I recently listened to a Harvard Business Review podcast called “The Anxious Achievers.” (Wow, there’s a phrase I can relate to!) Besides loving the title of that program, I have been drawn to the idea that we need to change the way we think about managing our stress and anxiety.
Steve Cuss, author of “Managing Leadership Anxiety,” was the brilliant podcast guest, and he shared some fascinating insights about this topic. According to Steve, our struggles and anxiety are less about the amount of work we have or the challenges we face, and more about unmet expectations over time. This includes the expectations we place on ourselves—and the expectations we assume others have of us.
For example, we experience stress when we believe everything is urgent. All projects, big and small, seem to have a high priority. We also think it’s mandatory for us to be constantly plugged in and available. Our expectations are unreasonable, regardless of our workload. To be fair, this mindset might be the result of a demanding boss or your company’s culture, but the underlying drive usually comes from within us.
Another source of anxiety is the feeling that we need to keep up with every email that passes through our inbox. Status updates. Reports. Meeting recaps. Never-ending threads of conversations. This compulsion is fueled by the fear of being left out or not being able to speak intelligently about an issue in the next meeting. The fact is, we can’t possibly know everything about everything. Assuming that we can creates a sense of mental panic that haunts us.
This reminds me of a time last year when I was having lunch with my sister. After I shared with her the long list of tasks I needed to accomplish by the end of the month, she looked me in the eyes and asked a question that stopped me in my tracks.
“Sara, who told you all those things have to get done within the next 10 days?”
She made a great point. I run my own business, yet somehow I managed to give myself a stress-inducing and somewhat-arbitrary deadline. Now, don’t get me wrong, I worked in corporate long enough to know that we don’t always have a choice with our deadlines. But if you stop to think about how many unrealistic expectations you are placing on yourself, I’ll bet you discover that some of the anxiety you’re experiencing right now is self-inflicted.
The best way to respond is by considering what really drives your stress and anxiety. Do you need to get comfortable with aspects of your job that will always be unpredictable? Are you stuck in a loop of trying to be always-on, always-available, and always-informed? Figure out exactly what triggers the stress that gnaws away at the pit of your stomach, and determine what can change.
Getting more feedback from others can also be helpful in the process. Ask them what they really expect from you in terms of deliverables and deadlines. How much time and effort is required for a certain project? I had a colleague who used to establish parameters by asking a pre-qualifying question: Is this a beauty contest or can I give you raw numbers? She uncovered the exact requirements up front, allowing her to avoid wasting time and avoid unnecessary stress. Know the target, and fight the urge to go over the top.
As you enter this holiday season, I hope you’ll take some time to think about strategies for minimizing stress. (Go ahead…use the store-bought cookies for the cookie exchange. No one cares.) You have the opportunity to adopt a new mindset that will reduce anxiety in the year ahead and give you a professional edge. It’s all about managing your worry, not your workload.