What to Do When Stress Breaks You – Part 3

Previously speaking…

The two previous articles in this series include:

  • Part 1: Discussed the onset of my stress overload, and things that you might want to be alert for in your own life too.
  • Part 2: Simple tactical steps that I used to immediately reduce stress.

Grab a cup of coffee or other favorite drink and relax in a comfortable seat for some reading, because this third and last article will deal with the heart of the matter. It discusses the more strategic long term health and wellness approaches that I’ve taken since January 2020 to get myself to a better place regarding stress and overall health. It’s taken a long time to reset myself from back then, but I stuck with it and I’m mostly there now. The stress reduction approaches in these articles are well within reach of everyone if you stick with them consistently, and they were so impactful to me that they justified being shared here.

A tough nut to crack

This was the hardest of the three articles to write, and also the one with the longest time span from ‘idea’ to ‘writing’ because I had to let some time pass to see if these strategies would work. This third installment is a lot about “feeling”. For example:

  • Understanding what you think about things, and why.
  • Using some of these ideas to “feel your way” to calmness and finding peace.
  • Recognizing what’s working and improving your situation, and what’s not that you should move on from.

It can be hard to dig at your emotions and feelings in this way and many people don’t bother to put in the effort, but if you do the payoff can be huge. What I realized while writing about this is how many pieces there are to the puzzle of wellness. It’s not a scenario of just improving a few things here and there and then you’re done. It involves reviewing your whole personal picture, your mental and physical state, and optimizing them consistently over time to raise the bar for yourself. It takes time, so be patient with it.

Dawn brings new light, and a new mind

The photo above was taken out the front window of my house, which faces almost directly east. I’m often treated to spectacular sunrises just like this one, and it’s quite a scene when the right kinds of clouds are present. The few minutes that these light shows last in the silence of the morning are like gold to me. Taking the time to watch them is one of the ways that I’ve taken back my mornings and it allows me to be mindful of the moment I’m in instead of waking up and immediately getting to the tasks of the day.

With that image of a new and refreshed mindset, let’s get to it! Here are the long term wellness approaches that were effective at reducing my stress levels and resetting the foundation of my daily well being:

1Start the day right

When looking at the subjects of overall wellness and reducing stress, the logical place to start is the beginning of the day. There’s an old expression that goes something like, “Own your morning and you will own your whole day”

The spirit of that expression means to start your day your way, on your terms, doing things you want to do, and hopefully that will help set a positive tone for the rest of your day. I know that’s often much easier said than done, especially if you have young kids to get off to school or you’re having a rough period at work, but it’s an idea to start with that can be flexed to your daily routine. Finding these “starting point ideas” is critical to resetting yourself, because otherwise it seems like a daunting task that you simply can’t get traction with.

Over the years leading up to 2020 (and without me realizing it), my mornings had transformed into what I realize now was a wrong direction for me. I typically wake up early each day without an alarm, and I’m an easy riser who’s up and about in just a few minutes. Since I’m interested in world topics and business in general, I would usually watch CNBC to catch their morning discussion about global business topics, see how the markets were looking for their opening, and grab my laptop to go through some work email with my coffee. Everyone in the house is normally asleep at this time so it’s very quiet.

Sounds pretty normal, and maybe a lot of people follow that same sort of routine. This went on for a long time until I started looking for some more personal time during my busy days to pursue some of my interests. That’s often hard to do when working all day, so eventually I turned my attention to the mornings and changed my routine to get some time back. No CNBC. No work email. Instead I focused my morning hours from 6:00-8:00 am on quiet time while relaxing with my coffee and reading, writing, and simply thinking.

When that old “CNBC morning routine” was gone, I realized two key things:

  • I didn’t miss those activities at all
  • They were adding no value to my life whatsoever

I regret letting myself fall into that morning time trap over a period of years. As we get older, we gain the wisdom and perspective of how valuable time is, and those activities were wasting my time relative to the valuable things I really could have been doing instead. Now those old morning habits are gone for good!

If you have kids or other obligations that need attention as soon as you’re awake in the morning, then try to grab some time as soon as those obligations clear to take a breather and reset yourself. It doesn’t have to be long period of time, just a few minutes of something you enjoy will often do. Try to get to it earlier in the day rather than later, don’t let the morning slip totally away without some “me time”.

Taking back my mornings made such a huge difference for me that I won’t go back to my old ways again. There’s nothing like the satisfaction and peace that comes from the process of starting your day in your way.

