Stress Management: Time, Boundaries, and Your Body
This week’s post is not a fitness or nutrition related post – at least, not directly.
Instead, I am going to address what I think is the key factor that holds many of my clients back from the results they want.
It’s not hormones. It’s not gluten. It’s not chemical additives or toxins.
It’s stress. Stress, that is, and all of its relatives on the stress family tree – time management problems, people-pleasing, lack of proper boundaries, and absence of self-care.
We’re talking about stress because this month is all about “trigger states.” Many of my clients know they have “trigger foods” that seem to torpedo success, but what many people don’t realize is that “trigger states” can be even more powerful.
We also explored solutions for poor sleep – check out the post to dig into a long list of strategies that you can use to improve your sleep habits and feel better almost right away!
However, once we start discussing sleep, there is an inevitable connection to stress, time management, and boundaries. Many of my clients who regularly burn the midnight oil aren’t missing out on sleep to squeeze every last ounce of joy from the day or to spend more time with their significant others. They’re not hanging out with friends and having the time of their lives. Nor do they have insomnia or clinical sleep problems.
Instead, they are typically pulling all-nighters to finish work projects. In fact, I have had several clients describe their office work as their “day job,” and their e-mails and detailed projects as their “night job.” This work bleeds into nighttime and weekends.
Just to be clear… they are talking about one job. There is simply not enough time in the day, as it is, to get everything done, for one job.
First of all, from a personal perspective, I find this horrifying. I wring my hands a little and think, “What has this world come to??? How did we let this happen??? How is this normal???”
Secondly (hand-wringing completed), I ask myself, “How can we change this culture of over-work?”
My personal manifesto is that change never happens if you always wait until “the next” step to change. Do these phrases sound familiar…?
- “Next time this happens, I’m going to handle it differently.”
- “Next week, I am going to make sure my schedule is cleared in the evening.”
- “Next time I am handed a project this last-minute, I’m not going to do it.”
The problem is that “the next” part usually looks a lot like this part. Whatever you did this time, you will probably do next time. Future change is a fantasy. The only real change happens NOW.
Don’t Wait for “The Next”
If you are honest with yourself, you already know what lifestyle-related stressors are cutting into your zen. As I am fairly loosey-goosey, intuitive, and relaxed in many areas of coaching, this is one of the few areas of tough love that I am serious about: change it NOW.
Don’t wait for the perfect time. Don’t wait for things to “calm down” (they never do). Don’t wait until you’ve gotten the promotion, had the job for a year, or gotten the raise. Guess what? The longer you work somewhere, the more you will train your supervisors and co-workers that you are “dependable.”
The weird economy of over-work is that the more you do it, the less perspective you have, and the more work ends up on your list. The to-do list can be endless, and you become less and less capable of saying, “I’m stopping,” instead of, “I’m done.” This tiny shift is incredibly important.
“Done” never arrives. At some point, you must just stop, knowing that there is no “done.”
Why is plugging the dam of endless over-work so hugely important?
- Work that seeps into traditional time off (like weekends and nights) can induce burnout
- Work stress and burn out results in mistakes, issues with focused attention, and cognitive problems
- Stress and over-taxing of the adrenals “impairs the immune response” and can result in illness
- Finally, if you are prone to obesity, losing control of your stress is a one-way street to gaining weight
In other words, not only will you like your occupation and workplace less and less, but you will also do poorer work and probably struggle with your health while doing so.
Plus, if you’ll remember from last week, when you become chronically sleep-restricted, you gradually lose your awareness of how your cognitive performance, mood, and abilities are sliding. To quote:
In one study, researchers found that “sleepiness ratings suggest that subjects were largely unaware of these increasing cognitive deficits, which may explain why the impact of chronic sleep restriction on waking cognitive functions is often assumed to be benign.” In other words, the subjects were doing very poorly, but not realizing it.
This is serious.
One of the most important things that you can do for your health is get a handle on work stress, and learn how to implement proper boundaries. This may buck the culture of your workplace, but remember – change starts with you. Here are two motivational quotes for inspiration:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Gandhi
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Don’t wait for your workplace to implement flexible time-off policies or for your CEO to ban e-mails after 7 PM. Instead, take responsibility for yourself and your wellbeing, and you will be surprised at how much agency you have over your own life.
Important side note – I’m not saying, “Tell off your boss,” “Quit your job,” or “Neglect your responsibilities.” We’re not talking about making the kind of changes that inspire a book deal – selling your house, throwing away your phones, and moving to Costa Rica, for example.
We’re going to keep it small.
Let’s start by…
Separating Fantasy from Reality
Most of our real-life over-work stems from our imagination. Our ability to fantasize is extremely powerful, and we often construct alternate realities, future projections, and confident assertions based only in our minds.
We often think we know what other people are thinking/feeling (we don’t), and we also think we can predict the future (we can’t).
