Dealing with stress

I have a very busy life. Which, don't get me wrong, I actually like.
But sometimes, I'm not going to lie, it gets a bit much. In a world (read western world) where burn-outs are currently at the top of the list of mental health issues, I am going to try and write down how I cope with all my responsibilities and how I get through my day, or my week.
Maybe you won’t be able to relate to my way of living, my way of solving things or my way of dealing with stress. That's perfectly fine! But maybe there are tips in here that could help you in some way. Or not, and that's okay too.

I know this is a long post. It will take you at least 5 minutes to get through. But it could help you in times when sh*t is hitting the fan, and you just get overwhelmed by life.

As for me? I hope it helps me to remember to keep practicing my own tips. Because it's easy to 'go off the rails' once in a while.

Throw away todo lists

One important thing that really helped me? Throwing away my to-do lists. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with starting your day at work and writing down everything that you need to get done that day.
But, when maintaining your to-do list becomes a to-do item itself, when it becomes another stress factor in your life, that's when it becomes a problem.

Jeff Atwood wrote a famous blog-post on this topic, it is really worth a read. 'todont'.

What is important?

If you have a (mental) to-do list that has more items on it than you can count, it is easy to lose track of items that are most pressing and those that are not (or less).
It is fair to say though that if it is important, if it really really matters, you'll remember to do it anyways. And if you don't, then you will eventually do it later on. Or not. And that's okay too.

I practice the art of za-zen meditation to get these things in order. Which is -off course- absolutely no help to you if you have no experience with meditation :). But, there is a kind of meditation you can do, right now, without any practice or experience. It's called the shower meditation!
Get in the shower, try to clear your mind as best as you can, and try to look with an open mind at what represents itself. And no matter what, when you get out of the shower, do that thing immediately.
Because -important or not- that is the thing that is giving you the most stress right now. You will feel so much better getting rid of it immediately!

Your calendar? Your friend!

In my day-to-day life, my calendar is probably my best friend when it comes to dealing with all the tasks and responsibilities that exist in my life. It is not really a to-do list as it contains almost only meetings -places I have to be, people I have to meet- and things that have to happen at a certain time. Like a deploy in production for example.

My calendar is color-coded to separate professional, personal and high-prio things. I have a star-rating system that tells me if I can move something if I have to (there are days on which I have to be at three places at the same time, which, even for me, has proven a bit difficult :)).
I keep only one agenda. If it is not in there, I will not do it.

So it is absolutely vital that I keep my calendar in order.
If you keep and treat it with respect, it will help you out. It will track items and dates, allowing you to focus on the important things: getting stuff done, instead of planning them.

One thing at a time

I can't stress this one enough. In my life I have more (professional and personal) responsibilities I can count. There are a lot of people counting on me to do things correctly and on time. That can get overwhelming. Sometimes really fast.

Can you relate? You should always try and protect yourself from a pile of stuff that need to get done. But if you do get stuck with one, you have to split things up.
Trust me, just take an item of the list and do that with you full focus. No matter how many other pressing items still need your attention. Just take of the first item off the list, complete it, then take the next one.

Multitasking? Don't! Don't start writing mails, whilst programming, whilst writing a blog post on the side. If you are trying to do multiple things at the same time, the result will always be the same.
You will get more stressed, you will get less satisfaction on completion of an item and you will most likely get a poorer result.
Trust me on this, you will never, ever do things faster.

So don't look at the pile as a mountain of which you will never ever reach the top. Just start climbing, one step at a time.

Don't forget the enjoyable

Even when I have a ton of stuff to do, inside the office or outside, I never forget to do things I enjoy. Like writing this blog-post for example. I could be doing a hundred other things that are more pressing right now. I have work lined up to the moon and back. But, I love to write, especially about topics that I hold dear. So I plan moments for it.

No matter how much work I have, how many social calls I have to make or other things I should be doing; I always make time to do things I love. Things that I enjoy. See people that I love. Which is ever so vital and yet so easy to forget!

The 20 minute rule

There will come a moment in your life when it all just gets to be too much. You look at that pile and just say, “I can't climb that top any more. I simply don't know where to start”. We all get there sometimes, it's perfectly normal.
If you aren’t able to turn that feeling you'll get very close to that point where burn-out becomes a real danger. When reading one email seems like a whole mountain to climb on its own. Things start to pile up, and you just get off the rails for a moment.

When my life starts to look like that, I immediately transform it and start to live by one rule, and one rule alone. The 20 minute rule.

