Control What You Can Control – A Stress Management Approach
Having worked for global consulting firms for most of my career has acclimated me to high-pressure situations. The common thread between consulting firms is that the time to produce results is short and the results expected are high. Meeting expectations is not good enough. Surpassing expectations while leading internal projects beyond your role description is the norm and can be stressful if you do not have a way to manage your goals, time, and energy against your work and life routines.
This piece describes what I do to recognize the stressors in my life and those around me to make choices that reduce stress-inducing triggers.
The pace and complexity of business within an evolving ecosystem of factors that have affected workers in almost every industry causes stress. Stress affects relationship dynamics, even within the most stable circumstances, that shift and demand attention in uncertain waves. Living up to the goals we have set for ourselves knowingly or unknowingly causes stress. All these things can bring us joy as well. The choice is yours.
Identify the root cause of stress, not just the symptoms
If you find that you are having difficulty balancing all of the factors in your life and are worried that your stress level is higher than you want it to be, then you need to learn what is causing the stress you need to alleviate. To be clear, some “stress” is ok. Acceptable stress for most people comes in the form of your desire to do well in an upcoming meeting or other situation where you want to be seen as performing to the best of your abilities. This desire to do well creates a positive and productive tension to focus so that you can do your best. It is not the destructive stress that clouds our mind, slows our pace, and saps our spirit causing anxiety and, over time, despair.
If you find that you are constantly working at a pace and in an environment where you need to push yourself and are having difficulty managing time and goals, be realistic. Ask yourself, “Do I enjoy this? Is this what I want to be doing? Does this work match my goals?” If you can say “yes” to all three, then you are living in the modern world where the speed of business combines with the intersection of factors beyond our realistic control. Enjoy the ride but be careful not to push yourself too hard to the point of feeling the effects of chronic stress.
If you find yourself feeling stressed because you are constantly pushing beyond what you are comfortable with or required to do, then you may need to make a change. Ask yourself, “How long have I been feeling these stressors? Is this temporary? If I do not make a change, will my stress levels get worse?” If you answered “yes” to all three questions, then it makes sense to look at the root cause of your stress.
The root cause of stress management is beyond the overlying and obvious symptoms that you see in your life.
You may have recently started working 65+ hours a week. If you enjoy your work, it is not necessarily the root cause of your stress. More likely, the root cause is because you have been working late for weeks, and the rest of your life is suffering. Common root cause stressors are less relationship involvement causing more squabbles, eating on the run and less time exercising causing lower energy, high blood pressure, and less sharpness, more drinking or other bad habits meant to destress causing less ability to focus during work and with those close to us.
Choose to manage stress root causes
Joining a world-class investment banking firm as a beginning analyst or being an aspiring doctor during their hospital internship phase requires a great deal of personal sacrifice. Very few, if any, enter into one of these jobs without knowing the time for their personal lives will be significantly reduced in service of the achievement they are seeking in the long term. For most other job roles, it is not so clear where the dividing line between work and home life starts and ends and what is appropriate for effective time management.
The one thing you can control is your ability to choose. Sometimes you may feel that you have no choice but to do “X” or “Y” to service something else. Before you decide you do not have a choice, make sure you are clear about what is most important to you before closing that door.
Sometimes called “primary choice” or “fundamental choice,” these are the elements in your life that most drive you. They are aligned with your values and your understanding of yourself. This is the place that gives those internal signals that you are making a decision or performing an action that does, or does, not match who you really are.
Change what you can change and create ways to deal with what you can’t
Making a fundamental lifestyle choice to change a pattern of behavior requires more than recognition and words. It requires choosing that which relates to something that is purposeful to you. You may be aware you feel stressed out by your job, but it does not mean you have to leave it. What other choices can you make about the way you: approach your job, interface with your manager and colleagues, and spend your time?
Think about what really matters to you and why. This approach reminds me of a conversation about fundamental, or otherwise described as primary choice, a colleague of mine had with a client.
The client, “Being able to choose whatever I want in my life is a ridiculous notion. If this is true, then my primary choice could be to have a Rolls Royce.”
My colleague responded, “Yes, that could be your choice.”
The client quickly retorted, “That is ridiculous.”
My colleague asked, “Why?”
The client’s tone became more serious as he said, “Because my kids need to go to college, there is the mortgage, and our lifestyle would suffer.”
My colleague’s respectful response was, “Now you know what your primary choices are in your life.”
Your DISC profile and stress
Your DISC profile can be used as a window into commonly related stressors. This is good to know concerning areas of your life that cause your stress levels to increase and to understand what your team or those close to you find stressful.
Common stressors by DISC personality type at work and home:
- “D” Dominant Personality - A lack of progress or movement in what you are looking to make happen or among those you work with often takes the form of finding yourself impatient or a feeling of "bumping into walls."
- “I” Influential Personality – A lack of communication between the people you rely on in your life may present itself in the form of a lack of control or certainty about the future due to feeling cut off from your networking lifeline.
- “S” Steady Personality – A lack of stability caused by too many changes at once often takes the form of getting knocked off course by a big change, or multiple small changes, that make it hard to determine the best way forward.
- “C” Conscientious Personality – A lack of a clear or well-understood approach to achieving a result.
The problem is not about change or altering course. The issue is moving forward without well-defined guidelines that enable clarity of how and where they are going for managing stress.
Behavior change takes time
My most recent job role was entirely virtual when I was not traveling for business. I was excited about the time saved in commuting, but I quickly learned some things that had been a part of my life had changed. My commute to work included a good deal of walking which I quickly missed in my new role. This exercise was part of my relieving stress and wellness goals, and now I had to refill it.
The choice I made was to get a treadmill. My first thought after I bought the treadmill was, “Is this going to become an expensive mistake that takes room up in my basement?” That would not be a strong reinforcer for starting a new behavior.
The difference from the treadmill becoming an unused nuisance to a wellness and stress management support tool was introducing new choices into my daily routine.
The treadmill represented a way to support choices I valued in my daily life, which did not make it easy, though. Walking to the train and around Boston was not the same as treadmill time, which required my recontextualizing time spent on the treadmill from just exercise to the de-stressor my other walks had been about. Using the period walking to incorporate work webinars, conference calls, learning, or the news meant that I was accomplishing multiple goals that fit my new daily routine.
Allow the new behavior to take hold
“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Rene Descartes1
Once a choice is made, the change in a routine based on the new commitment requires allowing time for it to take hold. Making choices to allow a new routine and lifestyle that reduces stress or removes the activities that brought on the stress are not completed immediately.
The initial changes and successes made allow you to build and continue over time. Changes to your routine often include missed days or reverting to old behaviors. When this happens, think of your primary choices and move forward again as many times as it takes to become routine.
The considered opinion is that after three weeks of new behavior, you no longer have to push as it becomes part of who you are. Remember to allow yourself the space to choose your own path to wellness and proper stress management. Best of luck to you!
Learn more about the role DISC behavioral analysis and our unique personality styles play in our ability to manage stress. Register today for our online "Managing Stress" course!
1More recently heard quoted by Neil Peart of the band Rush in the song "Freewill."