Your life is busy, and it’s usually the case that there’s never enough time to get everything done. In fact, it often seems like you’re just moving from one compromise to the next:
- Does your boss need a last-minute project completed? Guess you won’t be sleeping much this week, and you can forget about quality family time.
- Did you get a chance to sleep in on Saturday? This just means might not finish all your errands today.
- Did your daughter’s volleyball team make it to the finals? Now, you’ll just need to figure out how to make it to your son’s swim meet.
- Does the house need painting? Lawn mowed? Taxes filed? Birthdays planned? Disasters avoided?
And what happens when you’ve got way too much on your plate? You get stressed, which then impacts your energy levels, your patience, and your productivity.
But what if you could cut through it all, make sense of the madness, and unleash your productivity? And what if you could accomplish all of this on your own, without using expensive brain boosting supplements or relying on hefty doses of caffeine?
That’s exactly what we’ll cover in this article. We are going to look at 6 natural ways that will help you reduce stress and increase your productivity. But before we dive in, let’s talk about stress.
Why Focus on Stress?
Invariably, any discussion about productivity will lead to talking about stress, since uncontrolled stress has a direct impact on how much we accomplish during any given day. But high levels of stress aren’t just a drain on our productivity; stress also takes a huge toll on our health. Consider the following statistics:
According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is the basic cause of 60% of all human illness and disease, while 3 out of 4 doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments. Stress increases your risk of heart disease by 40%, heart attack by 25%, and stroke by a whopping 50%. Stress also leads to overeating (or eating unhealthy foods), in addition to loss of sleep. In fact, stress-related ailments cost the nation $300 billion each year in medical bills and lost productivity, which is $100 billion more than costs related to obesity.
As we can see, if we want to adequately address our productivity, we first have to reduce our levels of stress.
When it comes down to it though, you already recognize that you’re overstressed and underproductive, which is why you’re reading this article. But even though we realize that our stress levels are over the top, why do we have such a hard time doing something about it? As it turns out, science might be moving us one step closer to answering this question.
Relationship Between Stress and Productivity
When your stress levels are at their highest, do you feel almost like you’re caught in a whirlpool, constantly going in circles while inching closer to becoming completely drained? And no matter which choices you make, they just seem to backfire on you?
According to a recent Yale University study, researchers found that “even the brains of subjects who had only recently experienced a stressful life event showed markedly lower gray matter in portions of the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that regulates not only emotions and self-control, but physiological functions such as blood pressure and glucose levels.” What does this mean though?
In short, this means that the more stress you’re subjected to, the less you’re able to cope, which leads to reduced self-control and poorer decision making. And like water being pulled toward a drain, we “get sucked into progressive rounds of greater and greater stress until they completely burn out (or worse).”
Despite the damaging effects of stress on your productivity and your body, you’ve got a lot of people counting on you, so you can’t just check out, decide to call it quits for a while, and wait until your stress levels are under control.
So how can you not just prevent your body from being pulled into a downward spiral of stress, but also thrive and improve your focus, boost your energy, and increase your productivity? Let’s take a look.
How to Naturally Reduce Stress and Increase Productivity
1. Decide to Take Action
According to Psychology Today, when it comes to making big decisions, we’re hard-wired to take the path of least resistance. Which, when we’re talking about stress, is often just to continue as if nothing’s wrong. After all, you’re (kind of) making it work, so why rock the boat, right?
Wrong. Even in our over-stressed, depleted-grey matter state, we can feel the toll that stress is taking on our body, and we know that we need to take action; now. So don’t wait.
But after you’ve made the decision to act, where should you begin? What are some actionable steps you can use—this very moment—to reduce your stress and increase you’re productivity? Let’s find out.
2. Put Things in Perspective
First, embrace the chaos. In other words, actively recognize that most things are beyond your control, and sometimes your life will seem like a small ship caught in a very large storm. And during events like these, it’s not so much what’s going on that’s important, it’s how you respond.
In order to accomplish this, Living Life Fully offers some good tips:
Look at the bigger picture. At some point in your life, you’ve almost certainly heard the phrase, “10 years from now we’ll look back on this and laugh.” Sure, whatever’s going on right now may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but how will you look back at this event years down the road? Viewing your problems from a fresh perspective can bring a great deal of insight, while also reducing your stress. Heck, it might even put a smile on your face!
Turn negatives into positives. Sure, you can choose to wallow in your anger and self-pity during stressful times, but more often than not this just leads to even more stress. Instead, think about how your current situation can lead to personal growth and how it can provide a greater insight into who you truly are and what you really want in life.
Focus on what really matters. When faced with a difficult situation, you have two perspectives from which to view it; either by thinking about all the bad things that could come of it, or all the good things. This may sound simple (and it is), but it can have a huge impact on the energy you’re feeding your body, and as a consequence, how stressed you become.
3. Go Within
Speaking of perspective, how we view the world has a very real effect on how we react to it, as well as how much stress we allow to build up within our bodies. In a very real way, our inner world determines what we experience in the outer one. So in order to change our outer experiences, we first must go within, and one of the best methods of accomplishing this is through meditation.
