Thursday, February 16, 2012

Stress Busting and Metal Unloading

The response to my recent posts on work-life balance got me thinking about stress, and also mental load. I thought my first post was about my opinion that it is possible to fit a reasonably "big" career into a normal work week, and therefore still feel like an involved and present parent. The part that resonated with most people, though, was about mental load- how I didn't need more time to work, I needed more mental space for work.

For me, mental load and stress are closely related. If I'm over my mental load capacity, I am guaranteed to feel stress, and reducing my mental load almost always reduces my stress level.  But my mental load will never go down to the point where I feel no stress, and there are other sources of stress in my life, too. There is the stress I feel from trying to stick to the schedule I know my kids need after day care- the pressure to get dinner on the table by six has eased a bit now that Petunia is a little older, but we still don't have that much leeway if we're going to keep to the night time routine that works best for our kids. There is the stress I feel at work that comes from trying to get all the pieces of a project to come together successfully and on time- even when that is going completely to plan, there is some stress, and it almost never goes completely to plan. There is the stress I feel when Petunia gets sick and I have to leave work early, leaving behind my to do list and walking out with the knowledge that I'll be behind the next day.

I could go on, but that would be dull. Let's just say that my life has plenty of stress. I vehemently believe that it is possible to combine a career like mine with involved parenting- but I would be surprised to find someone who does it and claims not to feel stressed by it all sometimes. Frankly, I feel some stress most days.

Is this a contradiction with my earlier statement that I enjoy my life, and am happy with it? Not for me. To me, a happy life isn't one without any stress- that would be boring! Rather, it is a life in which stress is under control, adding some spice to my life but not consuming me in the process.

