How to Beat the Exhaustiveness of Stressful Work

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I’ll confess: I recently let stress beat me.

I know, some of you think I’m perfect and never get stressed out, ever, especially as I’ve written about slowing down and simplifying for five years or so now.

But I do get stressed out, and I do sometimes overwork myself. It doesn’t happen much anymore, but it does happen. This week was one of those times.

Stress beat me … but stay with me until the end. In the end (spoiler alert), I beat out stress.

How Stress Beat Me This Week

As you might know, I created the Sea Change Program to help people change their lives, and The Mindful Diet course as part of the program because many members wanted help with healthy eating.

Unfortunately, there was a glitch in the registration process that caused 400 people to have registration problems, and so I spent two days manually fixing the problems (along with the trustworthy Dean, Zen Habits Creator of Smiles). It was tedious, exhausting work, and I did it until late at night and starting early in the morning.

I learned to do it almost as a form of meditation — trying to be mindful as I did it, much as I try to do when I sweep or wash dishes or take a walk.

Still, the overwhelming amount of people needing help at once stressed me out for two days, and at the end of it, I was wiped out.

How I Measured the Effect of Stress

Normally, we can feel the exhausting effects of stress, subjectively, but it’s hard to really know how much of an effect this is having on our minds and bodies.

On Tuesday, I found an objective measure of the toll stress had on me: strength training. I’ve been sticking to a regular weight lifting program for about 7 weeks now, doing the same four workouts (mostly barbell stuff with chinups and dips) and logging my progress. So I know pretty much exactly how much I should be able to lift for each workout.

But on Tuesday, I tried to lift the same amount I had lifted a week earlier, no more, on the exact same lifts with the exact same rest periods. I was too tired to make it through even half the workout. My body (and mind) couldn’t do what it had done a week before.

There are lots of possible reasons: not enough fuel (but I eat the same thing every day), too much other types of activities (but that is also very consistent on my current schedule), not enough sleep (this was slightly less in the last two weeks, but that amount hasn’t hurt me this much in recent weeks), burnout due to too much exercise over a period of weeks (possibly a factor, but looking at my log, probably not), illness (but I’m not sick, actually very healthy right now).

After evaluating the many possible factors, stress is the most obvious. A few of the other factors probably played a smaller part, but stress was most likely the biggest factor. And it had a major effect, judging from my objective test.

How I Beat Stress

Here’s what I did:

  1. After two stressful, exhausting days, the workout was actually my first step to recovery. It might seem counterintuitive — why exercise when you’re exhausted? And sometimes that can be dangerous — adding the stress of lots of exercise to physical and mental exhaustion can put you at risk of burnout or injury. But I’ve found that a good bout of exertion works wonders for when I’m stressed. So I ran and lifted a few weights. I instantly felt better.
  2. Then I meditated for about 10 minutes. Bringing myself back to the moment is a great way to beat stress.
  3. I then shut down my computer, got outside, walked, met with a friend and spent a few hours of disconnected time.
  4. When I got back, I did return to the computer, but only allowed myself shorter bursts.
  5. I also took a short nap (highly, highly recommended).
  6. I massaged my shoulders (OK, my wife Eva also helped with the shoulder massage).
  7. I read for a bit.
  8. I spent some time reading with my kids.
  9. And I had some green tea while drinking it slowly and savoring it.

This is a de-stressing routine that works wonders. You don’t need to do the entire routine, but pick three or four and apply generously.