2- Cultivate good sleep

In addition to starting the day right, it’s important to ensure good sleep the night before. Those are the bookends of your day and both help to reduce stress. As with the morning suggestions above, this might be easier said than done sometimes, but we’re shooting for generalities here knowing that things won’t be perfect every night.

One of the best tips that I can offer that worked well for me is to develop a nighttime routine that gears you down far before you reach your actual bedtime. For years, I was in the habit of doing tasks leading right up to bedtime, whether it was using my computer or phone, doing chores like paying bills, or sometimes working for my job. These are all thinking activities that keep your brain going full force right until you lay down to sleep, and then your brain keeps rolling right along when the lights go out instead of drifting off to sleep like it should. Not good.

I stopped all of the things above except for the occasions when it’s unavoidable, and I typically start to wind down for bed several hours before I actually go to sleep. If we usually go to bed around 11:00, then I start to do some of my nighttime activities around 8:00 or so. This includes finishing chores, preparing for work the next day, taking an evening shower to relax the mind and muscles, and putting on some comfortable clothes. Then my wife and I will typically do other less intense activities around the house like pursuing hobbies, watching some TV, listening to music, or reading. This varies by the season because we’re typically active later into the evening in the summer, but this is the general routine I try to follow (remember those starting points I mentioned above?). All of these things are cues to your body and mind that it’s time to start winding down for the night. You’re training your mind to prepare for sleep.

Using the approach above, I transformed my bedtime from a restless and sometime long scenario of getting to sleep into one where I typically now fall asleep in less than five minutes every night. Huge improvement, and I also sleep better throughout the night.

If you want to read more sleep tips check out this short article on Healthline, or simply Google “sleep tips” for more like it. Many tips are common sensical and will clearly help, yet few people try them on a sustained basis to see if they work. Pick the ones that can fit your lifestyle, and consistently give them a try for a few weeks to see what happens. Remember that you’re re-training your mind and it takes some time, but a good night of sleep is a strong foundation for the next day and it’s worth the effort.

3Re-learn how to breathe properly

Do you ever think about how you breathe? Probably not, because it’s part of the autonomic nervous system and it just happens all day without fail.

Try this small exercise to determine how you naturally breathe when at rest. Lay comfortably on the floor and place your left hand on your upper chest around your sternum and your right hand on your stomach around your belly-button. Now, simply breathe like you normally do for a little while.

Which of your hands do you notice rises as you breathe, your left or right? If it’s primarily your left hand resting up on your chest, then you’re a chest-breather. If it’s primarily the right hand on your stomach, then you’re an abdominal breather. Hold on to that thought for a minute…

When I started exploring stress reduction techniques, it was interesting to learn how much our breathing impacts our nervous system. Over time as adults we mentally and physically gravitate away from the proper breathing techniques that we instinctively knew as young children. Stress, poor posture, and a variety of other factors change us into open mouth shallow chest breathers instead of deep abdominal breathers, leading to negative repercussions for the mind and body.

When I learned that deep abdominal breathing through the nose can lower stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve sleep, and improve overall wellness, I said “Count me in!” I’m a fact and science-based person, and when it’s easy to find consistent information from multiple trusted sources and medical tests about a given subject, there’s probably something to it. I read enough to convince me that there’s a connection between proper breathing and stress reduction, and I’ve included some of those links below.

So if you’ve ever wondered why people say “Slow down and take a deep breath” when you’re stressed out, the reason why is the affect that type of breathing will quickly have on your mind and body through a modification of what’s called the fight-or-flight response and your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system responses. This is a central idea in yoga and meditation, and has found its way firmly into the mainstream where even our devices like Apple and Samsung smart watches and apps on our phones remind us of the importance of taking a break multiple times per day to simply breathe slowly and deeply.

Remember the test above to figure out if you’re a chest or abdominal breather? If you’re already an abdominal breather, that’s great and keep it up! If you’re a chest breather, you might want to try modifying your breathing technique to become a deeper abdominal breather.

Modifying how you’ve defaulted to breathing throughout your adult life is not an easy thing. When I learned about this subject, decided there was merit to it, and started to focus more on deeper abdominal breathing through my nose, I often found myself slipping back to shallow chest breathing through my mouth. This was especially prevalent while working at my desk job. Over the course of several weeks though, I changed my breathing in the right direction and have been able to stick with it until it became habit. I now just breathe slowly and deeply through my nose into my abdomen throughout the day no matter what I’m doing (except for strong exercise, which requires a different approach).

For more information about why abdominal breathing is so important and also how to do it, check out these links. There’s plenty of clear information available to help you on the path to better breathing.

