Wednesday, January 24, 2020

Here's A Quick Way to Lower Your Stress

There are many, many causes of stress at work and in life: too many to list. But one or two of them are such major producers of stress and anxiety that dealing with them alone will lower your overall stress level by a massive amount. Here are two, linked stress producers that you can tackle right away. Reduce their impact on your life and you will see a major lessening of stress overall.

Amongst all the causes of stress, two stand out from the rest as massive producers of every sort of anxiety: trying to control other people and trying to control the future. These two probably account for more than half of all stress in the workplace—probably in life in general. They are linked because both are, fundamentally, attempts to control what is not controllable.

Controlling Others

Aren’t managers and supervisors paid to control the members of their team? Don’t organizations exist to marshal and control large numbers of people and focus all their efforts on a few, chosen goals? That is the theory, at least. But however many people assume it to be true, the facts show otherwise.

How do you propose to exercise this control? By discipline? Even bloodthirsty tyrants, who will kill opponents (or anyone else) without a moment’s thought, eventually fail when they try to coerce people to bow to their will. No organization has sufficent power to force compliance by discipline alone. By persuasion? Better, but still unlikely to produce more than partial success. There will always be some who refuse to be persuaded. Bribery? Organizations are full of legal forms of bribery (usually called incentives) whose purpose is to get people to conform. Do they work? Sometimes, and sometimes not. They also have a limited shelf life. Today’s incentive becomes tomorrow’s norm.

The underlying problem with all attempts to control others is the same: by doing so, you make yourself responsible for each and every situation in which people don’t do exactly what you wanted them to do, say what you wanted them to say, or respond exactly as prescribed. In effect, they take the action and you take the blame.

Believing that you can control people at work in anything but the most general sense is futile. Accepting responsibility for doing it is going to send your stress levels through the roof.
However hard you try, getting even a few people to act exactly as ordered is difficult. The military, who used to have a culture of absolute, unquestioning obedience to superiors, eventually accepted that it did not work. Organizations have no such culture. Nor do they have available any sanctions that go beyond being fired. Plenty of people will choose to lose their jobs rather than do something they don’t agree with or don’t want to take part in. Believing that you can control people at work in anything but the most general sense is futile. Accepting responsibility for doing it is going to send your stress levels through the roof.

Controlling the Future

When you look at this phrase, “controlling the future’” it’s obviously a non-starter. How on earth will you do that? Can you make the markets and your competitors shift at your whim? Can you control the global economy—or even the fashions that often drive spending? Do you have supernatural powers of foresight and divination to know what will happen next week, next month, or next year?

Nonsense, isn’t it? Yet every day, hundreds of thousands of working people agree to be held responsible for controlling at least their part of the future. It’s called “getting results” or “delivering the goods.” They agree that if the desired results don’t materialize on time and on budget, it is down to them. What happens in the future is their responsibility. They will “make it happen.”

Armed with everything from sheer determination to sophisticated planning and scheduling software, that is what they try to do. They accept that the task is both possible and reasonable. If they fail, they must, therefore, accept the blame.

Is it any wonder that stress is more prevalent in the workplace than the common cold? They are both taking on an impossible task and agreeing to be judged by the results. Not their effort, their input of time, expertise, or skill, but the actual result: the one thing in that list over which they have no control whatsoever. You can control how much effort you make. You can control how much you work to apply your skill and knowledge to the task before you. Within the limits of a 24-hour day, and however long you can stay awake, you can control your input of time. Will any of these guarantee success? No. Will the results depend entirely on what you do? No again.

Things will always go wrong. The future will always disappoint, just as there will always be lucky breaks and unexpected good times. Yet by claiming the credit when luck is on your side, you find yourself accepting the blame for when it isn’t.
My own guess is that maybe 75% of all workplace stress comes from people agreeing to be held responsible for outcomes that are not under their control, whatever they do. Things will always go wrong. The future will always disappoint, just as there will always be lucky breaks and unexpected good times. Yet by claiming the credit when luck is on your side, you find yourself accepting the blame for when it isn’t.

