We’re hard-wired to succeed in life, but at what cost? If you’re working past 8pm every evening in a bid to “make it”, it’s worth asking – is that “it” even what you want?
Read on to find out what causes stress, and ten tips to reduce it.
What causes stress?
Stress is a normal response to life events: it’s there to protect us. But it becomes a problem when the body’s fight-or-flight response spills over from a in-the-moment reaction to a constant, chronic presence.
Feelings like this are often the result of circumstance: dealing with financial issues, for example, or a divorce or the death of a loved one. But stress can just as easily build up slowly over time, as a result of lots of little things that end up being toxic.
In a way, this kind of strain is more dangerous because it’s easy to dismiss. We tell ourselves to get it together: this is life. Yet, is it really the life that you choose?
We live in a results-driven world where we’re glued to our phones 24/7 and are under constant pressure to perform and prove. Many of us simply fall into this lifestyle right out of college, without questioning what it’s about.
But nothing will change until something changes. In order to escape this circle of stress, you have to break free from a culture that fetishizes work. Here’s how:
1 - Redefine your ambitions
What does ambition mean to you? If you’re anything like most people, it’s to do with your career. Hard graft means success, and being in demand. It’s early starts, an endless to-do list, and flat whites on the go.
Who cares if you’re exhausted? Suck it up.
But perhaps you’re thinking about it all wrong. Most people are so busy pinballing between tasks, it’s never occurred to us to be ambitious about broader values such as time, relationships and experiences.
2 - Prioritise the values that matter
Your job doesn’t have to be your status symbol: you don’t even need a status symbol. Because, as we know, what creates meaning in life are things like connection, community and freedom to do the things we want.
These qualities might happen as a part of your career, but they’re also bigger than it. And, if you’re working yourself into a frenzy, it’s likely that you’ll have kicked them to the side.
If you want a stress-free life, you need to start redefining your ambitions, and examine what you really what your priorities to be.
3 - Don't make your job an emotional investment
Part of the reason why we’re working more hours than ever before (with record levels of burnout) is that we get emotionally invested in our jobs. They consume us, often without us even realising it.
It’s a habit that writer David Roberts actively works against. In this viral article, Roberts explains how he has chosen to live “the medium chill” by consciously taking his foot off the career accelerator.
Unlike most of us, Roberts avoids promotions and instead does a good-enough job at work.
By rattling along instead of relentlessly striving, he has less money and job kudos, but gets to spend more time with his loved ones. He has chosen to purposely side-step the career ladder, recognising that in doing so, he has more freedom for relaxing and doing the things that he wants.
4 - Identify where you can make trade-offs
“There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb,” writes Roberts. “We [Roberts and his partner] could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice.
“We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.”
What trade-offs can you make to make your life less stressful?
5 - Stop comparing yourself
This attitude of “good-enough” is an alien concept because it goes against everything we’re conditioned to believe. Since time began, we have been driven by what Roberts calls “social proof”.
“Status and wealth are comparative; we judge ourselves not by how we’re doing but how we’re doing compared to the Joneses,” he says. “If our peers are buying big houses and second cars, our strong instinct is to want to signal our status by doing the same.”
Social proof is a deeply ingrained quality; a core value that modern society thrives on.
To feel less stressed, start by resisting the comparisons with those around you. That way, you get rid of the narrative that tells you you somehow aren’t good enough, or need to work harder.
6 - Be happy with what you've got
As novelist Matt Haig, in his best-selling book, Reasons to Stay Alive, “Happiness isn’t very good for the economy”.
“If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?” he writes. “How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything.
” […] To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”
Look around you: you don’t necessarily need more or better. What you have may be quite enough.
7 - Stay in the moment
Perhaps it’s not work per se that’s stressing us out, but the relentless drive to do and achieve; to score brownie points on our social proof.
And, of course, the ubiquity of social media only fuels this compulsion. We’re all so desperate to be seen to have happy lives, we’ve forgotten what it is to actually live them.
To get back on an even keel, try to avoid looking ahead and instant focus on where you’re at. Because the moment is the only thing that really counts.
8 - Write down what matters to you
Could it be that a degree of our work stress is self-inflicted?
After all, we choose to play the game and rise through the ranks. We want the rewards: the recognition, the bigger pay packet, the feeling of having made it.
But if we stepped back for a moment – as Roberts has done – we’d realise that external factors like job titles and promotions rarely spark enduring joy.
If you’re feeling fraught and wrung out by the demands of life, it could be worth listing down the things that matter to you. Because you may find they don’t correspond to what you’re doing day-to-day. And that’s your cue to change things, right there.
9 - Slow things down
Career ambition is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s great to work hard and aspire to a job that you love. But, contrary to what so many of us think, it’s not the only definition of success.
If you, like so many, come up for air after frantically chugging away in your 20s, you may well realise that it’s time for a few changes. And you can only do this by slowing things down.
Because when you peak above the sand dunes now and again, you come to recognise that ambition (in the traditional sense) is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
You see, work can buy you status and things, both fleeting qualities that others can do bigger and better. It can also buy you experiences (a far more valuable investment than things) and pay your rent.
So we can agree that it’s both useful and vital to have a job, but it can also be massively stressful. And if you’re feeling more stressed than happy, you need to consciously re-draw the line.
10 - Spend time on the things (and people) you love
You could spend your life frantically plugging away at a career, feeling forever harried by the search of some elusive, “I’ve arrived” goal.
Or you could stop working so hard. Stop stressing and striving. Accept the good-enough.
Do your job and do it well, but resist the temptation to outperform or get sucked in by a relentless cycle of proving and achieving. Instead, invest more time in chilling and doing the things that you love, with people that you love.
It’s simple, really.
Images: Shutterstock, Unsplash, Flash Pack