How to work productively while under stress

Posted in Personal development.

No matter who you are, everyone is bound to experience stress at some point or another. Maybe it’s the little things that add up or perhaps it’s one seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes throwing in the towel sounds like a very tempting choice. However, there are times when we need to keep advancing and complete the tasks at hand. A great way to test someone’s mettle is to see how they perform under stress. When the going gets tough having the right mental tools at your disposal can help to manage the stress while allowing you to complete your tasks.

Avoid procrastination

While this might seem like an obvious observation – the best way to work is to just work – people who procrastinate are still aware that they should continue with their tasks. It’s a common defence mechanism against unfavourable due tasks, but eventually procrastination leads to a build-up of unfinished tasks with deadlines that loom closer and closer.

The best way to beat procrastination is to “just do it”. People tend to be habitual so create a routine. Set up a schedule for when tasks need to be done and adhere to it. Eventually working becomes second nature instead of procrastinating. However, diligence is just one side of the coin.

Evaluate priorities and plan accordingly

Working smart is essential to getting tasks done in an efficient and timely manner. When there are a multitude of deadlines for various tasks you need to evaluate which tasks should get prioritised. Which tasks are more urgent? Will completing it relieve pressure or clear up space in your day? Will completing the task advance your goals? Can the task be delegated or eliminated? After answering these questions for each of your tasks, order them using the Eisenhower method:

  • Important and urgent tasks
  • Important but not urgent tasks
  • Urgent but not important tasks
  • Neither urgent nor important tasks

You or those you work with should then create a plan to complete these tasks. Consider the workload of each task and allot a time for them to be completed. Break down tasks into manageable chunks and divide the work accordingly. Any big project can look daunting when they are not split up into easily attainable milestones. Creating these “mini-goals” can serve to increase your morale and convey a sense of progress.

Create recovery plans in the case that the first plan should not work out. Come up with alternatives even if you don’t need to as once something does happen, you’re able to handle it well. Having a guide can serve to alleviate some stress and make procrastination less prominent.

Monitor your mental processes

Even the most fool-proof plans can fail if morale is low as is the case with stress. When deadlines are nearing, tasks are piling, and unforeseen circumstances set your progress back, it is important to focus on the things that you can control. When all you can focus on is the things that are going wrong and that you can do nothing about, it only increases your anxiety and stress. What factors can you control? Those are the factors that determine whether you succeed or fail.

A big factor of stress is our perception of the stressors. The hardest part of working under pressure is often not finishing tasks, but rather it is coping with the perception of stress. Many people see stress as a threat which puts them into fight-or-flight mode, undermining their cognitions like memory, attention, and judgement, leading to impulsive behaviour. It helps to shift this mentality and think of the stressful situation as a challenge. Think of it as a chance to better yourself. Move you focus from the repercussions of not completing your goals to the actual task at hand.

It may seem like tunnel-vision, but only focus on the task and the steps required to complete it. Calm yourself and do not let your emotions take over. This allows you to remain cool-headed and act rationally. When you aren’t worrying over what bad may happen, you may see yourself spotting opportunities that you may have never otherwise.

Take breaks

While it’s great to get to the task at hand, at times what we need is a break. When under stress, our natural reaction is to speed things up. Don’t. Slow down. Not only will a break allow you to slow down and see things you might otherwise not have seen, but it also allows you to return to your work with a fresh perspective. At times we fatigue and any extra work we try to push out is going to be subpar and inefficient.

This might seem counterintuitive to our first point, “avoid procrastination”, it is in fact not if you keep it as a healthy balance. Breaks should only be used to restart your thinking and to slow things down. You should still set up a schedule for getting back to work.

If you follow these guidelines, you can start to see an improvement in your work output under stress. It may takes some practice and deliberate mindfulness, but once you excel at one stressful situation with these guidelines, you can excel at others.