Conquer Your Stress with This Full-Day, Minute-by-Minute Game Plan
Men are raised with the pressure to perform—as fathers, as wage earners, as lovers. It's no wonder we fall into self-destructive cycles. Here's how to ease performance anxiety no matter when it strikes.
All men share a dream.
Okay, several dreams, but this story isn’t about yachts, Italian villas, or Jennifer Lawrence. This is about a different dream, one that’s far less glamorous and far more attainable: We wish, simply, for one day when everything goes right. The e-mail flood slows to a trickle, the kids shuffle quietly off to school without smearing peanut butter on the cat, and you make it home just in time for tip-off and Thai food. And all feels right with the world.
Perhaps lately that dream feels more and more distant. “The world is just more complicated now,” says Redford Williams, M.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University and author of Anger Kills. “We have more of everything—more e-mail, more spam, more traffic.” At the same time, we have less of the things we want—vacation days, bonus checks, Yankees tickets. And stress is more than just a drag on your everyday life. According to new research out of Quebec University, prolonged, work-related stress and anxiety can even increase your risk of developing cancer down the road.
While it may seem as if the world is out to get you, take solace: Stresses are universal, no matter what you do or where you live. Thankfully, so are the strategies for managing and conquering them, every second of the day. Here’s how—and for even more great stress-relieving measures, check out 25 Ways to Cheer Yourself Up This Winter, The 10 Best Vacation Destinations Right Now, and 25 Instant Ways to Be Happier.
You flail at the iPhone buzzing on the night-stand and groan. Don’t waste time smacking the snooze button: “For most of us, that’s counterproductive to waking refreshed,” says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and Technology. “People set their alarms to go off an hour in advance, and it wakes them every 10 minutes, fragmenting their sleep. It’s silly to chop up the last hour.” The relationship between stress and sleep is reciprocal, Rosenberg says, and fatigue makes coping with even minor stresses harder. “You won’t think as clearly, and decisions will come slower,” he says.
Here’s a smarter strategy: Sleep in as late as you can manage, but allow yourself a 15-minute buffer. Then use those minutes to let your mind wander, instead of dozing off. “You’re most likely to have that eureka moment when you’re unfocused and your brain’s frontal inhibitory mechanisms are at their weakest,” says Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University. “This is before coffee, when we think we’re at our groggiest, but that may be the best time for right-brain creative thoughts to emerge.” That lingering budget problem? Your brain could be whispering the answer—but you have to be listening.
Pull on your cross-trainers and turn on your Spotify. A brief morning run or HIIT session is rocket fuel to power you through the day. Researchers in Denmark found that people who exercise just two hours a week—that’s 17 minutes a day—are 61 percent less likely to feel stressed. “People who exercise prior to stressful encounters report lower spikes in blood pressure during the events because their blood vessels are relaxed,” says Rod Dishman, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia. Translation: Sweating during your run could mean that your boss will never see you sweat at work.
As you head to the shower, shift your focus to the day ahead. Start with major priorities: There’s the budget update with the boss at noon. Plus, the PowerPoint could use another coat of paint. After that you’re presenting to the associates—all 25 of them—and you handle public speaking about as well as J.D. Salinger did. Worse, your parents are coming tomorrow and the house looks like that hotel room from The Hangover.
These kinds of to-do lists might cause some stress in the short term, but they’re useful in the long run. “Having a lot to do creates a healthy sense of pressure to achieve more focus,” says Don Wetmore, J.D., founder of the Productivity Institute. Wetmore suggests overplanning your day by 50 percent. “A project tends to expand with the time allocated to it,” he says. “Give yourself one thing to do and it’ll take all day. But give yourself 12 things and you’ll get nine done.”
As for that presentation, start warding off your insecurities early. “Take 30 seconds to visualize three highlights of how you intend things to go,” says Jason Selk, the author of Executive Toughness. Do that three times a day for three days leading up to the event. “It’ll boost your self-confidence tremendously,” he says, “making your performance more likely to shine.”
