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Is Stress Making Us Stupid? – Guest Blog

While researching my personal effectiveness program, and looking at the issues that make it hard for us to manage our time, I stumbled across a fairly lengthy - but very intriguing - research report about how stress impacts our ability to think and act.

Sustained stress can have a lasting, dulling effect on our intellect

When our bodies are producing high levels of stress hormones for long periods of time, there is a lasting, dulling effect on our intellect. So, not only is feeling stressed unpleasant, it’s bad for our brains in the long term. Tasks take us longer in the future than they did in the past. This reduced ability to ‘get things done’ adds to our feelings of time pressure.

Stress also affects our memory

When we are feeling stressed, our minds tend to focus on the ‘here and now’. Our brain finds it harder to find the information it needs to use in a pressure situation. It also takes a longer for our brains to retrieve knowledge we already have and apply it to the current situation. Again, high levels of stress make it much harder for our brains to cope with what we’re working on.

To our bodies, there’s no difference between work and home

No matter what the source of our stress is, the impact on our body the same. That’s why it’s so easy to let stress from work carry over into our home life. When we’re stressed, our Amygdala, (the home of the fight or flight mechanism in our brains), takes over. This is great if we need huge amounts of adrenaline to, for example, lift a car of someone. But it’s not very useful if we’re doing ‘thinking’ work.

When we have stress under control, our Pre-frontal Cortex is in the driving seat, and we’re using the brain’s ‘Executive Functioning’ centre properly. This is why getting our stress levels under control is so crucial to our personal effectiveness. When we are calm, our energy is applied to the task in front of us with maximum effect.

What creates stress in our lives?

When I work with people who are struggling to manage time, moderate to high amounts of stress is often part of the picture. The most common causes - or triggers - for stress they talk about are:

  • Working long hours for extended periods of time in an attempt to keep up
  • Constant deadline pressure and shorter timeframes with each passing year
  • Overflowing email inbox, feeling like they are getting further behind every day
  • Frequent interruptions, in terms of the time they take to deal with and time needed to refocus on what they were doing before being interrupted
  • Poor relationships with colleagues can contribute large amounts of stress to their day
  • Trying to do tasks that they’re not particularly skilled in, or properly set up to handle 

A small amount of stress is useful

The research also shows that a small amount of stress is useful for motivation and energy levels. Problem is, at moderate to high levels, our ability to perform is reduced. The other problem is that usually, we are the last person to notice when stress levels have risen to unproductive levels. It’s the people around us who notice our shoulders creeping slowly up towards our ears, or the snappish way we deal with an interruption.

It’s important that we build self-awareness skills when it comes to stress. If we are first to know, we can take action to head the issues off ‘at the pass’. The key to awareness of our stress levels is to build our own ‘dashboard’, taking note of the signals that we’re getting stressed. Things like;

  • Number of caffeine drinks we’re taking in, and how late in the day
  • Amount of sleep we’re getting
  • Breathing – how deep or shallow, how fast or slow
  • Quality of relationships with those around us, at work and at home

I don’t have time to deal with my stress...

When we feel too busy already, investing in a new approach can feel like yet another task. This is the key reason why traditional time management practices and strategies don’t work. The secret is to integrate into normal life a series of actions and techniques that will increase your effectiveness. Ideas that will help you focus better, so you’ll get through your work more quickly with fewer mistakes.

My top tips for getting stress under control and focusing your energy on what’s important are:

Write down your goals

  • As Lewis Carroll said, “if we don’t know where we are going, any road will take us there”. Spend an hour thinking through where you want to be in a month, a year, five years. Write down your goals. The simple act of writing them down helps embed them in our subconscious. Then it’s much easier to look at a task or activity and ask ourselves, “is this really important? will this help get me closer to my goals?”. If not, chances are you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Relax

  • Life is getting busier, our minds are being bombarded with more messages and input than ever before, (Facebook, Twitter, need I go on?). Without a relaxation routine, it all adds to a feeling of being overwhelmed. The key to relaxation is consistency. Download 10-15 minute guided meditation and get into the habit of doing it every day. Or take up yoga or another calming activity that brings your focus to your breathing. Getting more oxygen to our brains with deep, slow breathing increases our capacity to think clearly, make good decisions and trust our intuition.

Align tasks with the right time

  • Some of us wake up with a clear head, able to immediately think at our best. Others need to warm up a bit and find themselves coming to life around lunchtime. If you are an early riser, don’t waste your ‘hour of power’ first thing in the morning reading and responding to emails. Get onto the job you have on that you know will require some creative or innovative thinking.

Align tasks with the right people

  • Some tasks we know we’re not good at, but every week or month when they come around again, we’ve done nothing to get help from someone much better able to handle the job.

Getting stress under control can help make you more productive, effective and best of all, happier. If you have any thoughts you would like to add, please contribute them here.

 Geoff Nix is the director at Make Time Work. He has more than 26 years experience in business. Before creating the Make Time Work training program, Geoff's most recent role was in Marketing and general management at the Australian Institute of Management (NSW/ACT). Geoff has extensive experience across a range of industries, gained while working with some of Australia's leading organisations, such as Optus, IBM, Commonwealth Bank, Young & Rubicam and J. Walter Thompson. www.maketimework.com.au