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How to stay calm in a high-pressure world

How to stay calm in a high-pressure world

I’m encouraged to see a rise in employers offering staff benefits - such as flexible working – designed to enhance lifestyle, wellbeing and productivity. To my mind, the best benefits are those that give time and freedom back to employees, because that represents an opportunity to unplug from work.

It’s something we all need. It’s not merely the volume of work we all have in these lean and mean times that exacts a toll on us. Increased remits, economic uncertainty and constant distractions combine to create a psychologically-messy work environment where the demands on our attention create tremendous pressure. 

All this pressure has to go somewhere, often resulting in stress and ill-health. But there are small, simple-seeming actions you can take at an individual level to help you stay calm under pressure. Here are some of my favourite suggestions.

Identify your stress factors

Reading author Laura Berman Fortgang helped me to identify the stress factors that negatively impact on my day and productivity. When you know your own trigger factors, you can take steps to manage them. Speaking of which…

Restrict your inbox sessions (unless your role means you really can’t).

When I started to analyse my trigger factors, I soon realised that I get stressed by emails, and who doesn’t?!  A number of well-known studies have demonstrated just how much emails reduce productivity in the workplace. One, from University of California-Irvine, suggested it takes over 20 minutes to regain focus when we shift from deep concentration on a task to the distraction of an email, while a University of London study suggested we lose up to 10 IQ points when our work is continually distracted by emails and messages.

I can vouch for that: I’ve wasted plenty of time wondering whether I should thank people who have emailed me to thank me! Emails create a pressure similar to social media, where you feel obligated to acknowledge or respond to every message quickly.

I now spend a quiet hour per day going through my emails carefully to make sure I haven’t missed anything important. It’s more productive for me than flitting from one task to my inbox and back, and doubtless saves me hours of wasted focus. As a side benefit, it just so happens to get my brain firing and I often feel very productive after an hour of checking my emails.

Eat the frog                                                                             

A memorable phrase for a handy way to minimise the build-up of pressure. It means: if there’s a task you’d rather avoid, tackle it at the start of the day, before you’ve had time to worry about it and turn it into a cause of stress.

Get organised: make lists

It’s easy to feel like your work is spiralling beyond your control, even on a day-to-day level, and loss of control is a major stress trigger. It can be helpful to create a daily framework of essential tasks for each day: what do you really, really need to get done today or tomorrow? These are your core, must-do tasks. And in the spirit of eating the frog, the important things you’d rather avoid are the first things to do!

Planning sessions like this are often more effective if you can do them away from the distractions of your usual workspace. You’ll be less concerned about the next interruption, which means you’ll think more clearly. A lot of employers now promote hot-desking or use of breakout offices. If you can arrange a breakout workspace, even for half an hour a week, it can be a great opportunity to get organised.

Keep it clean

Taking some time to de-clutter your desk or drawers is a great way to relieve stress. Not only is the act of de-cluttering a tonic in its own right, but a tidy desk is a great source of calm. If you’re one of those people who starts with a clear desk in the morning and accumulates paper throughout the day, try having a routine clear-out at the end of each day, just after you’ve made your to-do list for tomorrow!

Keep the people-pleasing to a minimum

It probably feels counterintuitive trying not to please people when you’re an employee – after all, what are you doing if not trying to please your customers, line manager or the big boss? 

But there are limits to this. Trying to please all the people all the time is a sure-fire route to exhaustion, since it’s (sadly) rare that everyone within an organisation wants the same thing. 

Know who your important customers are in every task. You have to be effective, not keep everyone happy all the time. If someone asks you for something you can’t deliver through no fault of your own, you’re quite likely to find that stressful if you’re a people-pleaser. So rather than saying “no”, why not find ways to say “no” that don’t sound like “no”?

An example is, “I can do that, but not until next week because…”. Most people will know you have other work to do and are quite reasonable as long as they know the work will be done.

Obvious, but are we doing it?

Some more obvious strategies to help us keep calm are:

  • Get a decent night’s sleep.
  • Spend the first half an hour or so of the day working in a focused, quiet way.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat healthily.
  • Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water.
  • Keep commitments outside of work to a minimum when you know you’re going to be really busy – you’ll need rest and downtime.
  • Spend time around people who are positive, rather than doom-mongers.
  • When you begin to feel stressed – stop. Concentrate on breathing, taking even breaths until you feel calmer.