Flunked Stress Management

Earlier this year I took an 8 week stress management class and flunked it. I’m not proud. But at least I learned a lot about myself and about what it actually takes to change habits.

One of my goals in taking the course was to improve my sleep. I found out that this requires winding down in the evening instead of working until I drop. That I also needed to avoid stress-inducing work after dinner, and shut down all screens an hour before I get into bed each night at a specific target time. And that my night-time reading needs to be soothing, inspiring, or fun (no political diatribes).

For me, a major source of stress was the amount of work I was trying to finish each day. I found that . . .

My to-do list was killing me.

Unwinding in the evening isn’t easy. There’s always that one last thing (or 5) that I suddenly MUST take care of before bed. And some of these keep me up half the night. I tell myself that things will be SO MUCH BETTER if I go to bed having completed these tasks. In my head, part of “being a good person” has meant cleaning up emails and taking care of minutia.

Obsessing over the urgent has meant sacrificing what was actually important: my health, creativity, and priority projects.

Unfortunately, there are real consequences to this: in the stress class we got to hear just how much our poor sleep habits affect our health and life expectancy. It’s real:

The truth is there will always be more items on our to-do lists. But . . .

When we cheat ourselves of a good night’s sleep we lose out on our tomorrows.

Flunking the class made me realize just how much effort I’d need to make in order to reduce my stress and be able to sleep better. And in the months since the class ended my sleeping has improved—though I still need to work at it daily. Getting better sleep has required me to make a series of changes in how I manage my time and commitments. I’ve learned it’s not something you can “fix and forget”—for me it takes organizing each day with the end in mind.

Reduce stress and improve sleep to become the best version of yourself.

Over the past months, I’ve been noticing which changes seem to have the most impact—both for me and my clients. It’s not unlike teaching a master class: looking for the intervention that will unlock a series of other changes and create maximum improvement.

Here’s what I’ve found: there’s a deceptively small change that can have a domino effect, triggering changes that boost productivity, quality of life, and improve sleep habits.

What’s this miracle new habit (and the series of changes it can set in motion)?

Stop using your phone as your alarm clock.

Yep: go out and buy yourself an old school alarm clock (one with a sound you can stand).

At night, charge your phone in another room. Keep it out of site and sound range so you can . . .

Make your bedroom phone-free and screen-free

What will this do? It will force you to consciously choose when you go online each day. Instead of automatically checking messages, begin your day with a walk, with stretching, or meditation and then . . .

Do NOT go online until you’ve done your priority work.

The first work you do each day should be at least 45 minutes (more if you can manage it) of undistracted time on your priority project—whether this is practicing, composing, writing, or something else. Scheduling a daily priority “time block” will allow you to do your most important work with a relaxed and focused mind.

If doing this means you have to go to bed extra early so you can get up before everyone else to do your work, do it. Maybe practicing isn’t feasible early in the morning—but score study or using a practice mute are.

For me, working at 5 am was the only way I found to get my writing done. Otherwise, everything else I had to do crowded it out.

Making your priority work come first is worth it. I’ve had clients say that this specific schedule change alone improved the quality of their artistic output. It’s about investing in yourself, your creativity, your peace of mind. Try it for a week and see what happens. Let me know!

Keep your creative time distraction free

Doing creative work requires concentration. If you want to bring your best self and your best work to the world, you need to be fully present and focused.

Effective use of priority time requires turning your phone—and all your devices—completely OFF and putting them away. Not on vibrate, not on your music stand or in a pocket or strapped to your wrist, but OFF and out of sight—preferably in another room. No messaging, texting, emailing, or extra-curricular surfing during a designated time block. If needed, disconnect your computer from the internet. Real work requires being unplugged.

Addicted to our devices

Author and marketing consultant Simon Sinek, in a terrific talk, “Understanding the Game We’re In” points out our tell tale symptoms of addiction:

“1. You go out to eat with friends but keep your phone on the table and text with others during the meal. Here’s the problem: you can’t be fully present and engaged if you’re focused on your messages. What’s worse, your behavior says to the people you’re dining with that they’re not your top priority—not worth your full attention. If your device is always on the table at meals, you’re addicted.

2. If the last thing you do before sleeping and the first thing you do in the morning is check your messages, you’re addicted.

3. If you’re constantly checking messages throughout the day and regularly lose track of the hours you’ve spent online, you’re addicted.”

Social media addiction means that we’re all constantly distracting ourselves.

When we start the day by checking messages we feed our addiction: it sets us up to crave the distraction of checking messages all day long.

I know, I can hear your comments already: “But I need to check my messages first thing: there are all these people and projects I’m in charge of! And last minute schedule changes to schedules to solve! I’ve got colleagues and students who expect to be able to reach me!”

Here’s the deal: unless you’re an emergency room doctor, everything can wait until your designated time block is over. Nothing is going to explode if you don’t respond immediately. Designate specific times later in the day to check messages and stick to those.

Changing habits takes a committed effort. Isn’t reaching your potential worth it?

This week: Try it: don’t use you phone as your alarm at night and charge it in another room. When you get up, instead of checking messages, notice how you feel and what you have to be grateful for. Get going on your priority project work so that the rest of day is fueled by your creative energy and optimism.

Let me know how it goes: and post questions about managing stress in our free Facebook group.

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!


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