man on his phone while walking outside

Simple Strategies to Conquer Workday Stress

By Stephanie Berryman
April 14, 2021

I don't know about you, but I have a to-do list longer than my arm most days. I used to rush from one thing to another all day long in a slightly panicked state. Then I learned these three supersimple strategies from neuroscientists. These strategies will help you recharge throughout every day so you're not constantly running on adrenaline. They'll also help you get way more done without all the stress.

Take a Break

It can feel counterintuitive to take a break when you are superbusy, but taking a break will help you be more productive every day and you'll finish your workday with enough energy left for your life. In fact, Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working writes that taking breaks can double productivity.

Research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., at Florida State University found that elite performers including musicians, athletes, and chess players who take a break every ninety minutes are the best performers. The reason is simple, say neuroscientists. Our abilities to practice self-control, to engage our decision-making capabilities, and to focus and concentrate are all in limited supply. We use them up. When you take a break, you recharge those abilities, so you are far more productive than if you power through without breaks.

I never used to take breaks. I'd always work through lunch. Even the idea of carving out downtime from my workday seemed ludicrous. But after reading the research, I started making time. I felt so much more relaxed and at ease throughout the day, just by taking quick 10-minute breaks every 90 minutes—and I got so much more done. Thanks to this practice, I was actually able to write my book Working Well over a period of six months while working full time. Breaks not only recharge your energy, they also allow your subconscious to do the work for you.

But remember, momentarily putting away your laptop only to stare at your phone is not exactly the kind of pause that refreshes. A true break requires you to get away from screens and stop thinking about work—try to get outside for a bit of fresh air, grab a glass of water, or do some stretches.

Box Breathing

Want a supersimple way to immediately decrease your stress and increase your energy? Take a deep breath. It's seriously that simple. When we're feeling stressed or anxious, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. As a result, we don't get enough oxygen through our bloodstream. Spending just one minute taking deep breaths will make you feel relaxed and focused.

Box Breathing is used by both special forces military units and yoga teachers, and it's magic. Using this technique, you inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and then hold your breath again for four seconds. Box breathing has instant stress-reducing qualities—I've used it while stuck in traffic, dealing with difficult children, before big presentations, and in moments when I'm highly stressed, and it immediately calms me down.

Kill Your Interruptions

You know what really causes you stress and eats up your time? Your email and phone notifications, not to mention your social-media habits. A study reported by Harvard Business Review found that the average employee checks email 74 times a day, while people touch their smartphones 2,617 times a day.

Regardless of where you fall on this scale, if you can change your email and social-media habits, you'll be way more relaxed and productive. Because when you're switching tasks all the time due to phone or email notifications popping up, you're losing up to 2.5 hours every day.

A study conducted by Gloria Mark, Ph.D., "found people switched activities on average of every three minutes and five seconds…. and it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the [initial] task."

Interruptions are not only costing us a lot of time—they're also causing us a lot of stress. Mark's study found that when people were interrupted, "they had higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure, and mental workload."

I think we can all relate to this. After I've spent an hour hopping from one task to the next, dealing with email notifications popping up, phone calls coming in, texts pinging, and my kids asking me questions all at once, I'm way more stressed out than if I'd spent an hour doing focused work with no interruptions.

Here are three simple ways to avoid the interruption trap:

1. Turn off all your computer notifications and commit to only checking email every 2 to 3 hours.

2. Work with your phone turned off and in a different room from you.

3. Set aside the first hour of your day (when your brain is the freshest) to work on your highest priority projects without interruption.

We are all racing around trying to get as much done as possible every day, but if you follow these tips, not only will you be way more relaxed at the end of the day, you'll get way more accomplished than you ever have before.

Stephanie Berryman is a leadership coach, consultant, and bestselling author. Her latest book is Working Well: Twelve Simple Strategies To Manage Stress and Increase Productivity.

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