When I first got my diagnosis, the doctor plainly informed me that I would have to make some serious changes in my life, both personally and professionally. After 22 years, stress finally caught up to me, and what used to be a minor inconvenience that I thought I had to endure to reach my goals was now agitating a life-long medical condition. I found out the hard way that stress is actually a big deal. Fortunately, reducing it is actually much simpler than you would think.
1. Seriously, just let them know
With that said, the much-needed process of reducing stress in our lives can still be a bit daunting. It is one thing to shoulder the responsibility quietly, and it is another thing entirely to advocate for your own needs to others. When my doctor told me to make changes, I realized that meant breaking the news to my supervisor. Now, if you’re like me, admitting to not having the capacity or ability to do something is very difficult. In my case, I want to be able to take on challenges and go above and beyond to help people out. All of a sudden, though, that was not always going to be an option.
I still remember the day, staring at the text message I had revised too many times, doubting whether or not I should hit “send.” I took a breath, and with one decisive movement of my thumb, the message was off into the air and on its way to my supervisor’s phone: I would not be able to take on that extra project, I would need more breaks throughout the day, and I would have to honor a limit for work. The three dots in reply lasted an eternity, and I braced for impact. Then the reply came: “I totally understand. That’s no problem at all!”
In this over-dramatic moment, I learned that people really are far more understanding than we give them credit for. We all know what it is like to be overwhelmed. We all have limits. And savvy executives know that a stressed employee will negatively affect the workplace. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that self-care happens, so we must break the mindset that admitting a need will mean you are failing or disappointing others. If, by chance, you do encounter someone who takes issue with your need to take care of yourself, then, honestly, that becomes their problem, not yours.
2. Prioritize your priorities
I won’t reiterate the importance of self-care. Most of us know it’s essential to prioritize and already strive to do so, but I would like to challenge you to reflect on the meaning of “prioritize.” Of course, some don’t even consider the need for self-care, but most see the need and do their best. The really advanced out there even try to make time for self-care every day. But there is one subtle change that both groups are missing.
My boss and I recently had a conversation about his daily practices and what self-care practically looks like for him. What he said was so simple, yet it struck me: He literally prioritizes it. It is the first thing he does in the morning, and self-care has an actual, non-negotiable spot on his calendar.
“Finding time” for self-care just isn’t enough for some of us. Other tasks will always come up, and taking care of personal needs will fade into the background. But truly prioritizing what matters most doesn’t have to be complicated. Think of something that will help you, and do it first thing in the morning. My personal practice is starting the day by sitting down with a cup of coffee, reading my Bible, and enjoying a time of quiet reflection before I even open my work computer.
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3. Take off and stay off
Another simple practice is already built-in to most jobs, but most don’t fully utilize its power. There is nothing revolutionary about actually taking your sick and vacation days. It is a practice I have had long before my diagnosis and one you will hear many experts promoting. Yet here I was, dealing with a heart condition agitated with stress. Had my vacation time not helped? Had my time off not made a difference? The thing is, I wasn’t vacationing or timing-off correctly.
Let me ask you: When you’re taking a personal day or on vacation, what’s going on with your phone? For me, the rhythmic buzz of my Slack or email notifications became a standard part of my coveted time off. I felt the need to make sure I was still up to date with everything that was going on at work. But checking in on work defeats the purpose of taking time off of work. I had to learn that things will happen without me, and that’s OK.
When you’re on vacation, be on vacation. Mute your notifications, and don’t log in to your email. Take an actual break from it all. A complete unplugging from work will allow you to be truly refreshed and hit the reset button. When this happens, you will be able to come back and tackle your to-do list with a new sense of energy and clarity.
One step at a time
Sometimes I read these tidy, three-step articles and feel the need to start doing everything to its fullest extent the very next day. But that’s just not realistic. Most of us have lived with stress as a reality for most of our lives, so changing the tides of our daily practices is no walk in the park. It’s something I’m still working on every day.
If you don’t start tomorrow off at 4 a.m. by drinking a spinach smoothie, doing a social media fast, and advocating for a new work schedule with your boss, you are not a failure. Embrace the journey and allow yourself to have setbacks. The most important thing is that you realize reducing stress is vital to your health and absolutely a worthy investment of your time. If you are making progress and introducing one new practice at a time, that’s exactly where you should be.