Welcome to the 2013 Work Year!
It is more or less impossible to be any kind of professional these days and not experience frequent bouts of intense stress. The difference between those who are successful and those who aren't is not whether or not you suffer from stress, but how you deal with it when you do. Here are nine scientifically-proven strategies for defeating stress whenever it strikes. (Source: HEIDIGRANT HALVORSON, HBR.)
1. Have self-compassion. Self-compassion, in essence, cutting yourself some slack.
2. Remember the "Big Picture." Anything you need or want to do can be thought of in more than one way. So when staying that extra hour at work at the end of an exhausting day is thought of as "helping my career" rather than "answering emails for 60 more minutes," you'll be much more likely to want to stay put and work hard.
3. Rely on routines. Reduce the number of decisions (tiring and stressful activity) you need to make by using routines. You need to focus your decision-making energy.
4. Take five (or ten) minutes to do something you find interesting. Keep these two very important points in mind: First, interesting is not the same thing as pleasant, fun, or relaxing (though they are certainly not mutually exclusive.) It needs to be interesting or it won't replenish your energy. Second, interesting does not have to mean effortless. Interest replenished energy showed that it did so even when the interesting task was difficult and required effort.
5. Add where and when to your to-do list. Do you have a to-do list? Deciding in advance when and where you will complete a task (e.g., "If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today") can double or triple your chances of actually doing it. So take the tasks on your to-do list, and add a specific when and where to each.
6. Use if-thens for positive self-talk. Another way to combat stress using if-then plans is to direct them at the experience of stress itself, rather than at its causes. For instance, "If I see lots of emails in my Inbox, then I will stay calm and relaxed," or, "If a deadline is approaching, then I will keep a cool head."
7. See your work in terms of progress, not perfection. A Get-Better mindset leads instead to self-comparison and a concern with making progress — how well are you doing today, compared with how you did yesterday, last month, or last year? (vs. be-good which you compare to others, causing stress). When you think about what you are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that you may make some mistakes along the way, you experience far less stress, and you stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.
8. Think about the progress that you've already made. It's the "small wins" that keep us going, particularly in the face of stressors.
9. Know whether optimism or defensive pessimism works for you. What's your motivational style, and is "staying positive" right for you? Some people think of their jobs as opportunities for achievement and accomplishment — they have what psychologists call a promotion focus. In the language of economics, promotion focus is all about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities. For others, doing a job well is about security, about not losing the positions they've worked so hard for. This prevention focus places the emphasis on avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing what feel you ought to do. In economic terms, it's about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you've got. Start by identifying your focus, and then embrace either the sunny outlook or the hearty skepticism that will reduce your stress and keep you performing at your best.