2021 is slowly coming to an end. Christmas and the new year are just around the corner. Christmas markets animate city squares, the scent of mulled wine is in the air and dark streets are bedecked with fairy lights. You might think that it’s a tranquil time, and yet many people find Advent stressful.
Even if certain stress triggers seem unavoidable at this time of year, there are still a few tips for keeping stress at bay and staying in balance.
“Strive for calm, but through balance, not by ceasing your activities.”
− Friedrich Schiller −
In this article, we will introduce you to several methods to help you better handle various sources of stress.
Tips for handling stress
“Time does not pass faster than it used to, but we run faster by it.”
− George Orwell −
When time is short, you need to prioritise. This is as true at work as in your private life. But time pressure can also result in a logjam, because you no longer see the wood for the trees. Accordingly, it’s worth taking a step back to get an overview of the mountain of tasks. You can use the Eisenhower matrix to get your bearings.
In this matrix, tasks are assessed according to two criteria: urgency and importance. You first need to make a list of everything you have to do before you can assess them. The second step is to assess each task using the two criteria and then assign it to one of four quadrants. You can choose from the following quadrants:
Quadrant 1: Do first, for important and urgent tasks
For one thing, these tasks have a time limit, such as a delivery deadline. On the other hand, they also bring you closer to your higher objectives. You should prioritise these tasks accordingly, and tackle them first. In addition, you should devote the most time to your important and urgent tasks, as this will move you directly forward.
An example from the world of work might be that a new client expects documents from you by the end of the week. In the context of Advent, if it is important to you to see all the people closest to you before Christmas, an important and urgent task in December could be to get in touch with everyone well in advance and make dates for coffee, dinner, sports or walks.
Quadrant 2: Schedule, for important but not urgent tasks
These tasks are important for your higher objectives, but are not urgent or have no fixed deadline. But this means that they risk being pushed ever further into the background. To prevent this, you need to deliberately create a window of time in which you focus on these tasks, which means you need to actively decide when you are going to complete them. At work, you could, for example, deliberately take some time to find out about some possible CPD that will advance your career. During Advent, an example could be that you make space to focus on your health, despite a full diary and lots of social events, by not neglecting your exercise routine or even reaching for a non-alcoholic punch instead of mulled wine.
Quadrant 3: Delegate, for urgent but unimportant tasks
You should rapidly complete urgent but unimportant tasks without wasting much time. When you are under a lot of time pressure, however, you can also delegate these tasks.
Sending Christmas wishes to your work partners, for example, could be an urgent task that isn’t necessarily important, which could if necessary be done by someone else with more resources. Another, non-work-related Christmas example might be wrapping Christmas presents.
Quadrant 4: Don’t do, for non-urgent and unimportant tasks
You should put tasks in this category to one side and not waste any time on them, at least for the time being.
For example, you don’t need to change your desktop background at work, and a personal Christmas music playlist for the festive season is also not strictly necessary.
Yes, you read that right! Although carrying out several activities at the same time may seem a good idea when you’re very stressed, we advise against it. Human beings may be able to do several tasks at once, but this demands a great many cognitive resources, and the result is more stress!
Sometimes, a busy brain leaves you completely exhausted in the evening, but you still can’t close any mental tabs – does this sound familiar? A classic distraction scenario when you want to do too many things at once.
A good to-do list is a tool that could help you to remain focused while you do your tasks. However, it is important to avoid the two most common mistakes when writing a to-do list. Firstly, there is the danger of including an unrealistic number of tasks on the list. Secondly, there is the tendency of first doing simple but unimportant tasks, in order to feel a sense of achievement when you cross these tasks off the list with relatively little effort.
You can avoid these two dangers using the 1-3-5 rule, which states:
Your to-do list should have only one important and urgent task per day. If you successfully complete this task, you can already finish your day happy. You can subsequently list three more important tasks that should ideally also be completed today. And finally, include five smaller tasks that can be dealt with at your convenience.
Writing down and categorising these tasks will create clarity and structure, which will help you to systematically handle one task after another. Accordingly, the likelihood that you will try to tackle several tasks at once will go down.
“If you make time to think and act, disorder becomes calm.”
− Unknown −
Thinking in circles
When you’re stressed, you frequently find yourself jumping from one thought to the next and experiencing inner turmoil as a result. Breathing exercises are a simple, accessible technique for putting the brakes on these mental jumps. The 4-6-8 method is an example of a breathing exercise that is easy to put into practice and will help to reduce acute stress. This is how it works:
To start with, put one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your ribcage. Then breathe in deeply through your nose and count up to four. Hold your breath for six seconds, then slowly breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight seconds.
Repeat this process at least five times. It’s entirely up to you whether you do this exercise seated or lying down.
Stressed because of stress?
“Stress is bad for your health” – how often have you heard this saying? In our society, stress is generally perceived as the enemy of health. But the psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that the problem is not stress itself, but our attitude to it. A scientific study at Harvard University showed that the physical stress reaction, when stress is perceived as a helpful physical reaction preparing us for a forthcoming challenge, is similar to the reaction to joy. This means that the heart beats faster, but the blood vessels do not narrow. As a result, more blood and oxygen are transported round the body, which makes you fitter and more resistant. So if stress is seen as a positive, many of the stress mechanisms that are harmful to health are eliminated.
Furthermore, the psychologist recommends proactively seeking social contacts when stressed. Part of the stress reaction is the release of the well-known pleasure hormone oxytocin. This hormone both makes people more helpful and empathic, and also boosts cardiac regeneration. This means that, when people experience stress due to increased demands on them, the body’s reaction has an in-built self-help mechanism – oxytocin. If we interact with others, or help them, the body then releases even more oxytocin, which facilitates recovery from stress.
Do you find Advent stressful? Then you now know what to do: prioritise your tasks, write a good to-do list, breathe consciously and deeply throughout and surround yourself with people you love!
You can find more on the subject of stress management here.
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