I recently saw an article about how to manage your stress, and it was full of a bunch of feel-good tips written by a psychologist. Things like breathing deeply and imagining yourself in a peaceful forest, or rewarding yourself for all the good things that have happened and listening to positive-message podcasts.
It’s not to say that these types of things aren’t valuable tools, but honestly, that type of thing is not for me. I have a much more pragmatic approach to managing stress that I would like to share.
A long time ago, I read a book, the title of which I cannot even remember. But I do remember the advice that has remained with me my entire adult career. It was called “living in day-tight compartments.” It was a method of managing stress using logic. Day-tight compartments is an analogy to a submarine. In a submarine, when you go from one compartment to the next, you close and lock the hatch behind you, and the hatch ahead of you is also locked. You’re always completely isolated in the current compartment. You can’t see behind you, and you can’t see ahead of you. In submarines, this is necessary so that if there is a leak in the hull, it does not sink the whole ship.
If you think about life and things that stress you out, this advice can be very valuable. How many times have you worried about things that have happened in the past? Or something that has not happened yet? The reality is, no matter how much you worry about the past, you cannot change what happened. Have you ever had a situation where you said something that you regretted, and you kept thinking, “why did I say that?” No amount of reliving it or wondering what you should have or should not have done will change what actually happened. You said it, and you can’t do anything about it more than saying you are sorry. Worrying, or stressing about the past, is a waste of time and mental energy. It is productive to learn from the past. But learning and reliving are two completely different things.
Now let’s talk about the future. There are some things in the future that you can control. You can control your schedule and your actions. But you cannot control what other people think of you, the weather, who will win the election, whether your company lays you off, or just about anything else outside your control. No amount of worry or stress will impact those outcomes in any way. Yes, you can try to do things to impact the future in a positive way, but ultimately worrying about what might happen only leads to stress and sleepless nights.
Thus, the simple solution for managing stress is to think about things you can control, and forget the rest. Even though I am pretty good at using this strategy, I find myself falling into worrying about things I cannot control from time to time. What always helps is going through an exercise and asking myself, “can I control what has already happened?” Can I control what other people will think or do? Of course, the answer is always “no.”
Then I tell myself to quit worrying about it. It’s really that simple. Start having that conversation with yourself and watch your stress level go down dramatically.