And for leaders, who might say they have too much responsibility to take a break in the middle of an already-full day, think again. Even the President schedules sacrosanct blocks of time daily; his morning workout and his family dinner are immovable. In a piece for Vanity Fair Todd Purdum spent 24 hours following Barack Obama around on a “normal” day of work, and found that the President “even as [his] travel schedule picks up… [he] intends to be home for dinner as often as possible… It [allows for] a rare moment of perspective.”
Regardless of how you choose to spend it (and you’ll find multiple options for every kind of stress-crunch below), hitting the pause button for only ten or fifteen minutes can add valuable perspective to your situation. It gets you out of the fight-or-flight mode that an added project to an already full plate, a moved-up deadline, or even a co-worker conflict, can put us in.
At 99U, we’ve studied how countless makers, entrepreneurs, leaders, and creatives are able to handle the intense workloads or schedules that often come with doing great work, and across the board they each have a daily break (or multiple ones) that they protect fiercely. Here are the best strategies we’ve learned from our past research for taming even the most stressful and anxiety-filled workdays.
1. Avoid “hanger” and take an actual lunch break.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of the desk-lunch. The logic seems sound: If I eat lunch at my desk and just work through that lunch hour, I will get more done overall today. And when the pressure is on, sometimes we feel like we can’t even leave our desks to start with. Unfortunately, as Robert Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity, learned:
If you start with the notion that having a quick sandwich at your lunch is productive in the sense that it takes less time, that’s true,” the author says. “But we don’t want a hard and fast rule—we want a functional rule.” The desk-lunch efficiency might not be worth it, he says, if you could gain more from stepping away.
That lunch break serves a larger purpose than just getting food in your belly; it is a vital pause. Art Markman, PhD, author and professor of Psychology at the University of Texas explains:
When you walk away from a problem and think about something else, your memory resets. The ideas that dominated your thinking recede from your thoughts. The memories that were inhibited before gradually become more accessible. If your thoughts return to the problem after a pause, those other memories now have a chance to influence your thinking.
The time at which you take a lunch, or even if you get one, not up to you? Try to institute the HALT rule within your team:
Stop what you are doing, move to a place where this state or emotion is not dominating you and THEN make a decision:
H: When you are hungry, your mind and metabolism do not work well.
A: When you are angry, your mind is reactive, clouded with irrational emotions.
L: When you are lonely, you are needy and vulnerable.
T: When you are tired, everything doesn’t work well – often coupled with hungry
All of these variables can interconnect to create a danger zone for capable decision making.
It’s always better to take a short break now then to regret decisions due to something as preventable as “hanger” (anger from being hungry) later on.
2. Change locations.
Feeling overwhelmed or lacking creative fuel? A 2014 Stanford study says we should walk it out:
Stanford researchers found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.
Just make sure you’re using it to actually take a break, and not as a distraction:
When your brain is completely overloaded and you need to take a life time-out and hit the reset button, nothing will accomplish that better than logging some cleansing miles on foot, solo. No phone, no headphones, no wallet (lest you see something that you’re distractedly tempted to buy). The long walk is a therapeutic tool to not only power up your mind but also to recharge its battery.
If you can’t justify a quick stroll alone, work it into your daily tasks. Take your meetings on your long walk with you, and you’ll give your whole team a boost:
Amidst all the different types of meetings in a work day, and in order to wrestle with all the mental constraints we have to work with (e.g., perfectionism, anxiety, insecurity, etc.), a simple 10-minute walk can do wonders for the mind. Fresh air. A change in scenery.
Surprise bonus: you can also schedule that walking-meeting to end in a brainstorming session at a nearby bar, as James Victore advised us:
I would come into the studio and work during the day. Afterwards, at 4 or 5 o’clock, I’d go to my bar, sit with a beer or two, and refine it. Or write on a new idea. So it became this really nice process of every day. And it became a habit. I can’t do the think-work in the studio. The studio’s for putting stuff together – for work-work. And if we’re not doing work-work, then we leave. How many great architecture ideas have been drawn on napkins? Because they’re free, they’re not thinking about work.
3. Recenter yourself.
Feeling high-anxiety or jangling nerves? Meditation can be done anywhere, even in your open office or a car with apps like Buddhify, and provides the end results of calmness, clarity, focus, and patience. (It doesn’t have to be practiced every single day in order to do so either, but once you try it a few times you might find yourself incorporating it into your daily routine).
Scott McDowell, strategy consultant and daily meditator, advises to find a quiet spot, take a seat, and focus on your breathing—and nothing else:
It’s your heart’s job to beat and it’s your brain’s job to think. That’s what it’s there for. Don’t try to empty your mind of all thought. Instead, whenever your mind drifts, gently bring it back to your breath (or mantra or counting or whatever it is you’re focusing on.) The ability to redirect your thoughts and to not dwell on them is what meditation is all about it…Productivity is not the goal, nor is enlightenment. The goal is to sit down and breathe.
Can’t sit still? There is something extra satisfying about stretching when stressed; you can feel the tension tangibly build and then loosen in your muscles — and the rush of endorphins don’t hurt either. Yoga moves are designed to relieve pain, decrease stress, and get re-centered. Jenn Tardif, our resident Yoga Teacher, has advised us on yoga moves to break stress and anxiety, as well as ones to undo the damage of a desk job.