According to the Mayo Clinic though, meditation isn’t some arcane practice that’s only used by people who live in caves for decades. Instead, meditation is an effective way to reduce stress for all of us ordinary folks who could use a little calm and inner peace. All you have to do is “focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress.” And ultimately, “this process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.”
In fact, you can even meditate “wherever you are — whether you're out for a walk, riding the bus, waiting at the doctor's office or even in the middle of a difficult business meeting.” Because of this, regardless of your circumstances or physical location, meditation can offer a simple, effective way of centering yourself and reducing your level of stress.
With this said, like any other practice, meditation is highly personal. In other words, what you find enjoyable may not be what some of your co-workers enjoy. So you’ll definitely want to research different meditation styles and forms to find the one that works best for you.
Now that we’ve covered some of the mental aspects of reducing stress, let’s take a look as some of the physical ones as well.
4. Get Plenty of Exercise
Yeah, we know. You’re probably inundated with people telling you that you should eat right (more about this next) and exercise regularly, but the fact of the matter is that these habits can have a huge impact on your stress levels, your productivity, and your overall health.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.”
This includes walking, running, dancing, jogging, cycling—just about anything that elevates your heart rate and releases endorphins. Many aerobic exercises don’t even require that you leave your home, and many can be completed in about 10 minutes.
5. Pay Attention to What You Eat and Drink
Now that you’ve got the mental and exercise portions of your anti-stress routine down, let’s talk about nutrition. After all, if you’re providing your body with low-quality fuel, you’ll be left with low-quality productivity.
To this end, Everyday Health claims that eating tryptophan-rich foods (such as turkey), vitamin B-rich foods such as beef, whole wheat bread, salmon, and high protein foods such as Greek yogurt, eggs, beans, and nuts can help you feel calmer during the day, while providing you with the energy you need to power through your workouts.
On the other hand though, which foods should you avoid? Coffee and other caffeinated drinks, which can reduce your brain’s serotonin output; foods high in sugar; alcohol; and foods containing processed ingredients (e.g. fried food, processed meat, high-fat dairy products, and sweetened desserts).
While some of these foods may act as a temporary stimulant and give you a perceived energy boost, they’ll ultimately leave you in the midst of a crash. And as you read in the Yale study noted above, when you’re crashing, you’re unable to make good decisions, which can further amplify your stress.
6. Work on Managing Your Time Better
You might consider yourself a freewheeling guy or gal, but keep in mind that when it comes to reducing your stress and increasing your productivity, structure is key. In other words, you need to have a systematic approach to your day so that you can get as much done as possible.
While there are some variables that can be changed based on your personal preferences and work schedule, most experts recommend the following:
Tackle the Biggest Things First
In general, humans are procrastinators, and especially so if we’ve got a big looming project that we’re dreading. Instead of wasting time on smaller projects, get these big ones out of the way during the first part of your day, when your energy levels and concentration are at their highest.
This way you won’t have it hovering over your head all day, which not only will make you more productive, but will also go a long way toward reducing your stress. In fact, if nothing else, I’ve found this one tip to be the key to unlocking my maximum productivity.
Peter Drucker, who many consider to be the founder of modern management, is famous (among many other things) for stating, “If there is any one ‘secret’ to effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first, and they do one thing at a time.” In other words, focus on one task and don’t move on to another until it’s complete.
When you’re at work and are looking to maximize your productivity, Lifehack recommends turning off email alerts, setting your Instant Messenger status to “away,” and muting (or turning off your phone). Simple Life Strategies recommends removing yourself from any “people interruptions,” including social media.
Finally, MindTools claims that turning off email alerts and only checking emails at pre-scheduled, low-productivity times of the day can work wonders, as can a tidy desk.
Learn to Say No
While it’s obvious that adding one more thing to your already overstuffed itinerary will make you more stressed and less productive, we often have a difficult time declining. Because of this, you need to learn how to say no, or at the very least, “let me think about it.”
Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind (Again)
Finally, as Stephen Covey said, “The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Sure, you’ve got plenty of mundane day-to-day tasks that need to be handled, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t manage your time so that you’re also working toward your bigger dreams and goals.
Bottom Line on Naturally Reducing Stress & Maximizing Your Productivity
Taking all of this together, effectively addressing (and reducing) your stress levels involves a two-pronged approach; mental and physical. And if you implement at least some of the tips noted above, you’ll be well on your way to leading a happier and healthier life.
One important note though: In today’s fact-paced world, we’re often looking for quick fixes to our problems, whether we’re talking about overcoming our addictions, losing weight, or reducing our stress levels. However, just like it may have taken years for your stress to overwhelm you, it’s going to take hard work and a steady, mindful approach on your part to reduce them to a healthy level.
Be diligent yet patient, and you’ll soon be able to decrease your stress, lead a happier and healthier life, and send your awesomeness through the roof.