Optimize your day and get rid of Stress

What is stress and how to reduce its negative effects.

(10 min read)

This article is also available on Medium. Interested in Stress and Mental Health? Then please check out my guest blog for Inklusiv: Breaking the Mental Health Taboo in Organizations

nature, stress, Finland
Being in nature reduces stress. Just by looking at beautiful pictures of the Finnish nature calms me down. Picture by Jaakko Kahilaniemi. 

Brief History of Stress

No wonder that mental health issues are on the rise. I believe that the endless amount of distractions and way too many options we have are the cause of constant stress. Combine the number of distractions with the everchanging world and pressure from work and you have a good recipe for stress and burnouts.

But what is stress? And is it always bad? And how can we avoid stress?

Stress has played a big part in human evolution. It has helped us to survive situations were death has been near. Let’s go back in time and have a look at how stress has been useful.

The Good Stress

Imagine that you lived 10 000 years ago and that you’re gathering food for your tribe. You’re having a good time with your berry-picking squad, as you hear someone whisper “lion”. Now you feel threatened and magic starts to happen in your body. A chemical reaction called the stress response, also known as “fight-or-flight”, occurs. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, muscles tighten, breath quickens. You can feel the adrenalin pumping through your veins. Now, you’re ready for action.

What to do? You fight or run away. Running might be a better idea.

In this scenario, we can describe stress as something good. A harmful situation caused a temporary reaction in your body that saved your life. Your body performed better thanks to this reaction. Afterward, you’re fine, maybe a bit shocked, slightly worried about John. Anyhow your life will go on.

The Bad Stress

Now let’s use that same example in today’s world. There you are at the office working and having a good time with coworkers as your boss (the lion) walks in. The same chemical reaction occurs in your body. The lion gives you a task that would require one week to finish but still, he insists it must be done by tomorrow morning. At this point, the stress is causing your legs to shake so badly that it looks like your dancing. Sweat is pouring down your face so no one seems to notice the few tears that you drop.

As the lion walks away, your stress levels are not reduced. Now you must be in this stressful situation for a long time. And this is not healthy. Imagine that you do this day in and day out for months. Long-term stress is what causes major problems, not short-term.

Long-term stress can cause serious health problems, including mental health issues and physical issues. Depression, anxiety, heart diseases, and high blood pressures are only a few examples. The rule of thumb is that you should avoid it. Get rid of it. At least minimize it.

You are your Energy levels

You are your energy levels and time will consume your energy. The choices you make affect your energy levels. Only slept four hours last night? Will make it harder to accomplish all you want the next day. So, you decide to push yourself through the day.

See this as borrowing energy from the next day. And what happens when you don’t pay back that loan by recovering? You’ll face problems. Stress levels rise, mental and physical symptoms start to pop up.

What we want to understand is that we can impact our energy levels, which determine how many tasks we can accomplish in one day. When we decide to put our time and effort into whatever task it may be, it will consume that energy.

Your daily activities may include working for 8 hours, meeting family and friends, buying groceries, going to the gym, walking the dog and watching Netflix. If you try to do all these things on one day, it means it will require a lot of energy.

How can we then optimize our day to get rid of stress?

All tasks aren’t created equal

It all comes down to understanding that planning and prioritizing are simple things that must be done if you want to have some structure in your life. Sure, living at the Bahamas sipping Piña Colada’s and removing words like time, schedule and calendar from your vocabulary is a nice idea. But if that is not an option then you must understand that everything is not as important.

Be nice and understanding toward yourself. Do you expect someone else to work, go to the store, meet their friends, answer all messages, visit parents, walk the dog, read a book, answer emails at night and still have time for relaxation as to be at the top level the next day?

Hopefully, you don’t. And then you shouldn’t expect this from yourself either. Understand that everything consumes energy, whether it’s a task that you like or not. Pick the most important ones and do not worry about the rest.

Prioritize and remove friction from your life

This goes for your work and your life outside of work as well. You must prioritize. Remove friction from your daily tasks. Need to get work done? Focus only on the task at hand, don’t pick up your phone every third minute to check what’s new on Instagram. Need to buy groceries? Plan what you need for the week, buy everything at once instead of running to the store every day.

You have probably already heard of how inefficient multi-tasking is. Why are so many still doing it? Because we tend to listen too much to ourselves at the moment.

Think about this. Let’s say you have not organized your day at work. You start working on something that you assume is important when suddenly someone comes to you with another task. So, you change to the new task because you now feel that it must be more important. Then your brain tells you to have a break and that you could have a look at what’s new on Instagram. After several unnecessary interruptions and social media breaks, you realize that you have been jumping back and forth from different tasks and nothing is done. At least not with good quality. You might feel that you have been busy, but surely you have not been effective.

It’s weird how our brains can find ways to make us think that something can be pushed to the next day. Or that you can take a break, even if you should not. Or that you deserve that cake, even if you don’t.

How can you then decide what’s important and what’s not? How do you prioritize? What helps me is having a list of all my tasks. Then I categorize these tasks in two main categories that Cal Newport has introduced in his book ‘Deep Work’:

Different types of work

  • Deep work
  • Shallow work

Deep work tasks require me to focus and to push my cognitive capabilities to their limit. To be efficient I need to free myself from distractions. I focus on these tasks during the morning when I’m most efficient. I get a rewarding feeling as I finish them. The whole day can feel efficient just by knowing that I have already completed the most important tasks. Reduces stress significantly.