4 – Yoga (yes, yoga!)

Most people know the benefits of yoga such as increased flexibility, increased strength and resiliency, a more calm and focused mind, and improved sleep to name a few. Despite knowing this, yoga is not the first thing that came to my mind when I realized I had a stress problem, but it most certainly should’ve been!

As I was researching how to de-stress, I happened upon a YouTube link to a short and simple yin yoga video. I thought to myself “What do I have to lose?” I closed the door of the room I was in to make it quiet, lowered the lights a little bit, and gave it a try.

Wow! After doing that short yoga sequence, I felt noticeably less tense and anxious, so I replayed it two more times in a row. Each time I listened to the calming voice of the instructor Paige Galster and followed her moves, I felt a little better, like my whole body was releasing tension. I started doing that same video two or three times throughout the day for a week or two, until I felt enough consistent and lasting benefit from it to think “OK, maybe there’s something to this.”

Considering the wealth of high quality material that you can find for any subject on YouTube, I find it silly now that I stuck to just that single video over and over for my first experiments with yoga in those early weeks. It shows you though how desperately you sometimes cling on to anything that works when you’re trying to reduce stress. Soon enough though, I started doing research into yoga, why you can achieve so many health benefits with it, and the many different varieties that exist. I tried a few different styles, but I eventually settled into the gentle yin approach because of the long, stress-releasing position holds, the calming music that’s often in the videos, and the instructors who gently talk you through everything they’re doing so you understand the mechanics and can avoid injuring yourself (yes, like any form of exercise, you can hurt yourself doing yoga). They also frequently narrate their videos with general wellness advice, stress reduction tips, etc.

Since this initial discovery of yoga back in early 2020, I’ve done yin yoga routines of varying length almost every day of the week (usually 30-45 minutes per day) over three years and it’s made a big difference in my daily life. So much so that I tell anyone I know about it when the subjects of stress and anxiety come up in conversation. I focus here on yin yoga, but most people who do yoga will see the same benefits I discuss here no matter which style they prefer.

I realized three things shortly after starting my yin yoga practice:

  • Yoga is equally about the mind as it is about the body. Through the moves and the focus on calming breathing techniques used in yoga, you’ll learn and feel how much these things impact your mind and calm you. It’s quite amazing, and I’m not sure I would have believed it as much if I hadn’t experienced it myself.
  • Yoga is a mindset that you can carry with you throughout your day (the “yoga mind”). The calmer mindset, the optimized breathing, the positive attitude…these are all things you can make a part of your regular activities and interactions with other people once you’ve been doing yoga long enough for them to become second nature.
  • Yoga is not about doing all of the moves and positions perfectly. It should be a zero stress and “come as you are” activity where you do what you can do within your physical limitations. Don’t worry about how you look or that you’re not exactly matching the instructors perfectly. The good instructors will regularly reiterate this in their classes and videos to reinforce that point. Their focus is to show viewers how to do the moves correctly and safely, and then you can take it as far as you can within those guardrails and the limits of your own body. If you achieve a 1:1 match with the instructor, great! If not, don’t sweat it. You have to remember when you’re first starting yoga that many of the instructors producing these videos (and some of the students they put in the videos) have been doing yoga for many years. Their bodies are flexible, their range of motion is large, etc. You can’t expect that you would be in the same place as them when you first start.

If you want to try yoga as a form of stress relief, then I can recommend the YouTube channels of:

Travis and Kassandra are two well known yoga instructors who maintain free and robust YouTube channels, as well as authoring several books about yoga and the yoga lifestyle (remember, yoga is body + mind). I arrived at the two of them as my main focus for my yoga practice after moving through many different YouTube instructors and eliminating a lot of them for various reasons (poor video or audio quality, annoying music in the videos, too fast with their moves, too much distracting talking during the videos, didn’t explain things adequately, etc). I use a few other instructors as well, but the vast majority of what I do comes from Travis and Kassandra, who also teach other styles beyond yin.

After espousing the benefits of yoga to my wife for a few months she decided to give it a try with me, and she’s been a devotee ever since. We learned that Travis and his wife Lauren (also a good instructor) have an online yoga service called Inner Dimension TV. My wife and I viewed some of their classes during a free trial offer, and we were hooked and signed up. Since then we’ve come to realize that Inner Dimension is far more than a yoga streaming service. It’s an entire wellness platform with the core focus of all styles of yoga, but there’s also content for meditation, wellness talks, and how to elevate your health in general. In addition, the service has many other instructors than just Travis and Lauren, so there’s a variety to pick from to vary your practice (although for sure Travis and Lauren’s philosophy and approaches govern the overall spirit of this service, which is a good thing). Their entire platform is based on high quality videography, clear audio, and a unified approach to their content. It’s a great service that I highly recommend, and you can use their free trial offer to see if you like it.

