THE BIG IDEA Using Stress to Achieve Positive Changes

Peninsula Team

June 01 2012

How many times do you hear people in the workplace discussing their stress levels and worrying about the amount of pressure they are under, whether it be deadlines to meet or their ever growing workloads?  If unmanaged, stress can have an enormously detrimental effect on people’s wellbeing, both mental and physical, and can reverberate negatively throughout their professional and personal lives.

But, stress doesn’t always need to be a negative thing. On the contrary, using stress to push yourself mentally, physically and intellectually can enable you to continue to develop as a human being.

Lingering in a comfort zone for too long often leads to apathy, lethargy and stagnation – whether it be in your personal relationships or professional career. In order to grow, you need a certain level of stress to help push you forward from your comfort zone to achieve more and attain more. And the transitional phases which accompany change can often be uncomfortable, frightening and stressful.

So if having some stress in your life can be a positive thing, then the issue is not the stress itself but dealing with stress and managing it appropriately. The key to using stress positively is to find a balance in your approach to work and in other areas of your life so that the stress is beneficial but not overwhelming.

Robin Sharma, a great hero of mine, has a checklist of things you can do to help harness the power of stress to help make positive adjustments to your life whilst minimising the detrimental effects of stress. One of his key tips is to really focus on the job in hand and not allow yourself to become distracted. By working in a really concentrated way in a ninety minute block, then giving yourself a break, Sharma believes you can devote your full attention to whatever task you are performing without becoming bored.  Apparently scientific research is now confirming that this is an ideal work to rest ratio.

Also Sharma recommends dealing with the task you least want to do first of all. Nothing is worse than the dread that fills us when approaching a task we don’t want to do, or the fear that we don’t have the capability to fulfil it. By dealing with it first when we have the most energy and attention, it’s off the list and off our minds freeing us up to deal with more pleasurable or less troublesome tasks thereafter. And if we find it is more difficult than anticipated, we have the time to seek help, undertake more research or gather the relevant information through the day to ensure we can complete it effectively.

To know which activities you need to do, and which need to come first, you need to plan your time effectively. Sharma advocates setting aside a regular time each week to prepare for the week ahead – to work out what needs doing both professionally and personally, prioritise your goals and tasks schedule in time for your activities in advance.

Regular, scheduled exercise is another of Sharma’s mantras. Even if it means getting up an hour earlier, he’s an advocate of at least one hour of exercise a day to counteract the negative impact of stress.

Certainly having the blood pumping harder and oxygenating your body can also improve your mental faculties and your overall energy levels.

Similarly he recommends drinking at least a litre of water when you get up in the morning and then more throughout the day whilst at your desk. Tests have proven that students who take water into exams with them perform better than those who don’t. Dehydration depletes the body and has a huge impact on concentration levels and memory, and if you’re thirsty, you’re already quite severely dehydrated, so keeping your water levels topped up can help your performance and generally makes you feel better.

Sharma also recommends we beware of “time vampires”. These are the things that eat into our day without our even noticing – the unsolicited telephone calls, junk emails, office gossip, unnecessary meetings and other distractions. He suggests not answering the phone or email whilst in “the zone” of your ninety minute working block so that you can achieve as much as possible within that time frame.

Obviously the nature of your work may make this unfeasible but if, for example, you need to produce a piece of written work, it can be a very helpful tactic to ignore technology and other external distractions whilst you focus on what you need to do and then attend to calls and email once your ninety minute block is complete in your next working block.

Similarly he suggests we “focus on the worthy.” By this he means, don’t waste your time on unnecessary tasks, on pleasing people for the sake of it or on doing things that don’t add value. As management guru Peter Drucker observed: "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all."

Finally it’s vital to look after yourself. Sharma recommends one day a week as a complete recovery day to rest and refuel. No emails, phone calls and zero work. If that doesn’t seem possible in your work environment, then perhaps you need to re-evaluate how you work and whether you are delegating adequately or have the right team around you. Ask yourself whether you are micro-managing too much and not trusting those around you to take responsibility. But try to have a day that takes you out of the work environment and allows you to do things just for you with your friends or family.

These ideas are in no way meant to diminish the terrible impact that stress can have on people when it isn’t managed properly or becomes all-consuming. The mental and physical implications of being under too much stress can be enormously negative leading to depression, physical illness and worse. However some of these ideas, implemented regularly and sensibly, may help alleviate stress before it becomes too great or may help to harness the positive energy of stress to enable to individual move forward and develop.

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