“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” ― Mark Twain
Imagine going into a meeting only to find that your laptop battery is dead. You frantically look for your charger, which you have misplaced. After borrowing one, you turn on your machine. Six apps boot up, along with the 57 browser tabs you still had open (many of which are duplicates of the same webpage). Your computer's fan starts to spin loudly, and your laptop is hot to the touch. It’s trying with all it’s might to open up all those tabs but is struggling. At this point the meeting has started, and you are still just trying to find the Google Doc with the agenda. You and your computer can barely keep up.
Much like this person’s laptop, many people are stressed because they aren’t fully charged and are spinning on too many things at once. Their mind is distracted from a phone that won’t stop buzzing, and they can’t slow down and focus on the important things. Instead, we’d all like to be like the fully charged laptop that’s running at peak performance, with only the apps tabs open that are needed to focus.
While it feels like the modern workplace is designed to make us feel stress, I’m here to tell you that it is possible to work an engaging and challenging job, and still remain stress-free. Stress is not something I experience on an ongoing or regular basis at work. It’s not that I don’t deal with things that could be stressful, but I have spent a disproportionate amount of time learning about the factors that cause me stress, and have systematically eliminated them. I have outlined my approach below.
The first thing you need to learn is the hardest to accept: the only person who is in control of your stress level is you.
“But what about my horrible boss?” “What about my unreasonable deadlines and lack of resources?” Sure. These are all things that could trigger you to feel stress, but ultimately, the way you choose to respond to these situations is what causes you to feel stressed.
So, how can you systematically eliminate stress in your life? There are two main areas you need to adjust: behaviors and inputs. By adjusting what you do (behaviors) and what you consume (inputs) you can cultivate a state where you are in control of your stress level.
Here are the areas I will cover to help you eliminate stress:
“The primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, and exercise.” - Scott Adams
“Ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes work ethic, or toughness, or some other virtue—but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self-respect.” - Tim Ferriss
When someone tells me they are stressed, the first thing I ask them is “How is your sleep?” Getting a good night's sleep is one of the biggest factors contributing to your mood, energy level, and susceptibility to stress. Lack of sleep may even increase your chances of developing dementia.
It used to take me a minimum of two hours to fall asleep each night. Now I can fall asleep within 20 minutes and get a full 8 hours nightly.
Making the small changes below can scientifically improve your sleep. There’s a lot of information here, so I’ve listed the actionable changes, and have linked to the scientific explanations for reference.
- Sleep a full 7-8 hours nightly. Did you know that less than 1% of people can healthily function on 6 or less hours of sleep?
- Go to bed at the same time every night to build a consistent sleeping schedule.
- Sleep in a cold room at around 68 degrees F to maintain optimal body temperature for restful sleep.
- Have the right sleeping tools like a dark room, eye mask, and earplugs to minimize light and sound distraction.
- Stop using your TV, phone, and electronics at least 1 hour before bed. These devices are hyper-stimulating and the blue light they emit tricks your body into still thinking the sun is up.
- Don’t drink alcohol or eat a big meal within 2-3 hours of going to bed.
- Avoid intense or stress inducing conversations immediately before bed. They may impact your sleep and can even trigger bad dreams.
- Bonus: If you want to get “sciencey” about it, I highly recommend the Oura sleep tracking ring. It will give you an accurate picture of your sleep quality, and can help you see how all of the variables above impact your sleep.
These incremental changes combined have a profound impact on your body’s ability to deeply rest and recharge nightly.
Everyone's body is different, but a sedentary lifestyle is not good for anyone. You don’t have to be a marathon runner, but make sure you move your body every day. That could just mean going for a brisk walk every morning or walking to lunch. Finding small and creative ways to add movement into your daily routine will help you stay more fit.
If you want to get serious about your fitness, but lack the motivation, a personal trainer is a great solution. There are now great digital options where you can have a real life personal trainer who can instruct you remotely at times that are convenient to your lifestyle. I personally use the service called Future and it has been fantastic.
"You've got to be able to look at your thoughts on paper and discover what a fool you were.” - Ray Bradburry
One of the most personally impactful habits I have is journaling. I’ve kept a journal for over 10 years, and it has been invaluable.
First of all, writing in a journal on a daily basis helps you create a process for clarifying your thoughts. It also feels good to put your feelings onto the page. In a way, you are “releasing” them from your mind.
Perhaps most importantly, you can “time travel” back to previous points in your life by reading past journals. Penn Jillette reads his journal from one, five, and ten years ago each morning. A habit like this allows you to see how you’ve changed, and how you’ve stayed the same. Are you having the same issues that you were a year ago? Is the same person in your life causing you anxiety? Do you have the same desire to move cities, or quit your job? When you can see your past thoughts expressed on the page, you can realize truely how long you’ve been feeling any desires or negative emotions you’ve been experiencing. We often rationalize why it’s OK not to change a certain situation we are in, even though doing so could make our lives that much better. Being able to empathize with your past self makes it easier to make tough life decisions that will be best for you in the long term, even if they are challenging in the short term.
