How to increase control when stressed
31 Aug 2022

How to increase control when stressed

Written by: Mark J.

A big cause of feeling stressed often comes from a lack of control, particularly when we’ve got a heavy workload and a lot to get through. So feeling a better sense of control will come to us through planning our days well, being assertive when we need to and managing some of the negative thoughts that may cause us stress. 

But first making a simple shift in the language we use here can make a big difference. We often say ‘we don’t have time for things’ whether that’s going to the salon for a pedicure, reading a book or completing something at work. But rather than saying we don’t have time for something, we can say instead ‘that it’s not a priority to me right now'.

That helps give us a feeling of control back over our own time and makes it feel like a conscious decision to not do something rather than a constant battle against the clock. 

It can help us feel less time-starved. It’s a small shift but it can be quite powerful. We have to acknowledge we can’t do everything so often it’s about our priorities. But in order to feel in control, we have to feel like we have a degree of control over our own time and this phrasing will help with that. 

When we start to feel overwhelmed at work and out of control, we may notice the same persistent thought patterns or fear arising in our minds. The key thing here to understand is that a thought is just a thought. We are separate from our thoughts, meaning they don’t define us. We have the ability to challenge those negative thoughts and we can choose to not take every thought so seriously. Just because a statement pops into our minds, it doesn’t mean it’s true. 

For example, you may have a heavy workload and your brain may tell you ”I can’t cope. My boss is going to be so mad if I don’t get this done and I’m never going to finish it.”

This isn’t a factual piece of information but a thought that your brain has generated as it feels it is threatened. We can challenge our thoughts and we can choose to ignore them when they don’t serve us.

We’re not trying to stop or control our thoughts. We simply become the observer, just noticing the thoughts rather than actively engaging with them. This is a skill that is practised during mindfulness and through training the brain to do this we can actively disengage from destructive thought patterns and reduce our stress levels. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by your thoughts, you can take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, or take a few minutes to plan and prioritise before getting back into it.

Streamlining your life

When taking back control of our time, we also want to think about streamlining our lives. How can we eliminate and minimise the number of decisions you have to make The average person makes hundreds of conscious decisions a day; this leads to decision fatigue. Every decision requires mental energy, which takes away from more important tasks. 

So I want us to think about what we can reduce, what we can eliminate and what we can delegate or automate. We want to think of this as much in our lives outside of work, as we do in work, as either area of our life spills into the other. 

Can you reduce the number of emails you send? Can you eliminate tasks that you feel obliged to do but probably aren’t that important? Or aren’t part of your core tasks?

I tend to use the rule – would anything really good happen if I did do it or would anything really bad happen if I didn’t do it? If the answer is no to both, you can think about whether you really need to do it. 

Can you automate paying your bills, Can you store favourites on a food shopping app and make your life easier?  Can you bulk shop or bulk cook items? So we don’t have to go shopping or cook as frequently? 

I want you to think about aspects of your own life that you can either reduce, eliminate or automate. See if you can pick out at least one or two things. 

Saying no

The next thing I wanted to come to was being assertive.

We often need to protect our time by learning to say no. Whether that is something at work, that isn’t completely essential, or something in our personal lives being involved in a committee at your children’s school.

 When someone asks you to commit to something you’re not sure about:

Notice how you feel - Your body will often give you a signal if it doesn’t like the sound of something. It might be a gut feeling – an uneasiness in your stomach/tightness in the chest, but listen out for what your body is trying to tell you.

Compare it to previous situations. Have you said yes to things like this before to later regret it?

We always think we’ll be less busy in the future but that usually isn’t the case. So if you haven’t got time to take on something now, you probably won’t have time in the future. 

Do feel free to ask for more time or information before you make your decision. 

If the answer is no, be honest, clear and succinct about this. Make sure that there is no ambiguity around your decision. And feel free to give just one reason for saying no, even if this reason is that this task isn’t a priority to you right now. If the other person gets angry or upset about your decision, you can acknowledge the other person’s opinions/feelings but stand your ground

Be sure to plan

Another really important element in feeling like we have control over our days is about planning our days effectively. If we go into our days without a plan, we are likely to get side-tracked by emails and other people’s requests, leaving us little time for the work that is really important. 

So one thing I’d advise is that your daily plan isn’t just your overall to-do list. As we mentioned before, we want to break tasks down so that they’re achievable so working from a long to-do list of tasks isn’t a great recipe for getting things done. 

I use a weekly planner for this and at the end of each workday, I create a written plan for what I will do tomorrow. So I identify the 3-4 tasks I need to do that day and schedule in timings for when I’m going to do them. 

For most of us, we’ll be most mentally alert in the morning, so if we come in and start answering emails or doing the easier tasks, we may waste the most productive hours of our day. This is why a plan is so important. 

A few tips on planning. 

Allow for unplanned activity. There are always things that will come up in a working day that we can’t plan for, so don’t overschedule your day. 

Live by the mantra first things first. What gets done first, gets done. So plan your most challenging or important tasks for the morning. This will ensure that we actually get them done before our day runs away with us. It always means we’re using our most mentally alert hours wisely

Set time zones for ‘deep concentration work’. We talked earlier about working in flow. Work out some blocks in your day where you’re able to work in this way. Perhaps it’s a couple of hours in the morning. 

Batch your tasks – this will help us be more efficient and is especially important when it comes to emails, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. 

Include breaks & walks in your plan – these as we learnt are really important for our productivity and we’re less likely to skip them if we schedule them in.