If you decide to try yoga for stress relief and an improvement in your overall wellbeing and daily life, I hope you find as many benefits as I did when I went down this path. There are many resources to explore on YouTube or websites and apps like Inner Dimension TV, and of course there are local yoga studios near you for in-person instruction as well. All of these resources will give you a chance to dip your toes into the waters of yoga to see what it can bring you. Try it, and give it some time (weeks or months) to sink into your mind and body. For the most benefit, find a quiet place in your home where you’ll be undisturbed while you practice.

For me, doing daily yoga and developing a yoga mindset over the past three years has been nothing short of transformational, and perhaps it can do the same for you.

5 – Reduce social media and newsfeeds

There’s no doubt that social media has done good for the world, but it’s also does a hell of a lot of bad. However, rather than discussing my opinions about its merits and drawbacks and providing examples of each, I propose turning the discussion simply to one of value instead.

I’m not a huge social media user anymore, limiting it now to periodically staying connected with my hobby groups on Facebook and Instagram. However, I know many people who spend a lot of time every day on various social media platforms, so I would propose simply asking yourself: “What value is this adding to my life, and would I miss it if I used it less often?”

Answer honestly.

If your answer was something similar to “Maybe I’m not getting a lot of true value out of this”, then try an experiment of reducing your daily time spent using social media to half of what you normally do, or take a break from it entirely for a while. Instead, try using that time on something that you truly enjoy that adds value to your life like a new hobby or activity. Maybe use the time to get some exercise or just go outside to walk and think with no external stimulation on you.

If you decide to try it, think about how your new activities make you feel? Better? I did this and never looked back because it felt like such a breath of fresh air to me. I don’t miss social media and all its negatives at all, and instead I’m doing things that I enjoy much more with my time.

I was reading something recently about social media and the author commented, “Spend time enjoying your own life rather than scrolling through the lives of others”.

That simple statement resonated so deeply with me that I think about it every time I see someone scrolling through their phone with a look on their face that tells me that they really don’t even care about what they’re looking at. Just mindless scrolling, perhaps to fill time? Stop, and do something else with your valuable time!

My trajectory with news was the same. I used to habitually scan the headlines of a few mainstream news websites each morning to keep up on world events until the constant barrage of worldwide death, destruction, negativity, and stupidity just got to be too much. I realized that it was adding absolutely zero value to my life, and instead was making me stressed and sad. Accordingly, I cut my news ingestion down to quickly scanning the business headlines to be aware of any topics that could impact my investments, and I read the the Tech, Health, Arts, Travel, and Magazine sections of the New York Times (which is more a form of entertainment than news to me). That’s it. The time saved is now used on other more value-add activities that make me happy.

In summary for this topic, focus on value and decide for yourself if there’s an optimization that can occur to reduce the excess “noise” and external stimulation from unimportant social media and news, and bring some more free time and peace to your day.

6 – Understand yourself

Do you have a good understanding of what makes you tick? What makes you happy or sad? Why a certain person or situation stresses you out? Why certain things make you anxious?

A large part of de-stressing your life is understanding how you think about things and how they affect you, why you react to things the way you do, and why you do the things you do in the first place. Perhaps then, using this deeper understanding of yourself, you can determine what you’re doing that might be at the root of some of your stress. People will often say “I feel so stressed out”, but they don’t then take the necessary steps to figure out exactly what the root cause of their stress is and whether it’s in their control to do something about it. Consequently, it never goes away and the stress cycle repeats.

To understand yourself requires soul searching, and analyzing yourself and how you think. It requires you to figure out why you react certain ways to given situations, and then decide if you want to change those reactions in the future. You might not like some of what you discover about yourself and how you handle things, but that’s OK because it’s a learning and discovery process. A lot of people are uncomfortable with this type of self-analysis, but it’s essential to de-stressing.

The goal with achieving this self-understanding is to take the positive thought patterns and behaviors in your life to move forward with, and eliminate as many of the negative thinking and behaviors as you can, because the negatives are often the root cause of stress. I would argue that just gaining the self-awareness through this process is a big step in the right direction and will probably give you some form of immediate relief because you’ll better understand “how you work”, and that’s a good thing. It empowers you to change yourself for the better.

However you cross this bridge, I consider self-understanding and self-awareness to be critical to stress reduction. Spend some time on this and reward yourself with the benefits.

