Stress steals our productivity. The more we fret and worry about how much work we have to do, the less work we actually get done, making the work pile up even more and creating a stress-fueled, self-perpetuating loop of doom.
But we can break that cycle through judicious use of self-care and by helping the brain focus on the task at hand, rather than the stress surrounding it. Here are some proven techniques for centering yourself that can help you be more creative and productive in the workplace—and beyond.
Yeah, “just breathe” is the cliche movie freakout phrase, but the fact is that just breathing actually is a great way to center yourself. Breathing exercises are used in meditation to help practitioners quiet their minds. You can do breath exercises at your desk to achieve more calm and focus.
The most basic breathing exercise is “equal breathing.” Sit quietly in your chair with an upright but relaxed posture. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, then breathe out through your nose for a count of four. Concentrate on your breath and the count. Continue for a minute or two, or as long as you are able to focus on your breath. This is trickier than it sounds, but practice. Slowly lengthening your time breathing will make it happen. As you become proficient, lengthen the breath to five or six counts.
Stop and Take Stock of Your Emotions
Negative thinking loops can defeat the hardiest of us. When you become aware of that negative critical voice in your head, STOP, and take a moment to pay attention to your emotions. This gives you time to ask yourself whether you have control of the situation that is causing you to think negative thoughts. If you don’t have control, you can work on letting go of issues beyond your control. If you do have control, recognizing negative thinking and redirecting your brain allows you to engage in problem-solving.
When you’re “stressing out,” it can be very powerful to figure out exactly what it is that you’re feeling. Is it anxiety? Are you angry? Is it fear, shame, annoyance? If you give the emotion a name, it helps activate the areas of your brain that allow you to use logic to calm yourself, according to Jill Young, a certified life coach based in Bend, OR.
Visualizing success creates pathways in the brain that start you on the path to creating a roadmap to get there. Imagine getting to a needed milestone, and then the next, and then completion. You will begin to think more positively.
Ask for Help
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there is no shame—and a lot of value—in asking for help. New eyes bring a fresh perspective to any problem. Asking a supervisor to help prioritize your tasks shows your commitment to getting things done in a way that is optimal for the goals of your department. In addition, everyone likes to feel like they are helping someone out, so by asking for a hand, you are also giving a gift.
Take a Walk
Getting up and taking a walk can help you be more productive. Bonus points for getting outside for the walk. Getting away from your task allows your unconscious mind to take over and do some problem-solving on its own.
Do Something New Outside of Work
Whether it’s learning a new language or taking up a new hobby like needlepoint, woodworking, or hang gliding, acquiring a new skill in your private life can reverberate in your working life. New skills can help you look at old tasks in different ways. Learning helps the brain stay in shape, just as exercise helps the body stay in shape.
When it’s super busy at work and we’re under a lot of stress it’s when we are at risk of letting our dietary best practices slide. And slide. And slide until we find ourselves in the drive-thru picking up fries and double cheeseburgers. Arrest that impulse! When things seem the most out of control, it helps our stress levels to take control of something we absolutely can control—namely what we put into our bodies. Studies—like this one in the March-April 2013 issue of the journal Preventive Medicine—continue to show that fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to positive moods and lower incidences of distress and depression. So bring fruits and veggies to work to snack healthily during crunch times.
Exercise is the magic medicine for anything that ails you, and exercise that challenges your cardiovascular system is also great for helping you reduce stress. It releases feel-good chemicals in your brain, helps tame anxiety, and even increases your creativity (not to mention the fact that it increases your health, self confidence, and energy levels).
Try one or all of these stress-busting tips to break negative cycles you find yourself in at work and you can find new ways to both problem-solve and increase productivity.
Miriam Wolf is a health coach and the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.