It’s the end of another work week, and it’s been an #eventful one to say the least. There are so many exciting things happening in both my personal and professional lives, and sometimes I feel as if there is so much going on that I’m unable to process all the fEeLs. When things get tense, I clam up, because I’m not (always) sure of how to productively deal with stress. It works the same way when things go really, really well — it’s as if I can’t feel joy in the way I know I should, because I’m hesitant to feel REALLY happy about professional and personal successes. I feel reluctant to shout for glee, because I’m waiting for the shit to hit the fan that will inevitably pop my perfect bubble of happiness. While a little stress is good because it makes me work harder, the problem with feeling overly stressed is that it’s easier to fall into a rut and be unproductive. This complicates the situation ten fold, because I start falling even more behind, and the cycle keeps perpetuating itself. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re your own worst enemy, because you’re perpetuating an already crappy situation, amirite??
I used to work in an office where there were 40 people running around when something went really well or badly, which provided me with a much-needed distraction. In times of intense stress (like if my team was REALLY behind on a deliverable for a client), we took comfort in the notion that we were all in it together. We would laugh manically into the wee hours of the morning as we plowed through work we knew had to get done (much like my senior year of design school). However, when you are a freelancer, you experience these moments of intense joy, happiness, and stress, more or less by yourself (or in a very small group). While I pride myself on being somewhat unshakable in terms of the things that really derail me mentally, having to go through some of these moments in a very small group is tough, because I’m not as far removed from the situation as I once was. The implications for something going wrong feel much more real.
While these moments can bum me out, I’ve learned that it’s essential to stay productive and focused, and fight my way though whatever is thrown at me. I’ve learned that some things are simply beyond my control, and it’s up to me to not let one wrench in a plan throw me off even further. I’ve picked up a few tricks from working at my old job that help me stay focused, lower my stress levels, and keep me moving forward. I’ve found that they are helpful for when I need a pick-me-up which can alleviate any tense situation and allow me to remain productive.
I realize that we don’t all experience stress the same way, the effects of which manifest differently in everyone. Some of my tips below might not resonate with everyone, but I can say that I’ve seen my fair share of stressful moments over the last four years working in a professional environment. I’ve learned how to best manage them, and here are six ways you can too.
Take a mini meditation break & focus on something calming.
This might sound insane, but it really worked for me (there is some research that shows it helps). I would get up out of my chair and take my phone with me for a quick walk outside. I would image search “travel”, “beaches”, “vacation” on Pinterest, and take a lap around the building as I looked through the photos. Looking at pictures of water always calms me down in some weird way, and I found it helpful to be able to mentally check myself out of where I was physically located, and into a head space that was far away. It made me feel refreshed, and reminded me of how small the situation I was currently in actually was. Although some situations are vastly more important than others and demand quick action, letting yourself get too wound up is unproductive, and won’t help you make better decisions.
Remember — the situation is only temporary.
Whatever stress I was feeling, whatever insane deadline was making me sweat with anxiety in an afternoon meeting, had to be diffused or else I would go insane. I had to learn how to put what I was going through into perspective, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. For me, if I was going through something intense at work, I would think about exciting events I had to look forward to. I would think about what I had going on over the weekend, what TV shows were coming up that I was excited to watch, or think about a dinner date with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.
Life cannot be solely consumed with work, and I’ve learned to compartmentalize the areas in which I feel the most stress so they don’t percolate through and dull the excitement I feel toward other things. I’ve learned the importance of dealing with something as it comes, doing your best work, and moving on. I’ve learned that I work more effectively if I don’t spend time wallowing in whatever predicament I’m currently in. Now, I find it’s more beneficial to do a post-mortem on situations that went seriously awry and learn how I can do better next time so the same mistakes don’t happen.
Put on music as loud as you want.
Listening to music always makes me feel better. When I’m down, I listen to songs that make me feel energized and ready to kick ass. Sometimes, the difference between a stressful day spent tearfully at your desk, and one where you stomp your into the office way, catwalk style and armed with a vat of iced coffee and an I Can Do This attitude, is a great playlist. At my old desk job, I always had a pair of headphones nearby that I could plop on and listen to loud music through. It helped me power through stress with ultra productivity and lifted my overall mood.
Fix yourself a drink that takes a few minutes to prepare.
Depending on the occasion, this drink was either a hot cup of tea, a cup of coffee, or a cocktail (hey, sometimes the occasion calls for it when I’m working from home!) When I would feel really stressed at work, I would get up from my desk, walk to the kitchen, fix a drink, focus on taking a few deeps breathes, and savor a few minutes by myself. Usually, I was able to hit the reset button mentally after five minutes, and I would come back to my desk more focused and think “okay, let’s do this.”
Focus on the things you have done.
Sometimes, it can be really easy to slip into a negative mindset and focus on all the things I still have to do. In moments where I feel myself slipping into neg thoughts, I like to think about everything I’ve accomplished over the week and what things I’ve gotten out of the way. It doesn’t always have to be work related either! I think about the family members I’ve called to chat with on the phone, a great meal my fiancé and I made, a project I’ve made real headway on — it all counts. I’ve found that when I shift my mentality to one that is positive, it’s easier to move forward on tasks that still need to get done.
Last but not least, prioritize. Too often, when I was stressed at my desk job and had 10 things on my plate, I would tackle the wrong items first because I wasn’t thinking clearly. I had to learn the hard way that procrastinating and subconsciously pushing out the thoughts of tasks whose deadlines were nearing, made life hectic. Nowadays, I like to prioritize all my tasks by how time sensitive they are. By completing tasks in the right order instead of feeling crushed by encroaching deadlines, I’ve become better at tackling things head on.
Handling stress is a learning process, and everyone’s methods for it are different. It’s important to understand what way you work best and optimizing your schedule, workflow, and productivity to match it. Things aren’t always going to go smoothly, and there are bound to be periods at work where we feel in over our heads, but we can try to preserve our mental health and well-being by taking a time to care for ourselves.