Rouse the kids. Typically this is where your morning spirals away with all the predictability of a Homeland episode. One reason? You’re doing too much. “Parents tend to act like a cross between a sherpa, a butler, an ATM, the secret police, and a talent agent,” says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a B-Minus. “We do things for very capable, competent kids because it works better in the short run. But it deprives kids of developing their own sense of responsibility.”
Mogel suggests building military-style regimentation into your morning and evening routines. Assign the kids all the duties they can handle. “It should be all business,” she says, “with everyone taking care of what they’re developmentally and physically capable of.” Before bed, have the kids pick out tomorrow’s outfits, pack their bags, and leave their stuff by the door. You’ll not only ensure a smooth morning but also teach them a lesson in self-reliance.
When your morning still goes off the rails—the milk spills, someone ate the last banana, the left shoe is on the right foot—try to keep perspective. “Things that annoy you now will become part of family lore,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of The Case for the Only Child. “Looking ahead to a less stressful period can help reduce the stress you feel in the moment.”
You race to the train station only to find that the express is still eight stops away. You could curse the system, the conductor, the mayor, the commander-in-chief—but that won’t move the wheels any faster. “Stress is caused by expectations on one level and reality on the other,” Wetmore says. “When your expectations fall short of reality, you feel stress.”
There are three ways to deal: “You can fix it, change your attitude, or leave it,” he says. Can’t fix the train’s sluggishness? Move on. “We all have a list of secondarily important things to take care of,” says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “Delays like these are a great time to make that call to your mother you’ve been putting off.”
If Mom won’t appreciate an 8 a.m. wake-up call, use the time to prioritize your day remotely. Allen leaves himself reminders using Talk Scribe (http://talkscribe.com), which translates messages into e-mails and dumps them into your inbox. Wetmore also recommends college lectures on YouTube to keep your mind occupied and your temper steady. “The average college course is about 35 classroom hours,” he says. “With all the time you spend commuting, you can give yourself a bachelor’s degree in self-studies or learn a foreign language.”
As you settle into the office, your inbox runneth over. Here’s a quick way to manage those endless mini-requests: “If you can complete the task in two minutes or less, do it right away,” says Allen. Otherwise, save it until you’ve had a chance to move the critical assignments out of the way.
Take strategic 15-minute breaks throughout the day to rip through your lengthier replies. Click on Pandora to ease the slog: Researchers at the University of Windsor found that people who listened to their favorite music felt more positive and did better on tasks that required creative input.
While your colleagues mainline their lattes, start brewing something caffeinated but also calming. In a British study, people who drank four cups of black tea throughout the day experienced a 47 percent decrease in cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. And in the morning, stress can come from all directions—whether it’s a colleague who shanked a presentation or a barrage of “what do you think?” e-mails.
In fact, with staffs leaner, everyone needs help and you want to be supportive. But a too-agreeable reputation could lead to your downfall. Build respect for your time. “Don’t give a quick ‘yes’ to anything,” says Marty Seldman, Ph.D., author of Survival of the Savvy. “People always lowball the time a task will take. Suddenly you’re overcommitted.” Instead, practice the art of the “soft no,” says Seldman. “Say, ‘I don’t have time to commit to this, but let’s grab lunch and I’ll tell you what I’d do.” You’ll come across as supportive and keep your schedule unscathed.
You’re cruising along, wrapping up the budget report due to the boss within the hour. Messages are piling up in your inbox, but resist the urge to click. An interruption costs you an average of 23 minutes before you return to the original task, a University of California study found. In fact, the researchers say, temporarily cutting yourself off from e-mail can significantly reduce stress and hone your focus. If the lure of all those unopened digital envelopes proves too hard to resist, walk away—literally. “Work somewhere else,” says Allen. “Sit in an empty conference room where you can disconnect, and people will have a harder time hunting you down. Changing your environment may be the best thing you can do.”
The fast-food joint next door may tempt you to unhinge your jaw around a triple-decker cheeseburger, but resist the urge to gorge. Go with a lighter option, like Thai; the last thing you want is a belly full of regret during your presentation. No, don’t punish yourself with a lunch of shaved raw cabbage. Control your carbs; don’t eliminate them.