Learn to stop being so surprised. Were you surprised that someone didn’t use their blinker, and cut you off on the freeway? Were you surprised that the customer service experience for your phone company was horrible? Were you surprised that your coworker snapped at you? These are all commonplace occurrences, but many of us take great offense when we deal with these routine situations. Consider this quote from Marcus Aurelius’ journal:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” - Marcus Aurelius
When you learn to accept and expect that things won’t always go perfectly, you stop being so surprised and offended when they inevitably don’t. Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome. A position that had more responsibility and potential stress than any of us could contemplate. Yet he didn’t cast blame or anger towards others when they treated him in a non-ideal way. Rather, he expected it, reflected on it, and took it as an opportunity to remind himself to have compassion for others.
Let’s look at this another way. Imagine an abused animal you see at the shelter. It may not look you in the eye. It may keep its distance, and may try to bite you if you get too close. Yet you feel pity and compassion toward the animal. But when people are rude or unkind, we act as if their behavior is 100% in their control.
It certainly is hard to look at the world through this lens consistently, especially in the heat of the moment. Luckily, the centuries old practice of meditation can train us to do just that. Meditation is something I cover in more details in this article, but I’ve found it to be the most effective way to develop a more consistent state of mindfulness that can allow you handle situations without compulsive negative or angry reactions. A good start for learning meditation is the app called Headspace.
Spend time with people who give you energy. Spend time with people who fuel your passions and are optimistic about the future. Invest in the important relationships in your life. Give your friends a call. Make plans. Like you, they probably are looking for more social interaction, but have neglected to take the time to connect due to the everyday busyness of life.
One to the single biggest factors in those who live the longest, happiest lives is the amount of social and personal relationships they have. If you are not spending as much time with friends and family as you’d like, make it a high priority in your life, and notice how your overall happiness increases over time.
The things you choose not to consume should be considered just as much as the things you do consume. I’m not a nutritionist, but these are the common-sense diet changes that worked for me.
- Eliminate soda and sugary beverages from your diet.
- Drink lots of water and stay hydrated. Most people aren't getting enough water. Start each morning with a big glass of water, and continue staying hydrated throughout the day. (add a squeeze of lemon for an added health bonus)
- Cut out processed snacks and “junk foods” and replace with healthier snacks like veggies nuts, or just skip snacking entirely.
- Don’t eat a super heavy lunch. If you want to eat a big meal, have it for dinner when you’re done with work for the day and don’t mind feeling lethargic after the meal.
- Consider the impact that caffeine has on your anxiety levels. One of the biggest reducers of stress in my life over the last 6 years has been eliminating my daily cup of caffeinated coffee. I used to get a wave of anxiety around 1pm after lunch for seemingly no reason. I’ve since cut caffeine out of my diet, and poof, the issue went away. I’ve since learned in a DNA test that I have a predisposition to caffeine sensitivity. Caffeine can stay in your system upwards of six hours, so if you do consume caffeine, avoid use after 1pm. Even if you can fall asleep after drinking caffeine, that doesn’t mean you are still getting a quality night’s sleep. The Oura sleep ring mentioned above can help you test this.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts” - Marcus Aurelius
In the same way you need to be mindful of what food you consume, you should be mindful of the information you consume.
One of the most impactful things you can do is to turn off most notifications on your phone. Do you really need real time push notification about the latest political scandal pushed to your phone via 3 different news apps? By turning off notifications, you can take control back from your phone and can use it more intentionally. The only notifications I leave on are for messaging apps, transportation apps (Lyft & Airline Apps) and food delivery apps.
You should also take a hard look at the content you consume on the web or TV. Does hearing about the murder-suicide 60 miles away at 7am on the local news really sound like a great way to start your morning? Ideally, you can cut out most or all TV-based news coverage, and can opt for reading news that is published in a less real time manner once all the facts have come out.
At the beginning of this article, I claimed that YOU are the only variable that determines whether you feel stressed. I believe this to be true, however, like many things in life, there is a dichotomy to consider, illustrated by the parable below:
“A man moved near a river and, wanting to find a way to travel across the water, spent ten years forming a type of levitation that would allow him to float across it.
Buddha, who was preaching in town, was confronted by this man, who said, “Look master, look what I have achieved. I can walk across the water.”
And Buddha said, “Yeah, but the ferry only costs a nickel…"” - Terrance McKenna
Your goal is to be stress-free, not to solve every problem. Sometimes the path of least resistance is the most effective. All of these techniques I’ve mentioned will take time and dedication to implement in your daily life. They are well worth the effort. However, you may run across a situation where the the only way to effectively deal with the stress would take so much time and effort, that it isn’t worth it all. For instance, if you have an abusive boss or spouse, the best solution is not to develop a tolerance for the abuse, but to step away from the situation entirely. Use these tools wisely, and know when to spend 10 years learning to walk on water, or when to just pay 10 cents for the ferry.
There is no silver bullet for removing stress from your life. Rather, stress-free living is about intentionally crafting a lifestyle that puts you back in control of how you feel and react to the world around you. You can never control all of the external variables in life, and it’s important to accept that that is OK. The important thing is to acknowledge what you can control, and to deliberately take the steps to make the best of the things you cannot.
The next time you are feeling stressed, ask yourself: “How is my sleep?” “What have I been eating lately?” “Am I overreacting to this situation?”
If you decide to implement these lifestyle changes, make them intentionally, and note how your overall stress level and quality of life changes. Staying stress-free is a continual practice, not a one time antidote. Even when you notice your stress level improving, stay consistent with each of these practices. You never know when life will test you with a challenging situation; however, you can ensure that you have done everything in your power to be ready for it.