The idea is simple. Maybe that's the things that makes it great and what makes it work. Once you find yourself lost in the state described above it is easy to start binge-watching series on Netflix, or lose yourself in books, or start gaming, or any other thing you do to take your mind of things. Until the problems go away on their own. Which -of course- they never do.

So, what you do is simple. If you want to watch a movie instead of doing the dishes, answering those emails, cleaning your home, or whatever; that's fine. Yes, you can!
But you do it for 20 minutes, and not a second more. Time it! Once that buzzer goes, it is absolutely vital that you listen to it and stop whatever you're doing. Stop it, and do something less enjoyable. Start with the thing that seems the least hard to do. Do that for 20 minutes. Once the buzzer goes, you can go back to watching television, or doing something else enjoyable. And you do that for... You guessed it, 20 minutes. And so on.
You don't have to do this for the whole evening. Just a couple of times is enough. You'll take care of the rest the next day.

This method works for a couple of reasons:

  • You get to do things that you feel like doing
  • You start doing things you ought to be doing. From the least hard to the hardest (eventually you'll run out of things to do :)).
  • Because you only allow yourself to do it for 20 minutes, starting something seems less extreme. You can say to yourself, I'll do it for just a while, and then that's over.
  • You break the cycle that eventually could lead to a burn-out.

It wouldn't be a rule if there weren't a couple of exceptions:

  • If you're doing something that is in the list: 'sport, diet, sleep, love, laugh', this rule does not apply. I would hate for you to stop a run, or call off an evening with friends; just because you read somewhere that you can only do it for 20 minutes. If it is something positive that helps you deal with stress and has a positive impact on your life. Do it!
  • If you are enjoying something that you didn't feel like doing at first, keep doing it until the fun wears of. An example? Say you have a pile of dishes you have to clean, but you just don't have the time, the energy or the mindset to do it. But, once your start doing them, you suddenly notice that they give you some kind of peace that you weren't expecting. Don't stop! That's what it is all about! Enjoying the little things in life! You can only enjoy them once you start doing them. That's what the rule does, it helps you start -and eventually enjoy- things!

Get help

Once the pile gets to big, once the 20 minute rule doesn't work any more, once you are in over your head; get help. I don't mean, go to a shrink and get labeled insane. I mean, go to a friend, talk about it. Hire or ask someone to clean with you. Delegate responsibilities. Tell people that you'll look at their mails as quickly as possible, but that you just don't have the time right now (which is helping yourself).

Needing help to get everything back in order? That is not a sign of weakness. In fact, in my book, that's a sign of strength and compassion for ones self.

So do it, if you need it!

We are but humans

A very wise man once said, 'if your compassion doesn't include yourself, it is incomplete'.. Which is a very strong and kind saying.

I myself am a perfectionist and kind of a control freak. I always set the bar insanely high. Failure? Simply not an option.
These character traits used to control my life. Until I met a meditation teacher who in his guided meditations -very annoyingly so- repeated the words: 'it's okay'. Hundreds of times in one session!
What was he trying to learn us? "Every feeling you have, every pain you experience, everything you are at that point in time -be it good or bad-; is okay. You have got to stop fighting these things in order to be able to surpass them".
I count this man among the wisest people I ever had the privilege to meet. He changed my life pretty radically.

That's what I try to do now, and, I guess, what you ought to do as well. When things don't go your way, when you missed a deadline, when you didn't get the job you were hoping for, when you have hundreds of mails you still need to answer, when your house is a mess and you just can't get yourself to clean it or when you do something stupid or experience a personal or professional loss or failure; don't beat yourself up over it. It's okay. We are but human.

You are not alone, we all experience it from time to time. Instead of taking yourself down every time, try being gentle, try being soft and kind. Be compassionate for yourself. Say 'it's okay'; these things have a natural way of working things out. Worrying, getting annoyed at yourself or others, will almost always make everything worse.

We are so good at remembering our mistakes and failures that we so easily forget our accomplishments and all those things that make us into the awesome persons we are..

I had a whole paragraph ready to end this post. But maybe this actually just says it all. It's easy to forget sometimes, but there is no nobler truth to be found, and no better ending for this post..

We are but human.

Who am I?

At the moment of writing I'm a Competence Manager, a technical specialist, a .NET consultant, a Project Manager, a co-founder of OWIC and a Windows Insider MVP.
I actively support multiple charities. I do volunteer work. I write blog posts, have a very big social network and I have a group of friends that are like family to me.

On top of that? I live alone. I am a vegetarian. So I have to take care of cooking meals, cleaning, personal hygiene, washing clothes. Those things all of us have to do, each day, on top of the work we do, whilst we live our lives ...

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