Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Stress and Time Management

Due to the nature of what we do for a living, all of us have a certain level of stress to manage as we get through our day. It's not life and death stress like firemen, police officers, or surgeons deal with, but it's still stress and it is real. How we manage it has everything to do with how effective we are in our work.

I just finished a recording session last week with the following parameters: very tight deadline, enormous  complexity in the music, limited budget, and tremendous responsibilities that I was contractually bound to. I survived (otherwise I wouldn't be able to write this!), my client was totally happy with the product. I pushed the musicians way beyond what I thought I could do with them. Everything was delivered on time and on budget.

Oh! And I was totally stressed out non-stop for two weeks leading up to the session - to the point that I was feeling the "stress-buzz" in my chest everytime I had a spare moment to stop and think about it. Granted, I managed to get everything completed professionally, do great work, and not need a coronary by-pass. But I have been thinking about it a lot lately and ask my self the following question...

What are we stressing over?

Shit happens. There's a reason this saying carries some weight. If you place events on a cosmic scale you realize the universe does not care how busy your day is. You're just a piece of matter on one planet near one star in one system in one galaxy in a universe full of galaxies. If you've read Marcus Aurelius (Roman Caesar/Philosopher), he says quite a bit on this subject and the role of the individual within this universe. For me I find there's power in his thinking. It is a freeing notion that if the universe does not care about me it equally does not care about anyone else and that puts all of us on an equal level. No one is more significant than the other guy/gal, although for purposes of ego we all like to think we are!

Enough philosophy. Back to the point. Events happen that disrupt the order of our personal universe. How does the same event devastate one person, while another overcomes and conquers it no matter how seemingly impossible it might be? What makes the difference?

Here's some food for thought from a book called Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

Certain events cause more psychological strain than others. The same stressful event might make one person utterly miserable, while another will bite the bullet and make the best of it. This difference in how a person responds is called "coping ability" or "coping style".

There are two ways people generally respond to stress - one positive and the other negative. Withdrawing into yourself, sleeping late, denying what is happening, turning on your loved ones, drinking more than usual are several examples of negative responses. Positive responses can include temporary suppression of anger and fear, analyzing the problem logically, and reassessing your priorities.

Few of us rely on one strategy exclusively. How many of us get drunk the first night, have a fight with our wives, then the next day or week later, we simmer down and start figuring out what to do next?

My hand is raised. How about you?

Three resources are available to us when coping with stressful events: external support(family, friends, colleagues), a person's psychological resources (intelligence, education, relevant personality factors), and finally the coping strategies that a person uses to confront the stress. This last one is most relevant in most cases.

Here are my methods for coping with highly stressful situations:

1. Don't forget to breath! No seriously, it's true. A little oxygen to the brain, a walk around the block, or a couple of sit-ups can do wonders.

2. Staying calm. See #1. You're the expert your clients hired. You know what you're doing. You've probably been here before in some fashion. Suppress your anger and fear response and start to think logically about what needs to get done.

3. Assess the situation. Make a list of what needs to get done and calculate how long you estimate it will take to complete these tasks. Do you need help? Who are your go-to guys that you call when you need backup?

4. Prioritize. Define what's most important to complete based on your delivery schedule and what your client needs. Factor in what you need too. Sometimes I'll do several easy cues in a row to feel like I'm psychologically getting more done and being ultra-efficient.

5. Take action. Start in on the highest priority first. Take regular breaks and assess your well being along the way. If you have to work for long stretches like two or more weeks straight under duress, you have to maintain your stamina, get enough sleep every night, and spend some time with your loved ones.

More from Flow:

Everyone has to confront events that contradict our goals.  Each event is negative feedback that produces disorder in the mind, threatening the self and impairing its functioning.

Courage, resilience, perserverance and mature coping  are essential.

If you're interested in reading more about what I've discussed above and the Flow experience, checkout the book, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-sent-me-hi).

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