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How to turn positive stress management into a habit

February 27, 2022
Borderless Leadership

Performing well under pressure at work will not miraculously occur simply because you have read about some stress management techniques. Practicing those techniques once or twice and seeing the positive effects may tempt you to consider the problem solved. But stress management is an ongoing effort, whether at work or outside of it.

Our response to stress, whether helpful or unhelpful, is habitual. The good news is that habits can be changed. The bad news is it requires practice and persistence, even when you’re not under pressure. That is the key to tapping into effective stress management: if you have not tried to develop the habit during less stressful times, you may create cognitive overload trying to develop them when stress is at its highest.

If you only try to navigate pressure when you are already on overload, nothing will change. In fact, the pressure will likely be increased. Habit replacement is crucial because we tend to rely on habits when stressed. Our body and mind naturally want to work as efficiently as possible. Habits are habits because they are predictable—they are the behavior that requires the least amount of mental or physical effort.

To develop the habit of performing well under pressure, there are three key steps to follow each and every day.

1. Remind yourself of the importance of habit replacement
Remind yourself of what you will gain from breaking the habit of mismanaged pressure. Keep in mind that we habitually respond to pressure in a non-optimal way because of its short-term payoff: we see that being under stress can help us get the job done.

Yet, over time, unmanaged stress often spirals out of control, lowering productivity in the long run and creating a need for greater recovery time. Specifically, remind yourself that when you channel the physiological boost associated with stress in a positive way, your productivity will increase, you will feel energized, and you will not require as much recovery time.

Make a list of how you would feel or what you would do if:

  • You were more productive at work
  • You had extra time to get things done
  • You had more energy
  • You were able to truly relax when finished with work for the day

Keep that list on hand as your personal reminder and motivation for replacing your negative stress management habits with more positive ones.

2. Use cueing to check-in and practice
Building cognitive habits requires a certain amount of self-awareness. You want to catch the symptoms of pressure, both physical and psychological, as early as possible.

Create one or more cues you will use throughout the day to check in on your stress levels. Use those cues for practice, whether you are under pressure or not.

One of the most effective habit-building techniques is to leverage routines we have already established. Adding onto pre-existing routines is much easier than creating new ones. So, make use of the common routines which are already a part of your workday:

  • Waiting time. When you’re waiting in traffic, in line, for a colleague to respond to your email, for the Zoom call to start—check in and practice breathing and mindfulness techniques instead of thinking about all the things you could be doing instead.
  • Transition time. There are so many moments of transition in our day that we usually speed through without any thought: walking to and from your car, before starting a new task, or when preparing for an important meeting. Take the opportunity to perform these tasks more mindfully.
  • Interruptions. Text notifications, email alerts, or someone poking their head into your office—all of these can be opportunities to practice a little deep breathing. Before responding to an unexpected interruption, take a moment for a deep breath or two.

3. Reward yourself for success
Most of us have the tendency to beat ourselves up for mismanaging stress or tension. We get caught up in the “I should…” narrative, ruminating on how we could have done things differently. But if being hard on ourselves were a way to change our behavior, it would have worked a long time ago.

The reality is, negative habits become habits because we actually get an immediate reward from them. Increased focus, heightened energy or excitement, and the tangible work products they produce are all rewards of our anxiety, even though the process may not necessarily “feel” good. We may hate to admit it, but we repeat behaviors that “get us something,” and typically will stop doing whatever is not rewarded.

The problem is that most of us, especially when under pressure, fail to consider larger, delayed rewards. Instead, we fall back on habit and choose the smaller, more immediate rewards. But if we stop and look at the bigger picture, the rewards of proper stress management far outweigh the immediate gratification of feeling that we are “getting the job done.” Not only will we get the job done, but we will produce higher-quality work and be ready to approach the next challenge more quickly.

Along with our personal reminders, it’s important to tap into that immediate reinforcement by replacing the short-term rewards of stress:

  • Keep track of your success. Simply keeping a visible tally of how many times you engage in mindfulness and positive stress management throughout the day can help boost your motivation.
  • Reflect on positive accomplishments every day. At the end of your workday, take a moment, breathe deep, and reflect on the positive things you accomplished, big or small. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to anxiety.
  • Practice self-praise. Sometimes it can feel awkward or disingenuous to engage in positive affirmations, but they don’t have to be complicated. Simply allowing yourself a moment to acknowledge, “Great job,” or “I’m on the ball today,” can do wonders.
  • Notice the way your body feels. Tune in to your body at the beginning and end of your workday and notice any differences. With practice, over time, you’ll probably notice that you feel a lot better.
  • Go ahead, treat yourself. Decide on a bite-sized, achievable stress management goal. For instance, engaging in mindfulness or deep breathing twice a day. Then, reward yourself for meeting that goal! It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. Allow yourself 20 minutes to catch up on your favorite podcast, learn something new on YouTube, or read a book you’ve been meaning to pick up.

By Bruce Tulgan


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