more done. Instead, productivity goes down, stress levels go up and you have very little energy left over for your family, Melnick says. She advises scheduling breaks throughout the day to walk, stretch at your desk or do a breathing exercise. “Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project has shown that if we have intense concentration for about 90 minutes, followed by a brief period of recovery, we can clear the buildup of stress and rejuvenate ourselves,” she says.
Eat right and sleep well
“Eating badly will stress your system,” says Melnick, who advises eating a low-sugar, high-protein diet. “And when you’re not sleeping well, you’re not getting the rejuvenating effects.” According to the CDC, an estimated 60 million Americans do not get sufficient sleep, which is a critical recovery period for the body. If racing thoughts keep you from falling asleep or you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, Melnick suggests a simple breathing trick that will knock you out fast: Cover your right nostril and breathe through your left for three to five minutes.
Change your story
Your perspective of stressful office events is typically a subjective interpretation of the facts, often seen through the filter of your own self-doubt, says Melnick.
However, if you can step back and take a more objective view, you’ll be more effective and less likely to take things personally. She recalls one client who sent a request to human resources for more people on an important project. When she was denied, she immediately got angry and defensive, thinking they didn’t trust her to know what she needed. Yet she never stopped to even consider there might be budgetary issues on their end. Once she was able to remove herself from the situation, she called the HR director and said: Tell me where you’re coming from, I’ll tell you where I’m coming from and then let’s see if we can find a solution. Ultimately, it worked.
Cool down quickly
“When you feel frustrated or angry, it’s a heated feeling in your body that can cause you to react,” says Melnick. Instead of immediately reacting—and likely overreacting—she suggests trying a “cooling breath” technique: Breathe in through your mouth as if you are sipping through a straw, and then breathe out normally through your nose. Done right, you’ll feel a cooling, drying sensation over the top of your tongue. It’s like hitting the “pause” button, giving you time to think about your response. She says, “It’s so powerful it will even calm theotherperson down.”
Identify self-imposed stress
“Learn to stop self-imposing stress by building your own self-confidence rather than seeking other’s approval,” says Melnick. If you’re too caught up in others’ perceptions of you, which you can’t control, you become stressed out by the minutia or participate in avoidance behaviors like procrastination. Ironically, once you shift your focus from others’ perception of your work to the work itself, you’re more likely to impress them.
Prioritize your priorities
With competing deadlines and fast-changing priorities, it’s critical to define what’s truly important and why. That requires clarity, says Melnick. It’s important to understand your role in the organization, the company’s strategic priorities, and your personal goals and strengths. Cull your to-do list by focusing on those projects that will have the most impact and are best aligned with your goals.
Reset the panic button
For those who become panicked and short of breath before a presentation, Melnick says you can quickly reduce your anxiety with the right acupressure point. Positioning your thumb on the side of your middle finger and applying pressure instantly helps regulate your blood pressure.
Even if you’re responsible for your behavior and outlook, you’re still left dealing with other people’s stressful behavior, Melnick notes. She advises confronting a problem coworker or employee by stating the bad behavior in a respectful tone, describing the impact on the team and the individual, and requesting a change. For example, constant negativity might be addressed in this way: “When you speak in a critical tone, it makes others uncomfortable and less likely to see you as a leader. I understand your frustration but request that you bring concerns directly to me, so we can talk them through.” By transferring the ownership of the problem, you’re more likely to resolve it.
Be your own best critic
Some 60,000 thoughts stream through your mind each day, Melnick says, and internal negativity is just as likely to stress you out as an external event. The fix? Instead of being harsh and critical of yourself, try pumping yourself up. Encouraging thoughts will help motivate you to achieve and ultimately train you to inspire others.
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