Controversial opinion time: I think stress – particularly stress in a work context – gets a really bad rap.
As I see it, there’s a big difference between stress as the body’s natural mental and physical responses to outside pressures – something which is, of itself, neither good or bad – and the stress-related illnesses that can be the consequence of excessive pressure. We hear a lot about the latter, and with good reason: according to the latest statistics from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, half a million people are living with workplace-related stress, anxiety and depression and stress accounts for 45% of all working days lost to ill-health. But we don’t hear that much about the former.
So here’s my somewhat shameful confession: I actually thrive on stress.
I realised quite early on that I need a good bit of stress to function. From essay and dissertation deadlines at school and university, through to articles, columns and even this blog post – if I’m to turn in my best work, I need to be chasing a deadline. I’ve always been happiest when I’ve picked up one project too many, so it’s no coincidence that I ended up in a career – or three – that revolves around turning in work, to a certain standard, at a certain time.
Which would be fine, if I didn’t also live with anxiety.
I read somewhere, while researching this post, that if stress is the body’s response to external pressure, anxiety can often be the response to that stress. Which means that, for me, staying happy and productive at work requires a constant balancing act – particularly as my anxiety is often at its worst when my head is empty of stress (yeah, it’s a rollercoaster). Too little stress can mean that I panic while too much, and for too long, can lead to burnout.
Here, then, are a few things that have helped me to make a success of stress.
1. Make a list
Yeah, obvious Lis is obvious. And also wanted to show off the new Kate Spade notebook I bought in Dubai.
This one is obvious for a reason though. When the thought of everything I have to do seems overwhelming and I have no idea where to begin, the answer is making a list: it gets everything out of my head, means I can see at a glance what is still to be done and allows me to prioritise. Plus, crossing things off as you accomplish them is a good visual aid. I like to take a Sunday or Monday to plot out what has to be done and when over the week ahead – and take first thing on Tuesday morning to do the same for the day job, once I’m back in the office.
2. Get a good night’s sleep
You know how some of the most successful people in human history claimed that they only slept for about four hours a night? Yeah, I am not one of those people. If I don’t get a good seven and a half hours a night (I’d prefer eight, since that green smiley face on my Fitbit app is a powerful motivator, but I’m also realistic) I get cranky, groggy and prone to headaches. I’m also a lot less able to cope with the stresses of a typical work day.
As the mattress company preferred by Serena Williams – who I dare say knows a thing or two about stress – Tempur has long promoted the role that good quality sleep plays in helping successful people to cope with stressful situations. Things like creating a cool, dark space free of distractions (yes, any excuse to go on about sleeping with my mobile phone outside of my bedroom again – trust me on this); winding down with a book, your bullet journal or a face mask before bed; and sticking to a proper bedtime even on weekends have all helped transform me from full-time insomniac to somebody who’s usually asleep within half an hour. And while it’s taken me 35 years to figure out why it’s important to invest in a good quality mattress or pillow rather than pick up the cheapest supermarket option, my brain and body now thanks me for it.
3. Find a hobby
As a legal journalist, arts journalist and blogger, I spent a lot of time staring at a computer. And so, for years, I’ve been convinced that the answer to my stress problems is to find a suitably creative, fulfilling hobby away from the computer, that I can really sink my teeth into as a way of switching off from the work day. I’ve tried – and, I believe, blogged about – a number of such pursuits over the years, usually involving aborted knitting projects I lose the love for when I realise how little time I have left by the time I get home, feed the cats and make the dinner…
…and then I realised: cooking is my hobby!
When my brain is buzzing after a busy day at the office, there are few things I love more than coming home, putting on a podcast or some music in the kitchen and throwing myself into preparing a tasty curry, chilli or bolognese from scratch. I’m not the world’s most adventurous cook, preparing to stick as closely as I can to recipes – although when you’re as fussy as this gal, you become adept at the odd substitution – but it allows me to wind down, away from a screen, with the added bonus of a useful, and tasty, end product. And when you’re preparing as much as you can from scratch, you know the food is going to be healthier than the equivalent pre-prepared or takeaway option.
4. Schedule do-nothing days
This wasn’t always an option for me – but now that I’m working part-time, with three days to dedicate to my blog and freelance commitments, I have a lot more time that I can use to properly switch off. Whether it’s sleeping late, a mid-afternoon bubble bath, a few hours with a good book or one of those two-movie cinema dates with myself I’ve been harping on about recently, the ability to take time for myself without beating myself up over all the work I’m not getting done has literally changed my life.
The flip-side of the need for sleep, proper breaks are an essential part of being a productive person in the world – something it’s very easy to forget, particularly when you’re working for yourself as a blogger or freelancer. I love my work, but I love it even more when I can return to it refreshed, refocused and re-energised – and, more often than not, bursting with new ideas.
This post is in conjunction with Tempur but all thoughts are my own.