Stress is something we all endure. It hovers over us like a specter, stealing joy and making us feel worthless. Furthermore, stress can cause physical damage to our bodies. But where does stress come from? Do you ever wonder why you are stressed? Is feeling stressed out simply a facet of modern life, or are we something doing wrong?
In working with clients, I’ve identified two major factors which influence our stress level.
- The time we have to accomplish a task.
- The competence we feel in performing a task.
Look at the matrix below. The horizontal axis represents the time we have to complete tasks. At one end is a task that is has no concrete due date, while at the other extreme is one that we need to complete imminently. The vertical axis represents the competence we feel in completing a task. At one end is a task we have done a million times and know we can easily complete, while at the other end is a task we have never done, and don’t have any idea how to begin.
Let’s look at the four possible combinations of these two elements, beginning with the least stressful and circling around to the most stressful.
HIGH TIME, HIGH COMPETENCE
This is the most relaxed of all situations, when we have plenty of time to accomplish a task which we know exactly how to do. Examples might include deleting photos from our phone, routine errands for items which aren’t desperately needed, or reading through trade publications to keep up to date on the latest developments. These are tasks that we know we can easily accomplish and for which there is no particular urgency for performing. The risk in this scenario is procrastination, as we often delay working on tasks for which there is no pressing deadline or accountability.
Suggested action: Implement a deadline so you don’t forget or lose track of the task. If you are unlikely to respect your self-imposed deadline, seek an accountability partner who will help you stay on track.
LOW TIME, HIGH COMPETENCE
Stress for this scenario is moderate. Jobs that fit here include anything which must be completed by a near-term deadline, but that don’t feel threatening or difficult – tasks that we have tackled many times before and know exactly how to do. Examples may be completing routine forms, folding the laundry, and running errands. These tasks need to get done in the near future, but if we just get “in the zone,” we know we can knock them out. The risk in this scenario is cutting it too close. The lack of anxiety we have about performing a chore can lead us to allocate insufficient time.
Suggested action: Get started. Set a time at which you will begin, and don’t allow yourself to delay.
HIGH TIME, LOW COMPETENCE
This is another moderately stressful scenario. In this case, we have plenty of time, but we may not know exactly how to proceed. Classic examples here would be long term projects in school, new assignments at work, or unexpected parenting challenges. Again, this is a situation at high risk for procrastination, as we tend to put off tasks that are uncomfortable.
Suggested action – Ask for help! Whenever we aren’t sure how to proceed, it is smart to seek out someone who knows what to do: a teacher, a parent, a colleague, a professional, or a friend can often give us ideas on how to begin. Taking even one small step forward will often lead to a logical next move, and eventually to completion. Furthermore, moving forward – even if it seems ever so slightly – is a huge stress reliever.
LOW TIME, LOW COMPETENCE
This scenario is highly stressful. The clock is ticking, something is due (or past due), and we have no idea how to get it done. Frequently, we end up here because we have procrastinated and now we are under the gun. Or perhaps we were dealt an unexpected life situation (e.g., illness, death, accident, etc.) which stole time out of our schedule. In some cases, an urgent need was simply dropped in our laps with not warning. The risk in this scenario is paralysis. We feel so overwhelmed that we freeze up and do nothing. We may turn to an escape or distraction rather than face the situation. Unfortunately, every minute we remain stuck adds to the time pressure, and therefore increases the stress.
Suggested action – Get help and get going. If you are hopelessly under water, begin by seeing if there is any way to give yourself more time. For instance, seek an extension or ask to reschedule. Next, identify resources who can help. When time is tight, the best course is often to hire a professional who has the knowledge and ability to swoop in and provide direction and support. Once you have a plan of action, make a schedule for getting it done (hour by hour, if necessary).
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Identifying why we are feeling stressed helps us more clearly see how best to move forward.
Do these four scenarios feel familiar? What tips do you have for minimizing stress under these circumstances?