7 – Distance from stressful people and situations

Stating it plainly, some people and situations can be unpleasant and stressful. We probably all know someone who is more of a drag on us than they are a positive. We also have certain activities that we do that aren’t particularly rewarding, yet we still do them anyway for whatever reason. My thought in some of these cases is to distance from them.

There’s an old adage that’s quite true and says, “Whatever doesn’t lift you up brings you down.” The reality is that the things that bring you down are also adding latent (or direct) stress to your life, whether you realize it or not. Try distancing yourself from these people and/or situations on a consistent basis for a while and see how it makes you feel. In my experience when I’ve had to do this temporarily (or even sometimes permanently), it has a positive effect on my mindset and reduces my stress level. Less negativity often means less stress. It’s as simple as that.

Here are two interesting articles that I stumbled across a long time ago that are roughly about this, and deal with the specific topics of toxic family members and troubled friendships. Many of these same thoughts can be applied to the miscellaneous unpleasant situations that we sometimes find ourselves in as well.

Realize that distancing yourself from a friend, relative, or co-worker is not a trivial thing, and I certainly don’t think it should be a regular course of action. It can cause tricky repercussions that will ripple for a long time in one way or another, and these situations often need to be handled delicately. Perhaps one way to look at it, which is admittedly maybe a little bit harsh, is to ask yourself if you’re living for them, or you. The answer should be you, so do something that you feel is appropriate to try to improve difficult and stressful situations that involve people. If you can’t improve the situation amicably, then perhaps think about distancing from them to have the space to de-stress and think things through more completely to reach a solid decision that works for you in the long term.

The final words…

It’s been a long road between January 2020 and January 2023 to reduce my stress level consistently and permanently. Over those three years, I’ve learned a lot about how the body and mind work under stress, and how they improve in the absence of it. Stress will always come in waves, but now I feel that I have a solid foundation and toolset to consistently manage it when it rears its ugly head.

Let’s summarize the takeaways from this final article in my 3-part series:

  1. Start the day right. Greet your mornings with enthusiasm and energy, and do it your way.
  2. Get good sleep. It’s scientifically proven how much a good night of sleep can help you. Find your favorite ways to set yourself up for nights filled with deep, healthy, regenerative sleep.
  3. Breathe better. You might not remember how you did it when you were a child, but it’s easy to re-learn and it has real benefits.
  4. Try yoga. It’s easy to initially explore yoga with the resources I mentioned above. There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.
  5. Ditch social media and negative news. Try reducing or eliminating them, and feel the fresh air of sanity enter your world!
  6. Understand yourself. Empower yourself to change for the better.
  7. Let go. Examine your relationships and activities for opportunities to improve them, or possibly distance if all else fails.

As a writer, I rarely know exactly who reads my words or what value they might get from them. Out of respect for the reader’s time, I try to put my ideas forward in an easy to understand and usable way. I hope the people who had the patience to read all the way through Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series are able to take away some key thoughts, make them your own, and try to achieve success in de-stressing your life. I wish you peace, we all need more of it!

What to Do When Stress Breaks You – Part 2

Relaxing is hard. I mean truly relaxing, where your mind is calm and freed from its rush of thoughts so you can disconnect from everything around you and focus on the moment you’re in without distraction. Remember that thought, we’ll come back to it.

The need to move on…..but how?

In Part 1 of this article series I wrote about how a few generally stressful years in a row (and one terrible year in particular) brought me to my brink with stress, and how I ended up in the hospital because of it. In Part 2 here, I’ll focus on how I brought myself back from that brink using some initial tactical steps to get my days under control and reduce mental overhead. The final Part 3 article will focus on strategic steps that I took for long term overall health and well-being, and the sometimes surprising results of those steps.

To be clear I’m not a doctor, therapist, or licensed in anything that qualifies me to offer medical advice, so you won’t find me doing that here. What I am is an average guy who’s logical, organized, pragmatic, and has a lot of common sense. When I have a problem I learn about the things associated with it, pull together facts and concepts that I can relate to, and then put that knowledge to use solving the problem. I’m open-minded to new ideas, and that open-mindedness was the key to me beating stress.

I don’t want to over-simplify the conditions of stress and anxiety. They’re both complicated beasts that can cause a myriad of health problems, and they often land people in doctor or therapist offices. My particular situation was somewhat straight forward to resolve once I set my mind to it and stuck with my approaches, but your mileage may vary with basic stress management techniques. At some point you might need to investigate professional help if you can’t ease your situation by yourself. But regardless of whether basic techniques work or you need something more advanced, the key point is not to ignore stress because it’s an insidious thing to live with.