Human beings dislike the idea of blind chance. They long for some way to control what happens to them, whether it’s by sacrificing animals (as used to the norm in the ancient world), prayer to their chosen god, or simple belief in their own determination to make things turn out as they want. Since reality is essentially random and many outcomes are due to little more than chance, each one of these approaches will seem to work on occasion. You will always be able to find someone who slaughtered a chicken, prayed in a particular way, or demonstrated personal drive verging on mad obsession, and got the result that he or she wanted. That’s how chance works. You’ll be able to find just as many people who did all of those things and got a load of lemons instead. But we don’t want to think about those, because they undermine our faith that there is something, or someone, somewhere who is in charge of events and whose actions we can influence in our favor.

But don’t accept the absurd idea that you can control the future or other people.
Give it up. By all means try, pray, or do whatever you hope may increase the probability of success (short of abusing helpless and innocent animals). But don’t accept the absurd idea that you can control the future or other people. Being fallible is part of being human. So is dealing with the times when everything goes wrong. If you pretend that either is your fault, you’ll never be short of stress in your life—plus a massive dose of guilt to add to your woes and anxiety.

Smile. Shrug. Let it all go. Get on with life. That won’t affect the future either, but at least it will drastically lower the amount of stress that will come with it.

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Heart_Man said...

The American Institute of Stress and The Centers For Control have both reported that up to 90% of all illnesses are due to stress. For close to 30 years I experienced several life threatening illnesses. In 1997 I found the Institute of HeartMath and discovered that all of these illnesses were due to stresses I had been experiencing in my life. Learning and practicing HeartMath's tools and technologies literally saved my life. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure, in all areas of life. Additional information on HeartMath can be found at

7:37 PM  
Peter Vajda said...

Hi Carmen,

I think you're right on with these two stressors: controlling others and controlling the future. And, I would like to sugggest two others that I see affecting folks: the need for recognition and the need for security (emotional, financial, psychological, physical, etc). Many folks obsess all day long about whether they're being "seen",or are invisible or irrelevant... wanting continuous proof they are being acknowledged and recognized...all of which points to feeling emotionally and psychologically least for today. Then, tomorrow, it starts all over again. Stressful!

8:31 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment and link, Heart Man. I am sure many people with benefit from it.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:54 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Great comment, Peter, as always.


8:56 PM  
Bill Quinn said...

I particularly like the focus on future targets. There are many CEOs (and managers) out there that commit to delivering future results (usually to hit a personal bonus target). They either fail spectacularly, or cooerce the organisation to hit the target and move on to a bigger job while leaving a trail of long term destruction in their wake.

I'm a great believer in doing what I can do today and trusting that if I'm doing the right things, the right way, the results will come.

7:31 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Good thought, Bill. Thank you for posting it.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:36 AM  
Shannon said...

Isn't what you are talking about also the American Dream/Myth? That if you work hard and try hard, you can control the future and make the outcome better for you and your children. Some people succeed, some people don't, and luck is a factor. But those people who do succeed are held up as examples of why the American dream works, and often, why a social safety net isn't necessary, or why you need to spend all your waking hours working, or evidence as to why poor people are "lazy."

Great post with lots of implications beyond workplace stress.

9:49 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Shannon.

Yes, this approach is the basis of the American Dream and the goal of the Puritan Work Ethic. That's why it's so powerful in popular culture.

People are always seizing on individual instances where it appears to work and inflating them into a general principle.

Does hard work sometimes precede (but not lead to or cause) good fortune? Of course. Does it do so always? No. Does it produce the good fortune? Sometimes it seems to, but usually there are many other causes, including luck most of all.

Sadly, we humans prefer to imagine almost any cause at work if the alternative is to accept that most of what happens in this universe is entirely random.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:10 AM  

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