When it comes to stress management, most of us probably focus more on how to de-stress and get rid of stress after it occurs to us. As important as it is to unplug and unwind, though, it’s also worth considering how to reduce your stress levels without sacrificing performance. In this regard, “stress-free productivity” isn’t an oxymoron: books have been written and entire systems have been devised around the idea of it.
The crux of the matter, though, is to be more intentional about how you work; keeping track of your negative habits at work and in life is critical. Indeed, a lot of us tend to engage in such habits without even being aware of the detrimental effects that it can have on our stress levels. To that end, here are four such bad habits you probably don’t realise are worsening your stress every day.
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Ah, the to-do list: the ubiquitous, universally acknowledged vanguard of task management and personal productivity. Most people probably can’t live without these. We tend to operate on the assumption that to-do lists make the world go round, since they’re the simplest way of allowing yourself to take stock of how much work you have to do (and perhaps also how proportionately stressed out you should be.)
The thing about to-do lists, though, is that it’s impossible to ever be done with one. Work never ends; it replenishes itself faster than you can blink. So your to-do lists never “end” either, and neither do your stress levels. The longer our to-do lists, the more acute our stress levels.
No matter what you do or where you go, you always know at the back of your mind that you have mountains of unfinished work to do. That alone gives you chronic unresolved stress that most of us have just accepted as a fact of life without realising that there’s a better way of doing things.
Clutter, clutter, clutter, here, there, everywhere. Thanks to the Marie Kondo fever that has swept across the world in recent years, the word “mess” has become almost taboo, one that’s associated with misery (as opposed to joy) more than anything else.
Hype notwithstanding, though, the Kondo Craze has a point: leaving clutter to build up around you (both physically and mentally) will ultimately leave you drowning in confusion and stress. Everyone has a vision of their lives that they want to lead; clutter can pile up so much so that this vision gets almost entirely obscured.
For one thing, research has shown that cluttered worksapces make for cluttered minds. Cluttered minds, in turn, lack mental clarity and focus, which stresses us out more than we’re aware of. We simply don’t set aside enough time to clear and make physical and mental space for ourselves on the regular.
Hold up: is it even possible to finish all your work every day without exception? Since we’re talking about knowledge work here, the answer is, probably not; again, the work never ends. This, however, isn’t the problem in and of itself. The real problem is that you’re stressing yourself out by not having a comprehensive system in place to track your progress on every last thing on your task lists (much like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology.)
It’s because of a psychological phenomenon called the Ziegarnik Effect: unfinished tasks tend to mentally preoccupy us disproportionately because we’re wired to remember them more so than tasks we’ve already finished. Most of us end the work day knowing we still have unfinished work, but we’re also probably not crystal clear about how exactly to see those tasks to completion. Consequently, we leave the office but bring our work stress home.
As it turns out, though, a good way to counter the Ziegarnik Effect is to have a concrete plan in place for how you’re going to complete your tasks. Simply put, as long as you know what the next action steps are for each unfinished task, you’ll be less stressed about it.
It goes without saying that it’s important to regulate the amount of time you spend on social media. By now, most people know that oversharing and overconsumption of social media can cause unnecessary stress through inducing the fear of missing out (FOMO.)
What’s less commonly known, though, is that social media usage notwithstanding, your phone habits themselves stress you out. For so many of us, our phones are the last things we use before we sleep, and the first things we reach for in the morning. While some may argue that it’s an inevitable aspect of modern life, research has shown that this alone can be detrimental to our stress levels.
For one thing, it’s been proven that using your phone within an hour of bedtime negatively impacts your sleep quality. Additionally, exposing your half-awake mind to the information overload often induced by phone-checking first the in the morning sets it up for constant distraction throughout the rest of the day. The more distracted you are, the less you get done, and the more stressed you end up.