My tactical steps for immediate help

I saw two basic problems that I had to tackle right out of the gate. First, over a long period of time my average day had morphed into a zoo of personal and work activity that was simply too much to handle. I was rarely achieving the goals that I set for any given day and this created a lot of mental churning and angst because I’m normally a very organized person at home and work. Second, there were a lot of negative and energy-draining activities occurring without a lot of positives to counteract them. This quite frankly became a big downer over time, and both of these scenarios were sinking me.

It’s important to note that I didn’t de-stress and ease my mind overnight. It took many months of sticking to the following approaches to feel better in a holistic way. But I did it, and maybe some of these things will help you as well.

With the above statements made, below are the tactical steps I started with. Some might work for you, others might not, but remember that open-mindedness I mentioned? Try to absorb what’s here without judgement. If you see an idea that you want to explore further, try it. If something doesn’t click with you, then just pass it by. Make the concepts work for you…

1) “Houston, we have a problem”… so make a list!

The first thing I did was acknowledge to myself that I was in over my head with stress. Something was wrong, I knew it, and I had to do something about it. The morning after my hospital visit, I sat alone for a long time and thought about how I got to the point of being so stressed out. How did I get bogged down by a conspiracy of topics to the point that it affected my physical health? My mind was swirling on the topic without focus until I decided to make a list of the things that were bothering me.

Some topics immediately came to mind (my Dad dying), but other things were much more subtle like an endless to-do list, home projects that I saw unfinished every day when I walked around the house, a friend causing angst, etc. Those items and many more weighed on me to varying degrees, and if you think about it you probably have things just like them in your life as well.

Stress is insidious. It’s like rust. It eats away at you like rust does to metal, and before you know it you’re crumbling. These items on my list, both large and small, were overtly (and sometimes more subtly) eating away at me and contributing to my overall stress picture until I snapped.

This list-making process requires soul searching and honesty, there’s no getting around that. I found that nothing can go unexamined because stressors can creep in from many paths in life. Look at your daily activities, your work, the people you spend time with, the things you do throughout the day, time you might be wasting that could be spent better elsewhere, etc. Real…honest…examination. If you’re not willing to be honest with yourself about what you really think and feel, then this process will fail. Write down each item and why it bothers you.

Well, let me tell you, I had quite the list when I was done! It took me a few days of off and on again work and coming at it from different viewpoints to get it completed, but a strange thing happened when I finished. I looked at the list and breathed a sigh of relief. My mindset had already started to shift more positive because there it was, staring me right in the face. There on my list were the major contributors to my high stress level. Amen!

For me this was a difficult but crucial first step because it helped me to qualify and quantify my situation. It put meaning and guardrails around it. It was a starting point in an otherwise swirling and concerning situation. And from there I went on…

2) Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go

When I looked at my list I started to see commonality between some of the items, and two high level buckets emerged quickly: 1) Things that I have control over, and 2) Things that I don’t.

People generally like to control as much of what goes on in their lives as possible, and I think that’s human nature. Who wants to live in a constant state of reactive chaos, right? You try to resolve things, put some order on things, move forward, and lead your version of a normal life. That’s great, until you try controlling things that are out of your control. All that does is create friction and stress in your life, “rope burn” if you will.

You have to control what you can control, and you have to let go of what you can’t control because when you try and control something that you actually have no control over, that’s called rope burn.

Travis Eliot

Here’s a story about how this type of rope burn eventually wore me down…

After my Dad died, I was the family member responsible for handling his estate and dissolving it equally between me and my three sisters. He had a lot of different accounts at many different financial institutions. Each one had a Beneficiary Services department and specific processes for how they handled the closing of accounts. Each day was a process of endless phone calls, paperwork, signing, scanning, and mailing documents. More phone calls, more waits, etc. I’m sure you can imagine…

The process really started to grate on me after a while because with every phone call I would get more and more frustrated at the long time things were taking and the incompetence of some of the people I was dealing with. Side note: It’s scary that some of these people manage money, because I found in some cases that I knew more about certain topics than they did and I’m certainly no expert.

My stress level spiraled upward with these daily frustrations until one comment from an agent at a bank snapped me out of my thought pattern. She said “The paperwork you prepared was excellent and it will make this arduous process go much smoother. I’ll take care of this and get back to you”. A few days later, she did get back to me and SHE actually thanked ME for the perfect paperwork that I submitted. The process was completed, there was no aggravation, and my stress level started to come down for this one particular situation.