4. Schedule a weekend-getaway ASAP.
When we’re at our most stressed is when we need vacations the most. But you don’t need to get extra time off (which is likely impossible in those circumstances anyways) in order to take a vacation that will deliver. Getting away, even if it’s only for a weekend, relieves and prevents burnout. You may think of vacations as luxuries, or that you’ll be just as stressed again the moment you return, but that’d be missing the point. From a study by the Behavioral Science Institute and Radboud University:
Asking why we should keep going on vacations is therefore comparable to asking why we should go to sleep considering the fact that we get tired again. A period of effort investment at work should necessarily be alternated with periods of recovery in order to remain healthy in the long run. Therefore, instead of skipping vacations or taking only one long vacation in years, it seems much more reasonable to schedule several shorter vacations across a work year in order to maintain high levels of [health and well-being].
Plus, as The New York Times reports, you start to reap the benefits before you’ve even left for it:
Since most of the happiness boost comes from planning and anticipating a vacation, the study suggests that people may get more out of several small trips a year than one big vacation, [Jeroen Nawijn, tourism research lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands] said. “The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip,” he said. “What you can do is try to increase that by taking more trips per year. If you have a two week holiday you can split it up and have two one week holidays. You could try to increase the anticipation effect by talking about it more and maybe discussing it online.”
[read our take of how to get the most of your vacation here]
Just remember to make sure you actually get away from work. In an interview with venture capitalist Brad Feld, he asserted that the most important part of any vacation is the total unplugging:
The most impactful thing I’ve done is to take a week off the grid every quarter. Amy and I head to the airport on Saturday to go somewhere. I leave my computer at home and give her my smart phone at the airport. She gives it back to me the following Saturday when we return home. We always go somewhere – usually a relaxing place, but it’s always a trip rather than a staycation. I then spend 100 percent of my time relaxing and being with Amy. I usually read a book a day on these trips, we talk a lot, have plenty of adult entertainment, and sleep late every day. Whenever I return, I’m always refreshed.
5. Take a power nap.
Unfortunately still a taboo in many office cultures, power naps are incredibly effective at giving you a literal re-boot. If you are a freelancer or have a friendlier office, we highly suggest trying it. Mental fatigue often begets physical fatigue, and studies show that you’re better off giving into the call of sleep for a few minutes than fighting it with another cup of coffee. As we learned during our week-long power nap “Labrat” experiment, napping has much bigger rewards than caffeine:
The 20-minute power nap—sometimes called the stage 2 nap—is good for alertness and motor learning skills like typing and playing the piano. What happens if you nap for more than 20 minutes? Research shows longer naps help boost memory and enhance creativity. Slow-wave sleep—napping for approximately 30 to 60 minutes—is good for decision-making skills, such as memorizing vocabulary or recalling directions. Getting rapid eye movement or REM sleep, usually 60 to 90 minutes of napping, plays a key role in making new connections in the brain and solving creative problems.
[read more from our Labrat experiment here]
If you’re worried that you won’t be able to fall asleep, know that it takes 15 to 20 minutes on average for a human being to fall asleep and work that into your allotted nap time. Or, try the 4-7-8 Breathing Trick by Andrew Weil, M.D.:
1. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
2. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
4. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
5. This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
You need to drink it quickly, to give yourself a decently long window of time to sleep as it’s going through your gastrointestinal tract and entering your bloodstream. Right after you’re finished, immediately try to go to sleep. Finally, make sure to wake up within 20 minutes, so you don’t enter the deeper stages of sleep, and you’re awake when the caffeine is just starting to hit your brain.
6.Build a rock-solid morning routine.
The best start you can give yourself for stressful days is with a calming morning ritual, even if for only 10 to 15 minutes before you run out the door. Step one: don’t check work emails or social media. A German study [pdf link] found that Facebook frequently causes stress:
Endured over longer time periods, envy can damage one’s sense of self-worth, result in group dissatisfaction and withdrawal, lead to depressive tendencies, reduce perceptions of well-being, and poor mental health…We find that envy feelings are common on FB, with 20.3% of all recent envy incidents being triggered by FB use. The subjects of envy are contingent on the content users provide on these platforms with “travel and leisure”, “social interactions” of others, and “happiness” landing on the top of the list. This is in some contrast to offline encounters, where “travel and leisure”, “success in job”, and “abilities” are envied more often.
Step two: Spend 10 to 15 minutes only doing things that make you happy, as entrepreneur Jason Zook recommends:
Instead of looking at my phone or firing up my laptop (where I could find negativity) while my coffee is brewing, I smile and conjure up feelings of happiness by reading a handful of comic strips. By the time my coffee is finished brewing, I’ve spent 10–15 minutes doing only things that make me happy. My day has started with positivity — positivity that will be a shield of armor from the rigors of the rest of my day. If I were to start with negative influences first, the rest of the day is an uphill battle to reach positivity.
Exercising, even for only 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, can also relieve stress for the rest of the day:
A twenty-minute bike ride won’t sweep away all of life’s troubles, but exercising regularly helps you take charge of anxiety and reduce stress, anger, and frustration. Exercise can also serve as a distraction to your worries, allowing you to find some quiet time and break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional problems. Exercise releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication—but without the side-effects, of course. As well as relieving depression, research has shown that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.
What are your go-to stress busters when the pressure is on?