Editor’s note: This is the final in a series of four articles about stress management. Part 1 of this series was published on June 10, 2010.
“How’ve you been?”
It seems that lately, the response to this greeting elicits an honest answer of, “Busy!” rather than the customary, “I’m doing well.” Hectic days, full schedules and over commitments have become increasingly common; however, when one’s full schedule starts to become overwhelming, this can lead to chronic stress and illness.
Previous articles have discussed simple ways to relieve stress, such as taking the time to breathe, gentle stretches, physical activity and cultivating a positive attitude. The final article in this series takes a look at redesigning the way we use our time in order to avoid overloading our lives in the first place.
Many of us wish that we had more than 24 hours in a day to do everything we want or need to do. Since we only have a set amount of time, being able to manage it well is the key to leading a productive and healthy life while keeping chronic stress to a minimum.
Conventional time management strategies promote increased efficiency by doing more in less time. In some situations, this can work, but often times taking on too many commitments can actually be counterproductive.
Nancy Simpson, a counselor in Juneau, explained, “The more stressed we get, the more likely we are to make poor decisions that can throw us into a cycle of increasing problems.”
Chronic stress caused by over commitment and resulting exhaustion can result in physical illness, depression and anxiety.
One way to avoid becoming overwhelmed is to take on fewer commitments and to learn how to just say “no.” Simpson observes that women tend to have more difficulty saying “no” than men. Regardless of gender, people avoid saying “no” in order to not disappoint or anger the person making the request.
“The reverse is generally true,” Simpson said. “If you stand up for yourself, people will respect you.”
One of my best friends, Jenica, developed the skill of saying “no” after finding herself inundated by a wave of requests from her colleagues, roommates, family and friends. People kept coming to her for assistance because they knew she worked hard and did not turn anyone down, at first. This changed when she found herself so stressed that the quality of her work and her own health began to suffer.
“I needed to be known as the person who will say ‘no,’” she said.
She did not want others to take advantage of her because she was so willing to help. Instead, she wanted people to ask her to do tasks because they truly needed her assistance and expertise. By taking on fewer commitments, Jenica found that she could truly deliver the quality of work that was expected because she was not spreading her time and energy among too many projects.
To better manage time, Simpson recommends prioritizing commitments and focusing on the ones that are the most important. She also advises that people avoid judging themselves for what they do not have time to do or cannot do.
“Judgment leads to guilt, which leads to stress,” she explained.
Instead, Simpson encourages greater self-awareness to monitor stress levels.
“Check your stress levels several times a day on a 1-to-10 scale, 10 being the most stressed out,” she said. “If you are over a six, stop and take a few moments to breathe and relax your body.”
Self-awareness can prevent the vicious cycle of over commitment, exhaustion and burn-out.
“Patience and slowing down helps people make better choices, which leads them to better monitor their stress, which allows them to say no when overbooked, which allows relaxation,” Simpson said.
It makes sense that being relaxed and focused produces better results than being rushed and anxious.
Feeling stressed is a warning sign of imbalance. When we choose to ignore this personalized reminder, stress-induced illness and injury will eventually force us to slow down and correct the imbalance.
By mindfully designing our schedules with a realistic vision about our abilities and our available time, we can better dedicate ourselves to those commitments that are the most important. Having a schedule that is too jam-packed means that there is little room for unexpected occurrences. It helps to leave space in the calendar to allow for greater flexibility and time to deal with emergencies. It also opens up the possibility for taking advantage of unforeseen opportunities.
The world seems to be moving at a faster speed due to improved technology and instant communication capabilities. As a result, some people find themselves pressured to keep up.
“Our systems aren’t meant to be moving at high speeds all the time,” Simpson noted.
In the end, it is important to keep the perspective that technology is a tool for us humans to use, not the other way around.
A colleague and friend once told me, “There are a lot of great opportunities out there, but you can’t do everything.” Plain and simple, her words of wisdom remind us that while we cannot do it all, we can give our all to the few things we choose to do.
More tips can be found in an article on the website of the Mayo Clinic titled “When and How to Say No” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00039.
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.