How to fight work-life stress

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Lately my “9 to 5” has been getting to me.

I work at a college–specifically a college focused on the entertainment industry.  NOTHING about that is life or death, or really should cause any kind of stress.  I work with great people, great students, and get to do really cool things.

But somewhere along the way, I started to let my to-do list overwhelm me.  I began putting unrealistic expectations on myself. I began to feel like I would never finish all the work I needed to do. And I let email become the measure of how “on top of things” I was– which meant I was barely keeping my head above water. My great “9 to 5” was causing me stupid amounts of stress and anxiety. That’s when I decided I’d had enough.

I was not going to let work cause me anxiety any longer.

That statement seems kind of ludicrous in our culture.

For one, we worship busyness.  So, if your work is stressful, you must be really important and have vital work to perform.  GAG ME.  Unless you are an ER surgeon, astronaut, or some other life and death job, your work should not stress you out.  If it does, it’s because you are letting it own you.  Your job doesn’t own you. You own your job.

Secondly, we act like anxiety and stress happen to us. But, my friends, it is a choice.  You can choose to react to situation in anxiety and stress, or you can choose to take a deep breath and figure out how to master it.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that with intentional, careful living, we can kick unnecessary anxiety and stress to the curb.

I haven’t mastered it, but this is how I’m practicing.

Identify what is actually causing you stress.

This may take you more time than you think.  It’s not everything at your job that’s causing you stress. There are specific things–specific triggers–and you have to be able to name them before you can combat them.  For me, there were two major triggers:  my “to do” list and my email.

1. MASTERING MY TO DO LIST

I don’t know how you keep track of your “to do” list at work, but mine was a running stream of consciousness in no-particular-order.  It was a one-sheet, brain dump of every task–big or small–that needed to get done.  Ever morning, I would spend the first few minutes of the day looking through the list and prioritizing what needed to get done, but the list was never done and it started to eat me alive.

Once I was able to pinpoint, that my “to do” list literally caused me anxiety, I knew I had to come up with a new plan of attack.

So, I got a paper planner.

When I was in college, I lived by the paper planner. Granted, we barely had electronic calendars at the point, but I couldn’t leave the house without my paper planner. It was my most important possession.

At the beginning of each semester, I would open my planner and put in every date of every assignment, exam, etc.  Then, I would go back and write in “begin studying for chemistry exam” one work before the exam date or “begin research on SOC 101 paper” one week before the paper was due. You get the idea. Now, I do the same thing for work.

I turned my never-ending, laundry list of “to dos” into short, strategic, daily lists.

I create deadlines for projects and work backwards, placing “to do” items on various days prior to to the due date.  When a random task comes to mind, instead of adding it to my old brain-dump list of never ending items, I look at my week (or sometimes month) and write it down on a specific day in my planner– depending on it’s urgency and the week’s work load. Once an item is written down, I no longer have to “worry” about it.  I don’t have to keep it in the back of mind, so I don’t forget it.  I know I will see it on the day I need to complete it.

I literally put into practice “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” with this technique!

2. Mastering my Email

I jumped to inbox zero.

I made the move to “inbox zero” about a year ago, and it truly changed my work life.  If an email is sitting in my inbox, it means it requires a response.  Otherwise, it’s archived or appropriately filed. I almost never have “zero” inbox, more like 5-7 inbox. Zero inbox isn’t a goal I have to meet, it’s a way for me to keep my email “worries” down to a minimum.

“But I need to leave that email in my inbox to remind me to follow up,” you might say.  That’s where my paper planner comes in.  If I need to follow up on an email, I flip 2-3 days over in my planner and write: “Follow up with…..” Done and done.

Every Friday @ 5pm, I remove my work email from my phone.

This was HUGE for me. I would let emails that came in over the weekend, totally stress me out.  I would start thinking about what I needed to do, the week ahead, etc. and it would rob me of all joy and relaxation over the weekend.  Once I realized this, again, I said “enough!”  Now, I simply remove my work email from my phone every Friday at 5pm until 8am on Monday morning. And you know what? The world goes on!

I removed badge notifications.

This is when things got really serious. It would be during the work day, I’d be in a meeting, and I’d take a quick glance at my phone.  The mail icon at the bottom of my iphone would have a bright red badge with some ungodly number.  IMMEDIATE PANIC.  My precious “inbox zero” already has 42 unread messages and it’s only been an hour!  I could feel the heat rising in my body. But is this something I “have to just deal with”? No! By recognizing the trigger, I can remove it! So, now, I no longer have that little red badge appear on my mail icon, and when I glance down at my phone to check the time, I am not immediately faced with the number of unread emails in my work inbox.  They will be there when I get back to my desk– causing me zero stress in the mean time.

3. Mastering my mind.

All of my anxiety stems from my restless mind. The practical steps I take with my “to do” list and email majorly help, but at the end of the day, I can’t just turn off the anxious thoughts, I have to replace them with Truth.  When I start to feel the stress rise, I remind myself of scripture.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

I have scripture taped around my desk, a Jesus Calling quote about trusting God with my to do list and daily tasks, and very recently bought these verse cards to continue replacing the lies in my head with God’s word.

After all, stress and anxiety at it’s root is always about me believing lies.  The lie that I’m in control, independent, in charge, and alone.  The lie that God isn’t there to help or doesn’t care.  The lie that my job, email, and tasks are more important than people, God, and His Kingdom.  I could go on.

So, identify your triggers, come up with a practical plan to combat them, but most importantly– remember to refute your the lies of anxiety and stress with God’s truth!

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