Are you in control, even when you’re stressed?
Most people I know would answer that with a “nope!”
Well, OK, sometimes… maybe.
A woman I know makes for an interesting case study. On the one hand, she makes more money than most of her colleagues (by far), is a hard worker with a say YES attitude, and has built a successful team and a unique business model in her industry. Someone to emulate, right?
She is the definition of a hot mess. In her defence, she has a few health challenges that flare up from time to time, but if that were the only mess factor, she would just be more human and still a kick-ass achiever. Which to be fair, she is!
BUT – she is trying to do WAAAAY too much herself instead of delegating to her team. She is consistently late to pretty much everything and never takes the time to sit and be present.
No one wants to be the one running in with their hair on fire (metaphorically), arriving later than everyone else, disrupting others, and probably being labeled a Drama Queen, Hot Mess, or Always Has To Be The Center Of Attention.
In her case, she is trying to please too many people and has far too much on her plate to do a great job with all of it. Can you relate?
Don’t be the one with their hair on fire!
As my friend Cheryl once said so memorably when we were talking about pet peeves, “I hate it when people come runnin’ in with their hair on fire!”
I’m sure my face clued her to my confusion, so she explained. “You know, when you have an appointment, and there is that person who arrives late, breathing fast and furious, rushing in, and everything is a swirl of disorganization, and they are totally disruptive for several minutes. It’s as if their hair is on fire and they’re freaking out. I can’t help but think Geez, get it together… right?”
I wholeheartedly agreed that it’s super annoying. (I also cringed inwardly because I had periods where I was rushing to get places all the time, barely on time, which made me stressed, and I’m sure I brought that energy into my appointments. Ugh.)
Since then, I’ve ensured that even if I am late to an appointment, I am as calm as possible, apologize genuinely once, and then settle in, fully present.
Fortunately, now I am fully present at my appointments (and very rarely late). I attribute this to a small collection of mindsets and habits that foster a sense of Relaxed Control.
I started calling it this several years ago when I was regularly a keynote speaker on the topic of time management. I knew that even some of my best tricks and recommendations would fall flat without a fundamental change of attitude.
I call it Relaxed Control
No, it’s not an oxymoron (like ‘jumbo shrimp’)! It sounds tricky, but it’s a much better, positive way to describe the opposite of stressed than ‘not stressed’.
A client of mine “Kathy” is a project leader in a large company. She came to me originally because she felt so unhappy about her work she wanted to talk about career options. However, in her case, another job was not the solution, so we went to work on some of the very things I’ll share with you here.
After a short time of working together, Kathy told me her husband commented about how much happier she was, and the more we talked she realized she didn’t have the Sunday blues any more. Her coworkers did not change, her boss did not change, and her work did not change much at all, but she did start working on projects she liked more and using her talents better for herself and for the company.
The main difference that caused Kathy’s stress level to dial way back was merely applying these mindsets and using these techniques. They are easy to apply immediately and, if you choose, will make a significant difference for you too.
1 – Identify your stressors
What’s the difference between managing stress and preventing stress? In our work, we are familiar with the differences between managing and preventing problems; we understand risk management and mitigation, and putting plans in place to resolve issues… so why not with our own stress?
Adopting the same approach will help you, but it all starts with identifying the sources of your stress. This is your first line of defence, to pinpoint your main causes of stress, which you may not be consciously aware of.
Generally, it’s far better to be strategic than to just accept what comes your way.
Take action now: Identify your top three stressors or your top three challenges that cause you stress.
Also, not just at work, consider your various environments. List out some tolerations, or things that you are putting up with from yourself, your life, or other people.
2 – Own your day
Who is responsible for the quality of your days?
You own your day, no one else can force you to feel a certain way or to do things that you don’t want to do. Yes, sometimes it feels like choosing the lesser of two bad options, but it is still a choice. So how do we strive for a more quality experience in work or life, especially on those days when we feel, well, maxed out?
If you approach the day with a sense of rushed frustration, saying something like, “Today is gonna be rough. I have so much to do; I have all these calls to make, multiple meetings, and a project manager who wants to talk later… Man, I’d really like to play hooky today, but I really can’t!” – a stressful day is guaranteed.
Owning your day, however, sounds like:
“Today I have a lot going on, and I want this to be a really great day! I may just close that deal, I have an opportunity to speak up in that meeting, and this afternoon I’m going to suggest at least one way I can add more value to the project, and I’m going to ask for support.”
