Relaxation generates productivity, and I don’t just mean that in a “we need to take breaks to be productive” way. A calm, relaxed mind enhances performance while working. I call this productive form of it “active relaxation.” 1
Relaxation and stress are counter-forces; opposites on the same spectrum. So one way to see how relaxation affects productivity is to see how stress affects it, and that’s something we already know…
The more stressed you are, the worse you will perform. Increased stress on your mind drains your work stamina and hurts your ability to focus; stress is a cognitive anvil.
A study in Pakistan measured the correlation between stress and job performance in healthcare workers. Through a questionnaire, they found that the more stressed a worker was, the more likely that employee was to make mistakes in treatment, be dissatisfied with their job, and possess inferior knowledge of work matters.2
Data Shows How Stress Creates Harmful Cycles
The APA does a yearly report on how stress is affecting our lives. Here are three interesting takeaways from their 2013 report:
1. Exercise reduces stress, and people value it, but most still don’t do it
- 50% of people said exercise was extremely or very important to them.
- Of those people, only 27% said they did an excellent or very good job at doing it.
- Just 17% of all people surveyed reported exercising daily (the other 83% need an exercise mini habit)
This relationship between stress and exercise can become a negative cycle of laziness, as a whopping 39% of people reported skipping exercise because of stress! Exercise is probably the best way to relieve stress, so if our stress discourages us from exercising (to reduce stress), some people may find it difficult to ever relax.
2. Stress triggers a stressful sleep cycle
- 43% of adults said they lay awake at night due to stress
- 21% of adults said they feel more stressed without enough sleep
- Therefore, stress can impair sleep, and impaired sleep can increase stress, which impairs sleep again (negative cycle)
If you’re in this unfortunate cycle, you can try out this “relaxing staircase technique” I wrote about for Mind Body Green. It really works to help me relax in bed and fall asleep faster. If you can get good sleep, you’ll be less stressed the following night, which should lead to another good night of sleep, and now you have the opportunity to create a positive sleep cycle!
3. People manage stress by eating, and it too becomes a stress cycle
27% of adults said they eat to manage stress. I’d guess the true number is higher (these are just the people who admitted it). And of those who admitted it, 33% said it worked to distract them from stress. As for how it made them feel afterwards? Half felt guilty.
“After having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods, half of adults (49 percent) report feeling disappointed in themselves, 46 percent report
feeling bad about their bodies and more than one-third (36 percent) say they feel sluggish or lazy. After skipping meals due to stress, 24 percent say they feel sluggish or lazy and 22 percent report being irritable.” (2013 APA Stress Report)
Guilt and stress emanate from this data. Because half of adults who treat stress by eating unhealthy food feel bad about it, it’s not a very effective treatment. Guilt and shame can only result in higher amounts of stress in the long run.
How Can We Decrease Our Stress And Relax Our Way Into Productive Living?
You may have noticed a pattern: stress is the king of negative cycles, and there’s a clear reason why. Studies show that stress leads to us engage in easier, automatic, habitual behaviors. These are the emergency lights turning on when all other options are exhausted; they’re low energy, familiar tasks that take almost no conscious thought.
We all have multiple eating habits for different contexts, and eating food is a fun, easy, and fast way to reward yourself. Sugar in particular has been shown to directly activate the brain’s reward center on taste. Since stress drives us to our habitual behaviors and eating is habitual, easy, and rewarding, it’s no wonder that stress eating is so common.
It’s possible to break out of these stress cycles, but you’ve got to be intentional about doing it, and you have to do it the right way.
Vacations are wonderful, but you can’t expect a two week vacation to resolve the stress in your life. Being stress-free for two weeks out of 52 weeks isn’t enough. If you’re consistently stressed, it’s impacting your life negatively in every single way you can imagine: socially, productively, sexually, professionally, health-wise, your happiness, etc. The answer is to figure out how to relax by modifying your lifestyle and perspective, and then practicing.
1. Change Your Lifestyle And Environment
Nobody will stop you if you try to get a less stressful job.
People look at what jobs pay them without considering what they cost them.
I know people work to feed themselves and their families, but if your job isn’t ideal, then why wouldn’t you pursue a better one?
The huge portion of our time that work takes is only one reason it’s important. Steve Jobs believed that he got cancer from work stress, and this is not a scientifically far-fetched claim.
Our DNA strands are held together at the ends by what’s called telomeres. Are you familiar with aglets? They are the plastic end pieces of shoelaces that keep them from fraying—telomeres are like that for our DNA. Some research has found that chronic stress shortens these telomeres, which can eventually lead to the DNA “fraying.” Shortened telomeres are associated with increased risk of disease and a shorter lifespan. That’s not good.
There’s a number flying around that says 75-90% of doctor’s visits are due to stress 3. I don’t know how valid that is considering how startlingly high that percentage is, but considering the wide array of effects stress has—on our behavior all the way down to our DNA’s bindings—it seems plausible.
Instead of looking at what things in your life give you, start looking at what they cost you in terms of stress (this is a key idea behind minimalism). How much stress comes with your job, your friends, your hobbies, your scheduled events, your possessions, and your chosen lifestyle? Having less stress is almost always the lowest priority for people despite it having such a huge impact on our health, happiness, and productivity. It deserves a high priority.
And don’t forget you don’t need anyone’s permission to make a change.
