Stress & How We Work - 5 Tips for Managing False Alarms Better

Our 21st century lives are hectic, few people can argue with that. Technology is making it go faster but in some quarters we could be forgiven for thinking it is making things worse rather than being a labour-saver. Most technology has been touted as a ‘time-saver’ as one of its key benefits, yet we just seem to increase workloads and become even more stressed as a result. Modern working culture creates constant ‘false alarms’ for us to respond to from every channel we can think of. Then, as we work harder and harder and work longer hours to respond; we keep firing our evolutionary brain and its fight or flight trigger. Our brains, convinced we are in danger, sound the alarm again and again; stress builds and our mental and physical health suffers and productivity and quality of our work drops.

How then, is it possible to manage this constant pressure better in the face of never-ending demands of working faster and delivering more which the world seems to want? Here are some tips (hint, we decide what to respond to).

1) Manage your Distractions: the fact is, not even women can multi-task effectively. Multi-tasking can cut productivity by 5% (according to the University of Michegan, David Meyer). So small changes in your working style will cause less brain confusion, enable you to do more and mean less stress:

· Switch off alerts – and unnecessary social media: You don’t need them on all the time… no, not even email. An email alert pops up on your screen and suddenly not only is your concentration broken, it has switched to the other task or demand and tries to solve that too and becomes significantly less efficient and more confused as a result. This slows you down and makes you more stressed as you have more than one thing to deal with at once. Not everything has to be dealt with 'NOW!' . Dedicate certain times of the day to address new emails or to catch up and focus on other tasks inbetween. This also means switching off your own phone notifications… or shove it in your handbag or drawer. After all, you are meant to be focussing on the project at hand. This gives you back more control over what you are doing and you feel less like you are under a constant barrage.

· Structure your day – If you can, design some quiet periods into your day where you are free of interruptions. Find a quieter desk, block out your diary, make it known to your team that for a couple of hours in the morning and/or afternoon are your project time and you shouldn’t be interrupted by calls or questions. Colleagues will quickly adapt to this. If they know you’re not available at 10am for a meeting, they won’t book it. If you work for yourself, the same principle applies, it’s allowing yourself deep concentration time to actually get the bigger tasks done more effectively with greater clarity of thought. One research paper found that performance increased by 59% in the morning and 65% in the afternoon when this principle was applied.

2) Have Clarity on Your Priorities – We have become a culture of jugglers, at the whim of constant external demands. Juggling multiple demands negatively influences your ability to think, resulting in short-termist, emotional, survivalist thinking. The ability to analyse wider data becomes reduced and the quality of decisions and actions likewise. These false alarms create greater stress and reduced productivity. The true definition of a priority is the one thing that has higher importance than others.

3) Collaboration Tools – are they helping or hindering? A constant stream of information generated by these tools again acts as a distraction and interrupts concentration, alerting our primitive brain that there is another ‘alarm’, another thing to be aware of and to deal with and your adrenalin use starts to rise and your brain looks for swift solutions which are not always the answer. Then there is the frustration and stress when you can’t get something finished as you are being interrupted all the time. Take back control of your working environment and choose when you have to check into these tools, if indeed you have to use them… are they just a novelty or do they really add value across the business as a whole (rather than to one person)? Sometimes you end up with having your work spread across multiple channels from collaboration tools, to email, messenger tools, meeting notes, phone calls...and you have to spend extra time making sure you are across everything and that feeling of..'where did my boss say the deadline was extended - or was it?'..Phew you almost need a secretary just to keep up with the messages and notes about a project!

4) Give Your Brain a Break – Your brain can just about deal with a 90-minute concentration cycle. Give it a break. Get some fresh air, schedule a different project to give your brain a break, have a cuppa, speak to a colleague and go back to your desk refreshed… you could even meditate…even better!

5) Be Human! It’s easy to get carried away with the volume of work pinging in on digital channels from around the globe. Make sure you keep the human element. If it’s stressful, chat with a colleague. They might be able to help you solve the problem, or at least in sharing it is no longer just your stress and you don’t have that sense of isolation stress can generate. Working home alone? Give a colleague a call. Human contact has been shown scientifically to reduce stress. Quite simply, as we evolved, we survived in groups because when we were alone, we were vulnerable. More so, it has been proven that the stress level reduces further if you see another person’s face, particularly if you can see their eyes properly. In this instance then, my suggestion would be to use the digital media… get on Skype or similar and see the whites of your colleagues’ eyes!

At the end of the day, simple changes in your working style will benefit you by reducing your stress but also increasing your focus and productivity, often by up to 42%. All too often when working in offices everyone gets pulled along by the ‘machine’. The reality is, you have a choice as to how you work which will make you healthier, happier, less stressed, enjoying your job more and getting more plaudits from your peers and bosses. What one thing could you add to your routine today to start changing the level of stress in your work day?

Alison Prangnell is an Employee Engagement Consultant, Business & Personal Coach and a self-confessed stressaholic, passionate about helping reduce stress for employees and increase productivity for businesses.

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