I find that much of our over-work is prompted by a combination of fears of imaginary consequences (“My boss will kill me if I don’t do this!”) or projections of imaginary rewards (“My boss will see how hard I’ve been working if I turn this in by the morning!”).
These projections are (usually) wrong, motivated more by the “cognitive deficits” that occur because of stress than by reality or probability.
Strategy 1: Develop the ability to separate fantasy from reality, and sift “real” responsibilities and time-sensitive work from pointless, time-wasting “emergencies.”
If everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency.
Next, once you’ve decided which items on your to-do list will simply have to wait (so that you can, you know, do normal things like eat, sleep, and see your family on a regular basis), the next skill you have to build is tolerating discomfort.
It’s possible that not everyone will be thrilled with your new time management skills, especially if they do not come out at the top of the list.
However… it is also possible that no one will care or notice. Most of the discomfort that you will have to tolerate will come from within yourself, not from other people. Once, I avoided checking my phone for almost twelve hours because I was convinced that a boundary that I had set with a client would result in vitriol. Instead, when I checked my texts the next morning, she was effusively appreciative and reasonable.*
*So glad I developed an ulcer over that one.
Strategy 2: Develop the ability to tolerate discomfort, both from others and from within yourself. Your brain will, with practice, “catch up” to the fact that most of these emergencies are imagined, and that most of the discomfort is internal.
It will get easier over time, I promise.
Dealing with phone anxiety
If you were hooked up to an IV that released stress hormones into your bloodstream at frequent yet unpredictable intervals, wouldn’t you beg to have the needle removed?
Yet we pay thousands of dollars to not only carry smartphones in our pockets, but to also sync them up with smartwatches, so that in case we miss the vibration in our pockets, our texts, calls, and e-mails can flash up on our wrists.
What are we so afraid of missing? I truly feel that the only people who are entitled to this kind of up-to-the-moment notifications are surgeons on call. What reason do the rest of us have for being so infinitely connected?
Of course, we don’t actually have a need. Instead, the neural response that we receive from tech notifications is a well-documented phenomenon. Our phones stress us out, but we’re essentially addicted to them.
The irony is that when we are so constantly and completely plugged in, our worlds get smaller, not bigger. We don’t have the space for prolonged, thoughtful work; imagination; or reflection. Instead, if there is any emptiness, any room for wonder, a notification (work emergency! unhappy clients!) can rush in to fill the void.
When we are too plugged in, we suffer.
Strategy 3: Develop better strategies for tech management, like turning off sounds, vibrations, and home screen notifications; putting your phone away while you are working; putting your phone out of sight when spending time with loved ones; and setting established times to check and respond to e-mails.
It’s amazing how much you can forget about your phone when notifications aren’t on, your smartwatch isn’t synced up, and tech is out of sight.
Overcoming Your Own Objections
Getting a handle on stress is incredibly important, because we want to give ourselves room to have perspective. When we’re stressed and maxed out, we lose that ability to “zoom out.” Unfortunately, it’s when we are “zoomed in,” that we lose sight of the non-urgent (but extremely important) aspects of life, like relationship quality, long-term goals and planning, self-care, hopes and dreams, and health.
If you’re protesting with some version of “I can’t…” or “You don’t understand…”
Take a moment. Breathe. You don’t need to change everything at once. You can pick one thing at a time to experiment.
Micro-shifts could include:
- Not sleeping with phones in the bedroom
- Taking a tech-free break for 24 hours every weekend
- Setting an e-mail check time each day, and keeping e-mail turned off the rest of the day
- Un-syncing your smartwatch
- Picking a time to completely “unplug” each night, whether it’s 5 PM or 9 PM
- Setting tiny boundaries, like not replying to e-mails sent after 9 PM until the following day
- Not starting e-mail replies with, “Sorry for the delay,” when they’re sent within 24-48 hours
- Staying unplugged in the morning until after a peaceful morning ritual, like making coffee and reading the paper first
These are small things. You can try one. You can try five. The key is to be consistent in implementing these micro-shifts until you actually begin to believe and trust that your job will be okay, and that you will be ok, if you are not “on” 24/7.
You can do it!
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” Each week, I e-mail strategies to my mailing list on Monday. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!
Last week in “Sleep Hygiene: Healthy Sleep, Happy Body,” we talked about how improving your sleep can get you back on track – both mentally and physically – in just 48 hours. There were a few strategies for you to try. Let me know how your sleep has been going by answering the questions below:
- How many hours per night, on average, do you sleep? Did you observe your sleep this week?
- What “sleep hygiene” techniques did you try at night?
- Which strategies did you find to be the most effective?
- Which strategies did you find the easiest and most natural to implement?
- Which strategies feel too challenging?
- What’s your next “sleep goal”? What would you like to tackle?
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