Since mental load is so strongly correlated with stress for me, one of my key strategies for keeping my stress under control is to have processes in place that allow me to unload some of my mental baggage. Here are my top three methods for keeping my mental load manageable:
  • Write things down. Several of the commenters on my initial post mentioned this, too. Once I write an item on the appropriate calendar or to do list, I can free up the space it was occupying in my brain- or at least most of the space. In fact, I am thinking that the first thing we'll try to get some more mental space for both my husband and me is to get a small white board for the kitchen, to use for a communal "random things we need to do" list. We have a long term to do list, and we write to do lists for the weekend every Friday night... but we don't have a medium term list to capture the little items like "buy Petunia new shoes" and I think we need one.
  • Get stuff done now. The day after the outburst that triggered the initial post, Pumpkin and I went to Target and bought shoes for Petunia and the supplies we needed for Valentine's Day. I could have left it for the weekend, but I didn't want it in my head, so Pumpkin got to skip her bath and go on an evening outing. She thought that was great fun, and I got some things done. This is also why we do a lot of online shopping- if we remember that Pumpkin needs new swim goggles at 10:00 at night, we can just go online and buy them and be done with it. And because we signed up for Amazon Prime, our items usually come before we would have had a chance to get to the appropriate store, anyway.
  • Trust my team. I do this both at home and at work. I am not a micromanager! Once a task has been picked up by a colleague at work or by my husband at home, I kick it out of my mental space. It is not my problem anymore. At work, I have a short weekly one-on-one with all of my direct reports and we have weekly meetings for the two or three most active projects. I use those to check in on tasks and make sure things don't slip through the cracks. At home, we're much less formal, obviously, but we do check in with each other on our respective to do lists during Friday Night Beers (more on that ritual later). I often hear women talk about how their husbands don't keep track of anything that needs to get done. I can confidently state that my husband keeps track of some things, because there are whole classes of things that get done around the house and that I never think about. Whether or not our lists are equal, I cannot say, because to evaluate that, I'd have to know what is on his list. And I do not want to know that, because that would add that stuff back onto my mental load. Its sort of a Schrodinger's task list situation, I guess.
 I also take several steps to reduce the stress I feel:
  • Exercise. This is a big one. I have known since college that exercise is the best way to clear away stress, allowing me to return to my to do list refreshed and ready to tackle the hard problems. Unfortunately, this is also an area I've struggled with since having kids. I make finding a way to get at least one workout in per week a priority, though. Currently, this is my Tuesday evening kickboxing routine, which is truly great stress relief. I get to exercise and I get to hit and kick something! I also try to work out Thursday evenings, but I have Petunia with me, and she is not impressed with my exercise DVD, or "Mommy show" as she calls it. I think that Yo Gabba Gabba should do an adult's exercise DVD. That might make us both happy. I'm willing to follow an exercise routine led by a giant orange rubber monster if that's what it takes to get her to stop interrupting me.
  • Meaningful short breaks. I use the mostly at work, although as I type this it occurs to me that I might benefit from incorporating this idea at home, too. I try to take at least one meaningful short break per day, usually around lunch time. By "meaningful" I mean that I am not just aimlessly web surfing or gossiping with colleagues. I pick something that I know will help clear my head- usually a walk or checking in on some favorite blogs. These breaks serve two purposes: they let me unwind a bit in the middle of the day, and they give my brain a chance to solve problems in the background. I let my mind wander while I'm on break, but more times than not, I come back from the break with a fresh idea to try on one of the problems on my to do list. This is particularly true of walks- so much so that I actually consider a walk a valid part of my work day and try to take one every day, if I can get my meeting schedule to allow it.
  • Unwinding rituals. I have specific things in my week that I can look forward to as a chance to relax and clear some mental space. I don't mean candles and chanting, although maybe that would work for other people. For me, the big unwinding ritual in my life right now is Friday Night Beers. Almost every Friday night, my husband and I sit down with beers and talk about our week, our plans for the weekend, and whatever else is on our minds. Now that Petunia is sleeping a bit better, we often watch some TV, too- usually a British mystery. If we don't have one recorded, we find one to stream on Amazon Prime. I consider Friday Night Beers practically sacrosanct- we'll skip if we have guests in town, but for almost no other reason.
  • Music. I keep forgetting about this one, which is a shame. The right music can really cheer me up and melt stress away. I've started listening to music in the car on my way to work instead of the news, mostly because I am simultaneously bored and infuriated by the Republican primaries. One day this week, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run came on the radio. I cranked it up and arrived at work in a great mood.
  • Reminding myself to change my perspective. I do this more at home than at work, usually when the source of stress is one of the kids. As corny as this sounds, I tell myself that I should let go of my agenda and just enjoy my kids. Believe it or not, this works sometimes, because the stress is usually caused by a mismatch between my agenda and what the kids want to do.
  • Choosing to let little slights slide. This is a work trick. I suspect I picked it up as a survival strategy in my male-dominated and frequently sexist field. When someone does something insulting or annoying, I try to stop and ask myself whether or not it really matters. If it does- I'll call them on it or address it some other way. If it doesn't, I let it go- completely. For example, yesterday my group had a meeting with a team from another department. Both my boss and the director of the other department were in the meeting. I was taking minutes. I usually take minutes at meetings like this, because I am able to type minutes while also participating in the discussion, so it does me no harm, and gives me the benefit of being sure that things I think are important are documented. At one point, we were able to come to a consensus on a previously contentious topic, so of course, I started typing that into my minutes. The director of the other department looked at one of the guys who reports to me (but used to report to the other director- its complicated), and told him to write this down so we'd be sure we got it right. I have no idea if he was trying to offend me or not, but in practice he both implied that he didn't trust my minutes and gave an order to one of my direct reports. I could have gotten angry. But why? I know that my boss and my team respect me, and so do at least two of the three team members from the other department. The third guy is just  a bit cryptic, and I have no idea what he thinks about almost anything. So the incident caused no harm and I just let it go. In fact, if I hadn't need an example for this post, I may never have thought about it again. It just doesn't matter in my life.
For the most part, these tricks help keep my stress levels reasonable and keep me happy. Obviously, though, they are not perfect- as last week's post demonstrated. What about you? Are mental load and stress closely linked for you, too? Do you think you can have stress in your life and still be happy? What do you do to keep stress under control?