“Carbohydrates cause the brain to release the antianxiety elixir serotonin,” says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The Six Pillars of Nutrition. “But too much sends your blood sugar on a roller-coaster ride, raising your risk of an energy crash.”
Roussell recommends combining whole grain, fiber-rich carbs—brown rice or beans, for example—with lean protein like turkey, shrimp, or a tri-tip steak. “The protein helps stabilize your blood sugar, ensuring that you cruise through the rest of the day with ample energy.” Best of all, you can feel free to reward your sound decisions with Ghirardelli’s finest: Dark chocolate reduces anxiety and stress-hormone levels. A serving of just under 2 ounces should do the trick.
You’re giving your boss a preview of the presentation. If he senses that you clicked “save and print” just seconds ago, he’s doing an Oscar-worthy job of hiding it. Your projections are sound, you’ve hit the targets—he’s damn impressed. Then he drops the bomb: Could you maybe tick up those revenue goals another 15 percent by June? The competitor in you might be quick to rally—but check your enthusiasm. A more modest target might help you in the long run. “Manage expectations early on. That way you won’t overcommit, do tons of work, and still wind up with disappointing results,” Seldman says. If you think the true situation isn’t so optimistic, set the bar lower. It’s better to exceed modest goals than to fall short of overly aggressive ones. People are happier with unexpected good news than with predictable success, say researchers at the University of Florida.
The specter of 25 people staring blankly across a conference-room table makes you want to heave your brown rice. Try this for an instant shot of confidence: “Just before you present, breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for seven,” says Selk. “It’ll keep your heart rate under control and your mind working effectively.” But you’ll need more than a steady heart to fire up your colleagues about a bunch of PowerPoint slides.
“The question to ask yourself is, ‘What is it about the budget that I actually do care about?’ ” says Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. “If you care about the budget because it ensures that your colleagues stay employed, then say that.”
Present the budget within a context, Sinek says, and you’ll win the crowd instantly. Old title: “2014 Budget.” New title: “Ensuring That We’re All Looked After.” “The budget, then, is merely the foil that helps you talk about the thing you and your colleagues really care about.”
You rocked your presentation and you’ve done plenty for the firm’s bottom line; now it’s time to think about your own. When approaching the topic of a raise, try to go about it in one of three ways, says G. Richard Shell, J.D., a professor at the Wharton School.
— 1. Start with: “I know times are tough, but I wondered about raises this year. What standards do you think you may be using to evaluate salaries?”
Why it works: This approach introduces the topic by showing you understand the economic climate and assume that certain criteria or standards will be applied, which depersonalizes the discussion.
— 2. Follow up: “Thanks for sharing. I’ve been thinking about my team in the same light. It’s a challenge to figure out how to retain our star performers. Are you thinking about sweetening the pot in other ways?”
Why it works: Active listening is a good tool for those tricky talks. Show that you’ve heard your boss’s statements by reflecting them back in your own words–and then moving the talk in the direction you want to take it.
— 3. Turn the screw: “I’d appreciate the chance to chat about compensation because I’ve been thinking about my own situation. Do you have any thoughts on what I might expect this year?”
Why it works: Eventually you have to “ask.” If you don’t like the answer, figure out how you’ve fallen short and ask for a shorter time lapse to show progress before your next review.
You hop the first train back to the burbs. Your wife texts, “Unless you want Nutella for dinner, you’ve got one more stop”—and it might be the worst one of all. “Making decisions in the grocery store is incredibly stressful, especially when you’re unprepared and hungry,” says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert and the author of Making Work Work. The secret? Decide in advance. Pick one night of the week to do your shopping. (Wednesday is the least crowded, according to the National Supermarket Association.)
Create one list of essentials, such as eggs, milk, and butter. Then make a second list of all the items you need for any actual cooking your family plans to do that week. “That’s the list you update and rotate,” Morgenstern says. “You can plan it in 15 minutes when you have the template set.” If you can afford it, forgo checkout lines by taking advantage of a delivery service like Peapod (http://peapod.com) or Alice (http://alice.com). Amazon can also ship basics like detergent and toothpaste at regular intervals, which keeps your focus on perishables and cuts down the time you spend trolling the aisles.
