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  • James Walton

Pursue the Right Kind of Stress

I was a disaster as an adult in college. My life motto was a lyric from Simon and Garfunkel's Only Living Boy in New York, "I've got nothing to do today but smile." I turned down a job opportunity because it would cut down on my time to play guitar in the park. I didn't want to have to do anything, so anytime something stressful showed up, I went camping.


My view of stress was misinformed. I thought any stress was wrong, so I constructed a life with a minimum of obligations.


I had no stress, but no meaningful impact either.


Of course, there is a negative side to stress. Too much stress and you lose perspective and over-index on worst-case scenarios. You make sub-optimal choices by trading long-term benefits for short-term relief.


The chronic maladies associated with elevated levels of stress occur because our brains cannot differentiate between actual stress (house fire) with perceived stress (demanding boss). We stay in elevated states of arousal as our bodies remain alert to threats that aren't there.


On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance looks like this:

So how do you find the balance between between me in college and stress-induced burnout?


1) Define the stakes: one of the best gifts you can give yourself is being clear on what the consequences of failure and the benefits of success are. What happens when you don't bring your best to work each day? Who suffers when you get behind? What do you stand to gain if you push through to completion? If you tend to be more relaxed about life, get clear on the cost of not fulfilling your potential.


2) Gain Perspective: is the thing you're facing going to be a big deal a year from now? Is the decision in front of you critical to your survival? Chances are it's not. Sometimes a bad decision is better than letting stress paralyze you into no decision. At least you can iterate on a bad decision and learn something new. If you tend to be more anxious about life, get clear on the likelihood of total disaster striking (it's low).


3) Name it: if you experience detrimental amounts of stress on a regular basis, slow down to name the particular sensation you feel. Is is a pain in your stomach? A headache? How intense on a scale of 1 to 10? Is it tied to particular person, place, memory, task, or project? Awareness of the pain is the first step to mitigating it.


How do you handle stress?