Stress has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it, but how you respond is only half the battle. The secret to winning the war against stress lies in what you do when you are not working (and presumably are not stressed).
While I have a hobby that I engage in regularly (surfing), it is not the antidote to stress you might think. Think about it: even if you have a hobby that you are deeply passionate about, you are not going to spend more than 10% of your time outside of work doing it. It is what you do with the other 90% that really matters.
You need structure to use this other 90% wisely. Otherwise, you will fall into bad habits that can magnify your stress, rather than alleviate it. I structure my time by religiously following 10 rules when I am not working.
These rules work wonders with one limitation: they do not work quite as well if you work too much. Sure, we are all busy, but if you are putting in 80-90 hour weeks, you would not have the energy or focus to use your time outside of work wisely.
And there is no point in working that much. A Stanford study found that productivity per hour declines sharply when the workweek exceeds 50 hours, and productivity drops off so much after 55 hours that there is no point in working any more. That is right, people who work as much as 70 hours (or more) per week actually get the same amount done as people who work 55 hours.
My rules help me to shift gears to relaxing and rejuvenating activities during my time off. Try them and see if they help you to find balance.
Rule #1: Disconnect.
Disconnecting is the most important strategy on this list, because if you cannot find a way to remove yourself electronically from your work, then you have never really left work.
Making yourself available to your work 24/7 exposes you to a constant barrage of stressors that prevent you from refocusing and recharging. If taking the entire weekend off handling work e-mails and calls is not realistic, try designating specific times on Saturday and Sunday for checking e-mails and responding to voicemails. For example, check your messages on Saturday afternoon while your kids are getting a haircut and on Sunday evenings after dinner. Scheduling short blocks of time will alleviate stress without sacrificing availability.
Rule #2: Minimize chores.
Chores have the tendency to monopolize your free time. When this happens, you lose the opportunity to relax and reflect. What is worse is that a lot of chores feel like work, and if you spend all weekend doing them, you just put in a seven-day workweek. To keep this from happening, you need to schedule your chores like you would anything else during the week, and if you do not complete them during the allotted time, you move on and finish them the following weekend.
Rule #3: Exercise.
No time to exercise during the week? You have 48 hours every weekend to make it happen. Getting your body moving for as little as 10 minutes releases GABA, a soothing neurotransmitter that reduces stress. Exercise is also a great way to come up with new ideas. Innovators and other successful people know that being outdoors often sparks creativity.
I know that a lot of my best ideas come to me while I am surfing. While you are out in the ocean, the combination of invigorating activity and beautiful scenery creates the perfect environment for an influx of creativity. Whether you are running, cycling, or gardening, exercise leads to endorphin-fueled introspection. The key is to find a physical activity that does this for you and then to make it an important part of your weekly routine.
Rule #4: Pursue a passion.
You might be surprised what happens when you pursue something you are passionate about during your time off. Indulging your passions is a great way to escape stress and to open your mind to new ways of thinking. Things like playing music, reading, writing, painting, or even playing catch with your kids can help stimulate different modes of thought that can reap huge dividends over the coming week.
Rule #5: Spend quality time with family.
Spending quality time with your family is essential if you want to recharge and relax. Weekdays are so hectic that the entire week can fly by with little quality family time. Do not let this bleed into your weekends. Take your kids to the park, take your spouse to his or her favorite restaurant, and go visit your parents. You will be glad you did.
Rule #6: Schedule micro-adventures.
Buy tickets to a concert or play, or get reservations for that cool new hotel that just opened downtown. Instead of running on a treadmill, plan a hike. Try something you have not done before or perhaps something you have not done in a long time. Studies show that anticipating something good to come is a significant part of what makes the activity pleasurable. Knowing that you have something interesting planned for Saturday will not only be fun come Saturday, but it will significantly improve your mood throughout the week.
Rule #7: Wake up at the same time.
It is tempting to sleep in on the weekend to catch up on your sleep. Though it feels good temporarily, having an inconsistent wake-up time disturbs your circadian rhythm (and can aggravate depression). Your body cycles through an elaborate series of sleep phases in order for you to wake up rested and refreshed. One of these phases involves preparing your mind to be awake and alert, which is why people often wake up just before their alarm clock goes off (the brain is trained and ready). When you sleep past your regular wake-up time on the weekend, you end up feeling groggy and tired. This is not just disruptive to your day off, it also makes you less productive on Monday because your brain is not ready to wake up at your regular time. If you need to catch up on sleep, just go to bed earlier.
Rule #8: Reflect.
Weekly reflection is a powerful tool for improvement. Use the weekend to contemplate the larger forces that are shaping your industry, your organization, and your job. Without the distractions of Monday to Friday busy work, you should be able to see things in a whole new light. Use this insight to alter your approach to the coming week, improving the efficiency and efficacy of your work.
Rule #9: Designate mornings as me time.
It can be difficult to get time to yourself on the weekends, especially if you have family. Finding a way to engage in an activity you are passionate about first thing in the morning can pay massive dividends in happiness and cleanliness of mind. It is also a great way to perfect your circadian rhythm by forcing yourself to wake up at the same time you do on weekdays. Your mind achieves peak performance two-to-four hours after you wake up, so get up early to do something physical, and then sit down and engage in something mental while your mind is at its peak.
Rule #10: Prepare for the upcoming week.
The weekend is a great time to spend a few moments planning your upcoming week. As little as 30 minutes of planning can yield significant gains in productivity and reduced stress. The week feels a lot more manageable when you go into it with a plan because all you have to focus on is execution.
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