Still reeling from the chaos of the produce department, you shuffle through the front door, fried. How you handle this transition is crucial. For starters, do one thing to signal the end of the workday, subconsciously putting the memos, pending calls, and e-mail barrage to bed. Pour a drink, put on some Miles Davis, do whatever brings you out of work mode. “One of my patients immediately changes clothes,” Mogel says. “It signals that ‘businessperson’ has retired for the evening and it’s time for family.”
Use dinner prep time to ask your wife about her day. New research from Florida State University on more than 400 working couples found that men and women with supportive spouses concentrated better at work, were less likely to come home fatigued, and reported more satisfaction with the amount of time they spent with their kids.
While dinner cooks, find a moment to escape outside. You’ll return refreshed. In one study, researchers in England found a direct link between time spent in green space and reduced stress levels. (The Japanese call it “forest bathing.”) If that’s not realistic, take just 15 minutes to do one thing you love—watch Family Guy, play with the dog, shoot foul shots. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that study participants who engaged in pleasurable activities showed reductions in blood pressure and cortisol levels.
One sirloin and a glass of merlot later, you’re feeling more evolved. Good thing, too, because you’ve just defiled the last of the clean dishes, and you can’t stuff even a gym sock into the hamper. But is it your night or hers to handle the cleanup? Who’s putting the kids to bed? Perhaps you’d just like a big, stressful argument instead? Time to put a system in place.
— 1. Agree on who does what.
Men think tactically, but logic and organization are not the driving forces in this conversation, says Audrey Nelson, Ph.D., coauthor of The Gender Communication Handbook. Like most family-related issues, chores are a collaboration, one that revolves less around efficiency than emotion. “Begin with her,” says Nelson. “Ask for her thoughts, feelings, and ideas about how these chores should go. The more mutual and shared the decision-making process, the better.” Even if you each have established chores, there are times when one of you has more pressing tasks–extra work from the office, critical calls to make. So check in with her to see if there’s anything more she needs you to take on. “You might ask her which chore she hates the most,” says Nelson, “and trade with her every few weeks.”
— 2. Assign everything a place.
“Cleanup takes a fraction of the time if you have an organized infrastructure,” says Morgenstern. The more you can declutter, the better. “You might need three saucepans, not six,” she says. “When it’s clear where everything goes, no room should take longer than eight minutes to clean.”
— 3. Designate a time for cleanup.
Find a weekly block: “Batch as many of your errands and chores into that hour or two,” Morgenstern says. “The routine compartmentalizes the chores, and they stop consuming your time. The routine frees you from stress.”
The dishes are done and children tucked in, and now you’re feeling about as wiped as your countertops. But don’t turn off your brain until you’ve taken 15 minutes to sort out tomorrow’s to-dos. Most people put that little detail off for morning, and it never works. “It’s the biggest productivity error of all,” Morgenstern says. “The day is already crashing down on you.”
Plan tomorrow plus two: The three-day arc will keep you focused on the bigger picture, and you’ll become better about delegating work. But if you do your planning just before you go to bed, avoid doing it on your iPad: Artificial light can play havoc with your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you wink out.
The day is behind you, and tomorrow is a blissful eight hours away. But one more performance stands between you and sweet slumber—and she’s slipping into that black lace thing you haven’t seen since your long weekend in Puerto Vallarta. Making love tonight is going to make tomorrow a better day. “Sex is a powerful stress buster,” says Daniel Kirsch, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Stress. “It releases endorphins and induces deep relaxation.”
First step? Wind down. Stress stifles women’s orgasms and men’s erections. Suggest taking a shower together or offer her a massage, says Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., the author of Because It Feels Good. According to a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience, massages lower cortisol levels and raise feel-good serotonin and dopamine levels. If either of those options fails to work you up, take a night off. “Too many men have sex when they’re not really in the mood,” says Herbenick. “And then they have issues they freak out about, and that anxiety freaks them out the next time. Take a rain check. Women do it all the time—men can too.”
Spent and satisfied, you finally hit that fluffy, cool pillow and those crisp cotton sheets and have the chance to dream—of luxury yachts, villas in Tuscany, and Jennifer Lawrence.