3 – Decide what you want
Knowing what you want in life and working toward something specific that you want lessens your stress considerably.
Do you just get in your car and start driving aimlessly? NO. Before you get to the end of your street, you know your desired destination.
Strangely, most people don’t know what they want.
What are you working toward? Take a look at your calendar and your bank statement – this is where your time and money are going. Consider what you REALLY want in your life and work.
What do you want to be known for? What do you want to change over the next few weeks, months, years?
Like most people, I used to spend more time determining where to go for dinner or making out my shopping list than determining what to accomplish over the next year.
Determine the mission you are on right now; maybe it’s your career or a large project regarding your household or community. What are your passions? If you haven’t done so already, write down a primary goal, something specific enough so that you know when you succeeded and can celebrate. Something personally meaningful for YOU.
4 – Shine your mind
Just like a daily habit of brushing your teeth helps to maintain a healthy smile, the mind needs some daily mental hygiene too – in the form of clearing out negativity and setting expectations.
Because those who expect more good things experience more good things.
We all know at least something about the strength of the mind and the power of setting expectations. As Henry Ford summed it up: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Basically, when you expect the best from yourself and others, you’re more likely to speak and act in line with this expectation.
However, it’s astonishing to me that while many people acknowledge this as a universal truth, most of them act like what they think about doesn’t matter at all. Why? Maybe it’s the old ‘I-know-it-but-I-don’t-do-it’ thing. (OK, I’m guilty of that sometimes too!)
Being conscious of our thoughts and changing negative expectations to positive ones is easier said than done.
Maybe that’s because humans have an automatic negativity bias for survival. Essentially, we are wired to assume that rustling in the bush is a deadly predator – even when we know it’s probably a tiny bird foraging for seeds.
Those of us who are more happy, healthy, and more wealthy (as well as relaxed), work to overcome this negativity bias every day through simple habits.
Shifting our mindset doesn’t have to be a big production. We don’t have to be perfect at it. In fact, I’ve realized that ANY mental hygiene practice pays well in interesting ways. Also, the more often the practice, the deeper and wider the benefits.
5 – Focus better
Let’s talk about mindfulness.
Without building this mind muscle, you can’t have rock-solid focus.
I routinely recommend clients, friends, family – anyone who will listen really – try some form of meditation. The harder it feels, the more likely it is that you need it. I know, that’s a harsh truth, but is hopefully motivating!
If you are new to meditation or are coming back to it: Try 5 minutes of guided meditation daily. I like to combine my 5-15 minute meditation session with about 5-10 minutes of coffee sipping and calendar reviewing every morning. It took me years of attempts to create this daily habit, so don’t beat yourself up if it seems challenging.
Over the years, I’ve noticed even a short meditation or tapping session helps me be consistently calmer over time, and allows me to focus on other things more easily throughout the day. The juice from one 5-10 minute session can last me several days, maybe even a week. If I go longer than that, old patterns start to reemerge, like procrastinating, rushing, and ruminating.
Relaxed Control can be your new normal… if you choose to accept it
As I was writing this, I had to cut things short to get to a massage. As I situated myself face down on the table, I took a deep breath in and let out my tension and worries with a strong exhale, and I was ready to relax completely.
Relaxed control was still on my mind somewhat, and I was chatting with my masseuse at the beginning of the session. I admitted how grateful I am to have the ability to be present and relaxed now, when earlier in life, I was kind of a disaster and often difficult to be around. Now I am routinely more at peace. “It takes practice, but SO worth it!,” I said. She exclaimed, “Oh yeah!!”
What to remember
Every time you pause to gain control of your emotions and priorities, you can see what’s in front of you more clearly, and lessen stress chemicals in your body. This boosts your creativity for solving problems and allows you to take a fresher approach, or go do something else.
When you catch yourself saying things like, “he makes me mad!” or “I feel sick about it”, or “I never have enough time!” acknowledge that this is your own conditioned response.
When striving for a state of relaxed control, however, you acknowledge that your responses are always within your control (even if they seem to be at super-speed in the subconscious mind). Because these responses directly affect the level of stress you experience. With practice, you will have more intentional responses rather than conditioned reactions, and start to ooze relaxed control.
Avoiding stress and overwhelm is one of the 15 behavioral themes featured in my book, Lead With Moxie, which contains over 100 interviews with successful female business leaders. Get your copy from Amazon now.