Tasks that are listed under Shallow work are not as important or they do not require that much focus. I usually accomplish these tasks after lunch and before I wrap up the day at the office. Emails and planning the next day are good examples of tasks that I list under Shallow work.

Habits make the world go around

Once you have prioritized your tasks, good habits are the ones that will help you accomplish them. Your body and brain love habits. When you get used to something it doesn’t require as much energy as something new. It’s easier to not get tricked by your brain telling you to do things you shouldn’t.

Putting your clothes on is a simple task for you. You don’t even think about it. But have a look at a little kid struggling to get all the muscles and little fingers to work together to get that sock on. It’s fantastic how many things must work together simultaneously for you to be able to accomplish such a task. But by training and doing this thousand of times you have a black-belt in putting socks on. You want to have a black-belt in doing your most important routines as well.

Here are some examples from my life. One of my habits is to plan my next day during the day before. I plan when I will do what and for how long. The next morning when I wake up, I don’t have to put energy into deciding what to do.

I plan the most important work for the morning hours. I try to work uninterrupted so that I only focus on the task at hand. I know which day I’m going to clean the house. I have restrictions on my phone so that my usage will not ruin my sleep. I go to bed at the same time every day. I plan which days I go to the gym. I have a routine so that I know exactly what exercises I’ll do on a specific day.

To improve your energy levels, it’s extremely important to exercise. We are made to move. If you’d like to know why and how you should make exercising an important part of your life, please read my article Working out as a Keystone Habit.

The Pomodoro technique

What has helped me in creating good habits are different tools. My favorite by far is the Pomodoro technique. You set a timer and work for 25 minutes. This is then followed by a 5-minute break. It helps me to get started with a task and ensuring that I remember to rest, reflect, and recover. For those 25 minutes, I focus on nothing else. And once you have started working with something it’s easy to continue.

Parkinson’s law

In the second place on my list of favorites, is Parkinson’s law. The law says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. I found this to be true in my case. The more time I have, the longer it takes me to start and finish a task. Hence, I create deadlines for myself. I challenge myself to finish something faster than planned. To be able to do this I have to focus and remove distractions. Following this law supports me in being more effective and productive. And these self-set deadlines don’t feel as stressful as the real ones. They don’t keep me up at night.

Learn to say No

The third one on the list is the habit of saying ‘no’. Many get stressed and feel pressure because we say ‘yes’ to all requests even if we don’t have time.

We say ‘yes’ because we want to support others and be helpful. We’re afraid that we offend someone by saying no. But ‘no’ should be your default answer. The reason? Well, if your following steps mentioned in this article, then you have prioritized your work, you know what is most important and what is not! You’ll have a profound understanding of the big picture and you know if you have time, and energy, to do what someone has requested from you.

Saying ‘no’ is not a synonym for being rude. Saying ‘no’ shows that you have organized your work and that you know what is important.

Find out habits that will make your day more effective. Remember that by following your habits you’ll be more effective, and it will reduce stress. Significantly.

Do not underestimate the importance of Sleep…

As stated at the beginning of this article we truly are our energy levels. And no matter how good you optimized your day you’ll not have good energy levels if you underestimate the importance of sleep. Make sleep priority number one. Target at least 8 hours a night for sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

Crash Course in Sleep

Sleep is driven by

· Accumulating sleep pressure (adenosine)

· Circadian rhythm (internal clock + melatonin).

Different stages of sleep — One sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes

· Dozing (NREM1) — 5% of Total sleep

· Light sleep (NREM2)– 50%

· Deep Sleep (NREM3, NREM4) — the most rejuvenating and restorative sleep stage. Muscle growth and removal of neurotoxins from the brain. Average 15–20%

· REM — Sleep memory consolidation, learning, creativity, appetite, mental health. Average 20–25%

· Having your eyes closed: a meditative state that increases the production of serotonin

Known issues related to sleep deprivation:

· Severely lowered emotional control, stress resilience, willpower, and focus.

· Significantly worsened ability to remember what you learned the prior day and worsened ability to learn the next day

· Sleep-deprived people are less able to read facial expressions

· Weight gain

· Mental health issues

Get your sleep together

Here are listed factors that are in my opinion the most important ones. Focus on these areas if you want to improve your sleep quality.

  1. Regularity — go to bed/wake up the same time every day.
  2. Exercise — it will improve your sleep quality
  3. Sleep in a cool, dark and quiet room
  4. Avoid blue light during evenings — it harms melatonin production
  5. Have a diet that supports sleep
  6. Measure — see if your making improvements

…and Nutrition

Having a healthy and good diet is essential if you want to optimize your energy levels. Lower energy levels will make your tasks seem harder and they will require more time. This will cause stress and that we want to avoid.

Find a diet that suits you. Reflect on your energy levels and study yourself. For me, a life-changer has been Intermitted Fasting which I have been doing for over two years. If you’d like to know more please read Intermittent Fasting — A Power Tool for Dieting and Wellbeing.

Put the effort in optimizing your day by organizing, prioritizing and creating good habits. Support your wellbeing with quality sleep and nutrition. Start to make a change now and see the rewards. I hope you all the best on your journey.