2. Adjust Your Perspective: It’s Half Of The Stress Equation
Maybe you’re somehow locked into your current lifestyle, at least for the near-future. There’s good news—you can still decrease your stress. Sure, if your boss is screaming in your face every day, that’s going to come with a baseline amount of stress. But you are still in control of how you respond to it.
I’ve realized that even having a completely free and open schedule does not mean completely stress-free. Stress can find its way into any lifestyle. But with the right perspective, we can minimize it.
Choose Not To Ruminate
But [insert problem here]!
Some people have more stressful lives than others, but everyone still has a choice. When someone yells at you, that single moment in time will be stressful. The real harm though, comes after that, when you ruminate over the yelling and how terrible it was. That’s the kind of lasting tension and stress that’s problematic.
The reason we have stress in the first place is to get us moving. When a tiger chases you, your systems are stressed and jolted into overdrive to help you run or fight. Many people aren’t in true danger, but their systems remain in overdrive. They rely on adrenaline—typically reserved for emergencies—to fuel everyday activities. Trite tasks and relatively insignificant events seem like miniature tigers chasing them. Their thought stream might look like this:
“I NEED TO FAX THIS. I HAVE TO EMAIL 43 PEOPLE. JIM DIDN’T SET UP THE CONFERENCE CALL. MY TOOTH HURTS. I HAVE TO SCHEDULE A DENTIST APPOINTMENT? I NEED MORE TIME! HELP! NO! AHHH SHOOT ICE CREAM? GO YES GO! NO! GO GO!”
If you’re thinking in all caps, you’re definitely stressed out.
The Surprising Benefits Of Apathy (Yes, Apathy)
Apathy is loaded with negative connotations, but apathy towards the right things is wonderful. We feel pressure when we need to do something, but once we have the knowledge that we need to do it, the pressure becomes a not-useful source of stress, which we know decreases our ability to perform.
Be apathetic about the pressure.
Example: A work project is due in 24 hours and it’s a 48 hour job. The pressure is tremendous! First, remind yourself of your ceiling. You’re a human and can only do one thing well at a time. You can do no better than your best.
The way I’ve been able to sidestep pressure successfully is by realizing and accepting my limits. If something is beyond what I can do, I’ve learned to stop caring about meeting that target. This doesn’t mean giving up, either!
When you think in terms of what you can’t do, rather than stressing out and popping a blood vessel in your forehead, you might be inclined to pursue alternative, creative paths. Can you talk to someone about how unrealistic the deadline is and get it extended? Can you get someone to help you with the work? Is there a new workflow that could help?
Those who feel the pressure and are controlled by it see situations narrowly. They believe that they have to find out how to fit a square peg into a round hole. “It’s impossible! But I still have to do it somehow! Ahh!” It’s not fun, and it’s not a smart way to handle the situation.
A high pressure situation is not the time to deceive yourself into thinking you can miraculously pull it off. Perhaps you could, but psychologically, it’s time to relax your mind, accept that your best effort may NOT be good enough, but that it’s all you have. At that point, you may be surprised at how effective you can be while relaxed.
One of the reasons I’ve been a master test taker is because I never cared much about my grades. (I also believe school interferes with real-world learning.) My apathy made me very relaxed and able to recall information I knew or logically deduce the correct answer. Some other students cared so much they couldn’t think straight.
For the common sense test, think about a time that you were very nervous: giving a speech, talking to your crush, taking a test, etc. Were you able to think more or less clearly in that situation? Less, of course. Stress and pressure overload our minds. Most of us are conditioned by school and the workplace to take the “serious” perspective of work. I can relax when I stop working, we’ll think, without considering that a relaxed attitude might be superior for work too.
3. Experiment Working With A Relaxed Mindset
In order to take this from “interesting idea” to “wow, there’s something to this!”, try it out. If you’ve ever done a mini habit, guess what? You’ve already tried it out! Mini habits empower us by removing the pressure to do a lot of work. They give your goals a more playful feeling.
To try it out, you can use these strategies to relax while working:
- Take the pressure off: Don’t give yourself a deadline for starting or stopping
- Decrease your perceived workload: Aim for a small amount of work to start with, if anything
- Lower expectations: Don’t worry about the quality of your work, but feel free to calmly improve it if you notice something (just for fun!). Wanting quality to the point of extreme stress doesn’t improve quality.
- Adopt a playful, problem-solving mindset: See work as a fun challenge, not dreaded busywork
- Lighten the mood: Play Jack Johnson music in the background (or other light-hearted music of choice)
The reason we’re easily able to “play all day” is partly because of the mindset we have while doing it.
When I was “serious” about changing my life, getting into great shape, writing books, and reading more, I did nothing. When I jokingly did one push-up, it resulted in me getting into the best shape of my life, writing a best-selling book, reading books, and changing my life. And it was easier than when I was trying harder and failing to do these things.
As much as possible, make your work a relaxing endeavor, and not only will you be able to work more efficiently, but the quality of your work will improve. Put simply, the more relaxed your mind is, the more mental resources are available for you to use. Perhaps this is why people have great ideas in the shower, where life is exceptionally simple and relaxing for those few minutes.
For a more robust dissection of stress and a practical guide for decreasing it permanently, you can read my entire book—Stress Management Redefined—for free by subscribing below. Click here to sample the first chapter.