Before I sat down to write this article, I took a moment and did something unusual:
I pictured you — the reader — in my mind. You, my friend. I saw you in one of two settings:
1. You’re on your phone in the middle of the night
You’re frustrated and stressed and decided to Google something like “Why does work keep me up at night?”
2. You’re at work the day after a sleepless night
You’re bleary-eyed and annoyed with the world…and kind of wish you were home in bed right now.
Of course, there’s also a third possibility: You’re chipper and well-rested, and somehow reading this post anyway. I don’t know why you’re here — but welcome to the party!
Look, this isn’t an article about counting sheep or taking all of your vacation time. It’s about what to do when you’ve got work stress keeping you awake at night and you need real solutions.
There are lots of useful resources on the internet and elsewhere to help you with treating the effects of stress through exercises that calm the body and quiet the mind.
Those treatments are important, but you’re not going to find them here.
My specialty is helping my clients analyze the causes of their work-induced stress and implement strategies to nip the problem in the proverbial bud.
Now, a moderate amount of stress is a good thing — it’s not optimal to be completely stress-free. A moderate amount of stress, well-handled, activates creativity, motivates you to complete tasks, and helps you feel alert and alive.
But how do you keep it in that sweet spot where it improves performance but doesn’t keep you up at night?
You find out what your stress triggers are and implement strategies to mitigate them.
Here are three common trigger examples I hear frequently from my clients — along with a strategy to help you deal with the cause of the stress and finally get some much-needed rest.
Stress trigger #1: My colleagues depend on me…too much
Stress-busting strategy: Work yourself out of a job
The best career advice I was ever given was by my first boss, the brilliant Ellen Williams. She said to me, “Melissa, strive every day to work yourself out of this job.”
Ellen advised me to improve processes and empower others so much that my role would become obsolete, and I would be indispensable in positions above mine.
I followed her advice and was promoted five times in the seven years I worked at that company.
Are you indispensable in your current position? Then there you will stay — and your stress levels will continue to spike into the unhealthy ranges.
So work yourself out of a job the right way with these tips:
Write it down
Make sure that you are not the only one who knows how to do your job. Document your procedures.
Empower your team
Motivate and empower your colleagues to make decisions without you. If you’re the only one who can approve certain actions, then work stops whenever you are not there.
Contribute to skill-building
Cross-train others on the skills that you uniquely possess. Help a team member become the expert spreadsheet developer in the group. Create a training class. Mentor someone.
But sometimes it’s not about delegation. If you find yourself putting off your work just a little too often, you could be susceptible to this next trigger…
Stress trigger #2: I procrastinate
Stress-busting strategy: Make it harder to do so
I have a healthy relationship with procrastination and even use it from time to time to as a sweet reward.
However, sweet treats can rot your teeth if you enjoy them too often — and sweet as procrastination may be, it can do a real number on your quality of life (and sleep).
It’s human nature is to avoid unpleasant things, so don’t hate yourself when you do it. But if you can reduce procrastination, all the better.
Try these tips to cut back on your procrastination:
Make verbs a habit
Include a verb in every entry on your to-do list: Read, call, email, review, buy. If the to-do is action-oriented, it’s easier to get started on it.
Plan for productivity
Pay attention to your productive times of the day and plan your more cerebral tasks for those peak hours.
Plan a sweet reward
Include fun rewards on your to-do list and put off completing them until the less desirable tasks are done.
Focus on “TomorrowMe”
Focus on your future self. Procrastination is caused by an overemphasis on the “TodayMe” rather than the “TomorrowMe.” Think about TomorrowMe and be kind to him or her.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
With the Pomodoro Technique, you set a timer and work in 25-minute increments, then take a 5-minute break. You can do anything for 25 minutes, even that distasteful task that’s languishing on your list.
Leverage the procrastination loophole
You can use structured procrastination to take a task you’re avoiding and put it off on purpose…and in the meantime, do everything else on your to-do list.
Okay, but what if you’ve buckled down and there really is just too much to do? Believe me, it happens to the best of us…
Stress trigger #3 I have more to do than I can possibly get done.
Stress-busting strategy: Change your mindset — or your situation
Be realistic about what you can accomplish. One of the exercises that my clients find enlightening is when we create an accurate and comprehensive list of everything that they need to do between now and the foreseeable future.
They have an epiphany when they realize that they are set up for complete failure.
There is no way they can check off everything on this list in the expected timelines.
Here are tips for making the mindset shifts that you’ll need to work through this:
Make the tough choices
Prioritize making and managing your to-do list even if you “don’t have the time.” Without it, you cannot make a cogent business case about workload reallocation and might come across as a whiner.
Change your mindset
Understand that your to-do list is never empty. As things roll off, others roll on. The goal is not to empty it, but move things along the path to completion.
Use your calendar as the shield it’s meant to be. Your calendar should reflect your priorities.
Or course, there’s always one more option.
Sometimes it’s actually not so ridiculous to consider changing your job, industry, or even career.
I made this difficult choice nine years ago, and I’ve been sleeping a heck of a lot better ever since.
Remember, my bleary-eyed friend, the goal is not to live a life that is devoid of stress. That would be boring.
Work to stay in that sweet spot where you are focused and motivated to perform well.
And rest easy knowing that there are real, actionable steps you can take to get out of the misery zone and back into the performance zone.
Now, get some sleep.