I was inspired to write this article when a friend sent me an article from KevinMD.com called “Confessions of a Burnt-Out Physician.”1 Having coached and interviewed many burned-out attorneys, and having experienced burnout myself, I’m keenly aware of the toll burnout takes on people who are trying to do good work in the world.
This story has stayed with me as I’ve gone on to work with other clients and companies that are striving to keep employees engaged. Most recently, my cousin, a critical-care nurse, told me that she did not have time to go to the bathroom even once during her entire 12-hour shift. My shock quickly faded once I realized that I had done the same thing as a busy attorney. There were many days when I didn’t eat, ate late in the day, or ignored my own personal needs in favor of billing more hours.
The way we work is broken when scores of talented people can’t attend to their basic human needs. Until the larger systemic issues are fixed, these and other stories continue to push me to create stress-relief strategies that can actually be incorporated into your super-hectic day. Here are seven such strategies to try when you have 10 minutes or less.
1) Strike a Pose
When you need a quick dose of confidence-on-the-go, strike a pose. Based on the work of Dr. Amy Cuddy, power posing involves literally putting yourself in a physical position of power, which then causes your brain to think in a more confident way.2
Whether you’re going through a challenging situation or just going about your day, Cuddy suggests the following activities to help you evoke confidence: keep your shoulders back and chest open; stand up straight; keep your feet grounded; if you talk on the phone a lot, use a headset and stretch while you’re talking; and combine power posing with daily routines.3
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2) Change Your Passwords
This is the only strategy I carried over from the first article, and I include it again because of the feedback I’ve received about it. A colleague told me that her teenage son is using it, and just today my husband switched his password to match a big goal he has for a new work position.
This strategy is powerful because it’s a form of priming – creating cues in your environment to prompt you to act in a certain way. The cue then gets cemented when you reenter your password over and over during the day. Why not make your password something that is going to help bring you closer to an important goal?
3) ARM Yourself with a “Stress Helps” Mindset
Being a flexible, accurate, and thorough thinker under stress and pressure is a foundational skill set for stress resilience; however, thinking traps, your core beliefs about your life experiences, and runaway thinking, or catastrophizing, can sabotage even the best intentions.
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention. Portions of this article previously appeared on Forbes.com.
Use the ARM technique from psychologist Alia Crum to build your “stress helps” mindset:4
Step 1: Acknowledge stress when you experience it – notice how and where it affects you physically.
Step 2: Recognize that the stress response is linked to something you care about. What is meaningful about this situation, and why does it matter to you?
Step 3: Make use of the heightened energy and focus that stress gives you.
4) STOP Stress
This mindfulness technique is great when you feel stuck, frustrated, or stressed out but must remain focused on a task. The steps are as follows:5
S: Stop. Literally, stop what you are doing and pay attention to how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.
T: Take a breath. Taking a quick breath or two helps you to re-center and refocus.
O: Observe. Take a mental note of where you feel tension in your muscles. Are your shoulders tight? Is your jaw clenched? What are you thinking, and are those thoughts productive or counterproductive?
P: Proceed. Now that you have a little additional information about the sources of stress in your environment, proceed with what you were doing. The goal is to go about your merry way, but in a more intentional and balanced way.
5) Maximize Your Decision Points
Do you ever feel swept along by your day? You can get yourself into cognitive trouble when you jump from task to task without giving any deliberate thought to what actually makes sense to do next. Recognizing your daily decision points allows you to choose how to spend your time – usually when a task ends or gets interrupted.6 You can even plan your decision points the evening before a particularly busy or stressful day.
6) Create a Gratitude Wall
This one is simple – create a designated space at work for people to write what they are thankful for. Some firms and organizations use a big dry-erase board, others have a space and ask people to pin sticky notes to it. The wall becomes a constant reminder of all of the things that are actually going right in your organization. You can also create a Gratitude Wall at home with your family.
7) Do a Five-minute Favor
This is a new spin on reciprocity that Dr. Adam Grant writes about in his book Give and Take.7 Rather than trade value back and forth with clients and colleagues, make it your goal to add value. Grant recalls a conversation he had with Adam Rifkin, who lives by the philosophy that, “You should be willing to do something that will take you five minutes or less for anybody.”
And who is Adam Rifkin? He’s a software programmer who has more LinkedIn connections to Fortune’s list of the most powerful people in the world than anyone else. He built those connections by giving – doing these five-minute favors for anyone who asked. Rifkin’s favorite favors are giving honest feedback and making an introduction for someone. Think of the ways you can help out your colleagues or family members in short doses.
Pick two or three strategies on this list that most resonate with you and try incorporating them into your day. I’d love to hear from you – what are some stress-relief strategies you use when you’re short on time?
1 Anonymous. Confessions of a Burnt-Out Physician (Dec. 22, 2014).
2 Dr. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk illustrating how your body language informs your confidence has been viewed more than 33 million times..
3 Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest Challenges (New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co. 2015).
4 Alia J. Crum, Peter Salovey & Shawn Achor, Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response, (last visited May 10, 2016).
5 Bob Stahl & Elisha Goldstein, A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications Inc., 2010).
6 Josh Davis, Two Awesome Hours (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2015).
7 Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014).