The critical takeaway for me from that scenario was: You can only do what you can do, and you can only control what you can control. Sometimes the rest is up to someone else to complete and you must accept that. It is what it is.

Think about how many ways that thought can apply throughout your day, whether it’s in your personal or business life. Every day we deal with various types of situations and try to control outcomes that are at least partially out of our control at some point along their path. You have to realize when these times are occurring and let them go.

I adjusted the way I dealt with every financial institution after that. I made sure the paperwork I submitted was perfect, that it was done on time, and that it made it to the right person. Then I accepted the fact that I had done my part of the process, I had controlled what I could control and did the best I could with it. Now I had to turn it over to someone else to do their part without micro-managing it.

With this approach my expectations were more realistic and the small wins started to come, one after the other. And you know what? Everything worked out fine in the end. It took a lot longer than I wanted for sure, but it all got done and my stress levels were noticeably reduced bit by bit along the way.

The exact same thought process can be applied to people. In your daily interactions with people, at some point their reactions and subsequent actions are out of your control, and you must accept that for the sake of your own sanity. Any parent who has tried to help their child can relate to this. You can give your children all of the solid advice in the world, but at some point it’s completely up to them to internalize it, find any value in it that works for them, and then act on it if they choose. It can be frustrating and stressful watching a proven piece of advice go unheeded when you know it will help them, but it is what it is. You have done your best.

3) Make your daily to-do list realistic, and set up the following day for success

I’m a heavy user of the lists and the Reminders app on my iPhone and Mac. I have four different lists of reminders for different purposes, but it wasn’t always like that. I used to have just one long list of reminders.

When you’re extremely busy and find yourself in a situation when you have to fit as much as you can into the usable day, there’s nothing more stressful than reviewing your to-do list and seeing 65 things on it. All that’s saying to you is “You will never finish all of these things today.” That creates subtle subconscious stress all day long. It’s more rope burn. I used to scroll up and down my list to find the highest priority items that needed attention each day, and the rest just stayed there staring at me until I eventually got around to them another day. Another week. Or never.

That situation had to end. Instead, I created lists for Today, House, Monthly and Miscellaneous. When I bucketed the tasks it was easier to see how things naturally segmented themselves and priorities became clearer. For example, I have many tasks that fall into that Monthly bucket. Why was I scrolling through them every day if they only needed to be done…once per month?!

When I look at my plans at night for the following day, I have a pretty good idea of how much free time I’ll have throughout that day. At that point, I review my to-do lists and I pull only the top priority items into my Today list that I want or need to achieve that following day. Sometimes it’s one item, other times it’s five. It depends on how much free time I have and how complex the tasks are.

You have to be ruthless with what makes it onto the Today list. Keeping it low volume and achievable sets the tone for the whole day that will come with the morning. When that’s done, I turn out the lights and fall asleep with a clear, organized mind knowing (for the most part) what the next day will bring with regard to work. I rest easier doing this the night before instead of figuring it out in the morning. It allows me to start my mornings much more peacefully because I don’t feel that morning rush to get things organized anymore.

In reality you’ll still have just as many to-do’s as you did before. However, when they’re managed in this way you don’t have the subconscious stress of staring down an endless list of things you know you can’t finish in a day or don’t need to be focusing on at all that particular day. You’ve chunked the list into realistic and achievable goals.

Bonus tip: Keep your calendar realistic in the same way as managing your to-do’s. Set up your day so that you have some blocks of time to rest, process the events of the day as they’re unfolding, and get ready for the next thing you have to do. Don’t eat breakfast or lunch while working. Avoid back to back appointments. And for sure, don’t double-book yourself on your own calendar! It’s literally impossible to be in two places at the same time, yet I’m amazed at the number of people who double or even triple book themselves in the same time slot. It makes zero sense and only creates stress to see that mess staring back at you.

4) Focus on the small wins and they will add up to big wins

We’ve all got busy and challenging lives. Sometimes you run into a string of days, weeks, or even months that just don’t go well. I had a lot of bad days in 2019, which I mentioned in Part 1. It’s easy to get into a cycle of feeling like things are just going wrong and there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel.

I found success in re-framing that situation. Things go wrong during the day, but things go right as well. I started focusing more of my attention on the things that were going right and adding up the small wins throughout the day that made me feel good. The things that made me smile or laugh. When I focused on the good parts of the day, my mindset started to shift to the more positive side. I still had the problems, I still had the to-do’s, work, etc, but I took those wins during the day and banked them.