  1. Yes, yes, yes! If my mental load is heavy (even if I'm not working more or longer hours), my stress levels go through the roof and my personality down the drain (esp with my partner and kids). It's like I can only keep a certain amount in my brain, and the worst times for me are when it's filled to the limit with things that can't be cleared off the list yet, like during my frantic (and six week long) search for after care for my kids this past autumn. When I'm on my own with kids, I feel like the equilibrium in my life is so tenuous, that a feather-touch can throw everything into chaos.

    I discovered music late in the game this fall, when I was so exhausted and stressed out from being on my own with the kids all the time. Week day mornings were really hard - trying to get everything done that needed to be done on time (kids dressed, 3 lunches made, dishes done, kids packed into the car). I was angry a lot of the time, and did a lot of yelling (the constant barrage of demands for things in the morning makes me bananas when I can't cope). Then I discovered if I turned my music on in the morning, it was a LOT easier to stay calm and happy.

    I'm trying to center myself for another round of separation from my partner come springtime, and I'm going to try to do 5-10 minutes of yoga stretching and meditation. I can't get in a whole half an hour, but 10 minutes I should do. I hope it helps. (Christopher Robin, the elder, loves to do yoga and play alongside me during my half hour routine, but Pooh can't handle it. Or they fight with each other.)

  2. Music is such a powerful mood changer! I only started listening to classical music in the car when Moo was a baby - she didn't seem to be a fan of my usual radio station. It is certainly a whole lot more relaxing to listen to in the car now than newsradio or rock. In addition, over the last week or so, Moo's discovered "ballerinas" somehow and we've been doing a bit of dancing to the Nutcracker - fast, slow & on tippy toes. That definitely de-stresses me!

    For me, most of the time I find I need to get out of the house to help get myself into the moment to de-stress. If I can get in an early morning walk by myself with the dog - then that's ideal. Otherwise, a day like today (where Moo & I went for a big random walk taking in two playgrounds, a bush track and an encounter with a puppy - while waiting for my car to get new tires) is pretty good too.

    I have just cleared off our fridge and put a calendar up so we can actually get all the schedule stuff out of our heads and into a visual spot (together with the menu plan that already lived on the fridge). I may just steal your idea of a small whiteboard too - I was thinking of using a paper list, but the rub off ability of the whiteboard might be better.

  3. I also try to take meaningful breaks at work, usually reading something non-work related, but I like the idea of doing this at home. I am usually doing a million catch-up errands/chores on the weekends while my husband relaxes! I do take "breaks" to play with the kids but I'm usually go, go, go and that's exhausting.

    I did start taking a one hour exercise class on the weekends and that forced break is starting to make a difference.

    Another tip I would add is to GO OUTSIDE. If I bring the kids to the park even for half an hour or so, I feel like I actually enjoyed my weekend and the kids love it too.

  4. Oh, I should add that one of my major ways of emptying my brain of clutter is to create a bi-monthly food calendar. That means, I sit down and plan two weeks worth of meals on the calendar, and it can be repeated for as many two week cycles as we can stand it (a couple of months). I go to the store once a week, and buy the ingredients that week's meal, which means i never have to stand in front of the fridge frantically trying to think of something to make.

  5. @Erin, @Zenmoo- it is weird how easily we forget about the stress busting powers of music, isn't it? It is like I have to keep rediscovering that.

    FYI, everyone- I thought of one more stress busting technique I use and wrote about it in my latest post:

  6. Postdoc2:28 PM

    Glad you liked the kitchen whiteboard idea! We use ours for "house to-dos" - and also for tracking leftovers that need to be eaten, and veggies that need to be prepared before they go bad/the next CSA box arrives. My husband gets stressed out at the prospect of food going bad, so this is a big help for us. It's also neat to see on the list what house items we're each tracking - he mentally tracks a lot of house stuff that never would have occurred to me, and probably vice versa! But we have very complementary approaches, so I'm thankful for having a true partner - helps cover everything.


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