By Scott D. Miller, M.D., MBA
We spend a lot of our life balancing “things” — work and family, diet and exercise, time and money. We all want a stress-free life. Although stress is frequently unavoidable, at times it can be beneficial. The key is learning how to manage both good and bad stress. Although reaching our goals is often the best stress-reliever, focusing on the journey will not only allow us to face these challenges but also reap some rewards along the way.
Let’s first talk about “bad” stress. We’ve all been there — an impossible deadline at work, a family health issue, a personal financial crisis. Stress can lead to more stress, almost to the point that it can paralyze you. Over time, these stressors can lead to significant health issues. Not only does stress affect mental well-being, but the longstanding elevation of stress hormones can also contribute to your risk of cardiovascular events (stroke and heart attack), high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels and weight gain. These effects are compounded in those who have underlying medical conditions.
What is “good” stress?
Actually, bad stress can be good. In fact, the unavoidable stresses in life can prepare us for future challenges. However, this resiliency should be developed over time. You wouldn’t teach your child how to drive on the expressway during rush hour; those first few Sunday rides on the backroads are stressful enough for both of you. In this case, stress will provide protection by encouraging caution. Stress can also be a great motivator. An impending deadline can often be the best kick in the pants. Of course, moderate exercise and learning something new are the two best examples of good stress for the body and the mind. So, how do we manage stress?
Here are some tips:
- Make an inventory — The first step to solving any problem is assessing the situation. Sometimes you just need to write things down. Make a list of tasks and rank them. Are there any that you can eliminate or delegate? Can you assign them to a particular time of day or day of the week when you are best equipped to deal with these challenges?
- Add some good stress — The obvious answer here is to hit the gym. However, sometimes just focusing on some simpler items on our to-do list is enough to relieve the pressure.
- Practice mindfulness — Focus on being in the moment rather than reliving missed opportunities or worrying about future goals.
- Focus on your talents — Improving on our strengths is usually much easier and more beneficial than correcting our weaknesses. Look for those small wins. Extra points for tapping into your creative side.
- Re-evaluate — Are your goals realistic? Will they bring the satisfaction that you need? Is there an alternate journey to the same destination?
- Just take a break — Even if it is just 15 minutes per day, schedule time to do nothing. This time should be separate from time for fun activities (TV, web-surfing, eating) that can lead to procrastination and guilt.
- Find a partner — This person can serve as a guide to, or an escape from, life’s challenges.
- Help others — The resulting satisfaction can release a mood-enhancing hormone (oxytocin) that counteracts our body’s stress-inducing hormone (cortisol).
- Sleep — This one cuts both ways. Stress affects sleep quality, and sleep deprivation worsens stress. Make sleep a priority with a regular routine.
- Diet — What we eat influences our mood and energy levels. A healthy diet and plenty of water are essential for avoiding that stress rabbit hole.
- Exercise — A brisk walk can be just what the doctor ordered.
- Become more productive — No, this does not mean work harder. Rather, try to develop ways to produce more with less effort (see sidebar, “Tips for Improving Productivity”).
- Manage procrastination — We all procrastinate. Procrastination is like a credit card; it’s fun until you see the bill. Procrastination is all about fear. Will I do a good job? Will I be able to complete the task? Will I live up to my previous performance? When the deadline is fast approaching, these fears are overtaken by the fear of not finishing on time. Once you first realize that you are procrastinating, commit to just 10 minutes of work. Often, once you start a project, it becomes much easier to complete.
- Seek professional advice — Sometimes a therapist or a life coach is the best answer. However, if life seems insurmountable, contact your doctor immediately.
Just like a tightrope walker, the key to balance is avoiding extremes. Don’t confuse balance for the common piece of advice, “everything in moderation.” You wouldn’t drive 100 mph in your neighborhood, even if it was only occasionally. Look for my article on “The Healthy Road to Weight Loss for Men” in the next issue.
Tips for Improving Productivity
- Make three to-do lists — Sticky notes for tasks to be completed within an hour, a smartphone list for daily and weekly items, and a spreadsheet for projects and long-term goals.
- Schedule everything — The best to-do lists are ones that live on a calendar.
- Reserve your prime hour (or even 10 minutes) — We are usually most productive in the morning, especially for creative tasks.
- Create calendar blocks — Slices of time set aside for essential or recurring tasks (include one empty slot each day).
- Follow the 80:20 rule — 80% of work output comes from 20% of the effort (choose what you do wisely).
- Avoid perfectionism — An adequately completed task always trumps perfection in the making.
- Obey the 2-minute rule — If it will take less than two minutes, complete the task immediately.
- Recognize Parkinson’s Law — Work expands to the time that we allocate to it (don’t take all day for a one-hour task).
- Break large undertakings into smaller chunks — Then commit to shorter deadlines that are now more achievable.
- Go digital — Create, read and check off items anywhere (adds convenience and avoids redundancy).
- Go analog — Print your daily calendar so that you can modify it on the fly
- Delegate — The best person for the job is often someone else.
- Outsource — Since time is money, it’s certainly reasonable to pay for it.
- Automate — Those minutes add up when you eliminate repetitive tasks with email and document templates, word replacement shortcuts and specialty software.
- Plan tomorrow — Make this a nightly routine.
- Set weekly goals — A great start for a great week.
- Manage your environment — Gather the essential tools and eliminate time-killing distractions.
- Batch similar tasks — Consistent focus leads to efficiency.
- Do one thing — Commit to doing the one most important task each day. (That’s 250 valuable accomplishments each year!)
Scott D. Miller, M.D., MBA, is the Medical Director of Robotic Surgery at Wellstar North Fulton Hospital. He is a urologist with Wellstar Urology in Roswell and has practiced in Atlanta for over 20 years. Wellstar North Fulton Hospital offers the Know Your Heart Screening that can determine your risk of heart disease, stroke and other serious conditions. Call 770-956-STAR (7827) to learn more or schedule an appointment.
Wellstar North Fulton Hospital • 470.956.4230 • www.ScottDMillerMD.com