By doing this, I found that at the end of the day I was no longer focused as much on what went wrong and what I didn’t get done. Instead I was focused on what I did get done and the things that made me feel good. Over time this approach put a blanket of peace on the end of the day. I found that when I framed my day with a good start (using #3 above) and a positive end that things started to smooth out overall. Some peace was coming at last…

5) Move!

I originally titled this item “Get some exercise”, but then I realized that this is something different and much simpler than that. It’s really just about moving yourself and giving your body and mind some activity and a few minutes to refresh and reset periodically throughout the day. Some people experience barriers to entry with starting an exercise program, but there are no barriers to simply moving and refreshing your perspective.

I typically work from home as an IT Manager, but these same principles apply to an office as well. When I get bogged down with work and personal tasks, I realized that I was stuck at my desk or in one room of the house for hours on end. This can get to be a bit much when it happens over the course of many months, so this suggestion is simply about recognizing when that’s happening and counteracting it by getting some motion into your day. Move to a new room to do whatever you’re doing, go outside for a little break to catch some sun and hear the sounds of the outdoors wherever you live or work. It does wonders for your mind and body to just…move!

I live near wooded areas, so when I go outside for a few minutes I can smell the grass and fresh air. I hear the birds singing, the wind blowing through the trees, and the sun has a chance to hit my face. I can walk around the yard or neighborhood to get my blood flowing. It’s well documented how much this helps your well-being and I highly suggest trying to work these small mental and physical breaks into your day. It makes a huge difference. It’s precisely why many companies are restructuring their environments to provide employees with these opportunities for breaks. Apple, for example, has taken it to an extreme with their amazing new Apple Park office in California that pushes their employees toward nature literally in every direction they turn.

This need to move is also the essence of why fitness devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit have reminders to stand, move, exercise, and take breaks several times throughout the day to do some deep breathing exercises. Science clearly shows the benefit of doing these things, it’s not just an opinion or marketing tricks. That’s why these devices try to motivate you with daily goals, activity rings to close, and visual reminders of your progress. They’re all forms of motivation to get you moving. (Anyone who owns an Apple Watch recognizes that little tri-colored ring above…Did you close your rings today?) 😉

6) Do nothing

To the opposite of #5 above, try this one as well. Sit still. It’s OK sometimes. Let your mind wander and maybe let it go down a rabbit hole to satisfy your curiosity for a while. Stop worrying about always making progress with everything. It can wait.

This is a critical thing I needed to remember while I was trying to de-stress and get myself back on track because I’m typically not one to sit still for long. The combination of having a lot to do for my job, many chores, and also making time for my hobbies and other fun things put me on a treadmill of always doing something. I forgot to just stop once in a while to take a breath. Read a book. Watch a movie. Watch the grass grow. Take a short nap. It’s all OK.

Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.

Walter Hagen, from his autobiography. This is the phrase that later morphed into “Stop and smell the roses” some time during the 1960’s

I think modern culture is so fast paced that people begin to think that by sitting still, enjoying the moment, or doing something just for the sake of doing it that they’re wasting time and letting life pass them by. I would argue the exact opposite. I think that when we rush around like maniacs that life passes us by much faster. We need to remember how to savor the moments, and stop to smell the roses.


The content above is a lot to process, so let’s summarize the takeaways from this second article:

  1. Identify your stress points. Dig deep, be honest with yourself.
  2. Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go.
  3. Manage to-do lists and calendars realistically, and set your next day up for success.
  4. Focus on small wins that add up to bigger wins.
  5. Move!
  6. It’s OK to do nothing sometimes.

These were the immediate tactical steps that I took to calm my days and bring some peace of mind. Having chaotic, emotional, always-on days was the primary cause of many of the items that I listed out in #1 above. It’s just not sustainable.

If you’re feeling that your days are not quite yours anymore, I encourage you to try some variety of the ideas above to throw a rope around things and calm them down. There are many websites about creating effective to-do lists, managing your day in a mindful way, 7-minute exercise routines to get some motion into your day, etc. The ideas presented here are meant to be seeds for further investigation if you see value in them. Google is your exploration friend!

Last but not least

Remember what I said in the beginning about relaxing and how hard it can be to really let go? Using the tips above can help you frame your day better and remove some of your daily stressors so that you can start moving toward regularly getting some chances to relax. It takes time, but slowly and surely things will catch on. The final installment in this series will focus on the strategic long term stress-reducing steps I took that could be classified as lifestyle or wellness changes. These are the things that brought me sustainable peace, and with that peace came a better ability to truly relax. Stay tuned for more…