The Secret of Stress Management - Part II

Did you miss part I? The Secret of Stress Management – Part I ››

Let me describe an experiment that provides a really great analogy for our little time estimation problem.

You take people out to a hill, well usually a field that has a hill in the distance, and you ask them to estimate how far they think it is from where they currently are to the top of the hill off yonder. They give you a distance. Then you ask them to estimate how long they think it would take to walk there. They give you time. You average all of these numbers together across several participants and get a number that you can count as what people usually estimate, and the estimates are surprisingly well clustered or close together.

Then you take another group of people and put a a heavily packed bag on their shoulders, like a hiking backpack that has roughly 20% of the subject’s weight in it, and you have them estimate the distance and the time it would take to walk there.

What do you find? The estimates given by the people with the heavy backpacks are 30% more than those without backpacks.

Other conditions extend estimates as well – being tired, being older, feeling anxious, throwing a heavy ball before estimating and so on.

They all have one thing in common – we mis-estimate the future based on how burdened we feel in the present, and these estimations of the future feedback in to how we feel in the present, making us feel worse and so the spiral continues.

An observation – what usually starts us on this negative cycle is a single event in the near future that 1) we don’t want to do, 2) seems difficult or taxing to do (because it’s either tedious or socially complex or both) and 3) it\‘s one that we’re generally stressed about.
From here it is easy to generalize to other events and start accumulating \“stress weight\” in our emotional backpacks. Why? Because we seek confirmation. We want to confirm whether we’re stressed and as we uncover other things to be done, we begin piling on all of the examples of how we’re stressed.

The solution – DO NOT RELAX, unless you want to kill yourself.

Instead create an:
1) if-then statement for yourself (for example, \“if I start to feel overwhelmed, then I will focus on one single task ahead and remind myself that feeling overwhelmed is an illusion\”). Don\‘t skip this step, it\‘s important, and then
2) focus only on the next stressful activity you have to do. Think of nothing else, worry about nothing else than the very next activity,
3) make sure you remind yourself about this little discussion – remind yourself that your ability to estimate the grand trajectory of your life (never mind the next week) is hampered by just one thing – that simple little activity staring you in the face in the near future which on its own is not very bad.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you have a desire to approach the activity, and do your best to get it done, instead of running away from it or putting it off.

Perfectionism is another specter haunting us here because it makes everything feel heavier than it should by default.

Forcing yourself to relax is about as effective at stopping this over-estimation as controlling your desire to act out sexually was through willpower. There is a better way. A much better way.

The last thing I want to say after seeing the similarities between overcoming unwanted sexual behavior and putting off what we know we should do side by side is that – if you want to know how NOT to regulate your actions in a way that leads to success and happiness and satisfaction, by all means do what everyone tells you to do. It doesn’t take much reflection to see that if what everyone thought was the best thing to do actually worked, the world would be a very different and probably much better place.

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