There’s all sorts of things that add stress to our lives. But it seems like now more than ever, the workplace has become an especially large source. In fact, according to The American Institute of Stress, 80% of workers say they regularly feel stressed at work.
We don’t need a study to tell us our work suffers when we’re stressed. And while workplace stress is caused by a number of factors, there is one you can take steps to control today: How you spend your time.
The #1 cause of workplace stress: Overcommitting your time
Rather than dealing a lethal blow, stress at work is more like “death by a thousand cuts.” As Roli Saxena writes in First Round Review’s Practical Frameworks for Beating Burnout:
“Stress is usually the result of many little things you think you can handle and then all of a sudden it all hits you.”
More specifically, Saxena says one of the most common sources of stress at work is simply committing to things you know (either consciously or unconsciously) you won’t have time to do.
It happens to the best of us. That little voice in your head says “you’ll make it work somehow” and before you know it, you’ve said yes without thinking through the consequences of adding yet another commitment to your schedule.
And while you do make it work (sometimes), your legs are bound to give out eventually when you’re carrying around an overburdened workload.
How to use time management to de-stress your workday
While time management is by no means the only source of stress at work, it is one with proven strategies to help solve it. (Plus, we’re pretty obsessed with finding better ways to manage our time).
1. Get a baseline for where your time is going each day
The reason we’re so quick to take on more work isn’t just the social pressure to look good at work. Most of us are incredibly bad at estimating how long a task will take.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call this the “Planning Fallacy”—how we’re overly optimistic about how long a task will take us to complete.
To protect yourself from the planning fallacy, one of the best techniques is to do a time audit.
In a nutshell, a time audit is a process that gives you a clear vision of how you’re actually spending your time. And how that stacks up against how you want to be spending your time.
We’ve written a full guide to running a time audit (including a free template) here, but the basic process is:
- Write down how you ideally would want to spend your time each day
- Use a tool like RescueTime to track your personal data on how you actually spent your time
- Compare your intentions to your actions and adjust accordingly
Not only will a time audit show you where you’re wasting time on unimportant work. But it also tells you how much time you realistically have to work each day, letting you better estimate what you can do.
2. Create a daily template so you know what a good day looks like
It’s hard to set aside time for your most important work when someone else dictates when and where you’re working.
Creating a daily schedule that balances time for focused work and the inevitable meetings and catch-ups is key to controlling stress at work.
However, not all of us have that level of control over how we work each day. In this case, time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders says you can de-stress your schedule by adding “margins” to the day:
“When you feel like you go from meeting to meeting or task to task with no time to eat properly or even clear your head, you can get so task-focused that you lose sight of the people around you.”
Saunders suggests blocking time in your calendar and privately labeling it “margin.” To others, this just looks like other commitments and they won’t try to book your time. While for yourself, this extra space gives you a chance to clear your head, and provide space to plan and prioritize work.
3. Establish boundaries around communication to protect your focused time
We’ve written before about just how disruptive communication is during the workday. And while email and IM aren’t going away anytime soon, they don’t have to be a source of stress.
The first thing we can do is change the expectation around when and how we communicate in the workplace. As First Round Review explains:
“The expectation to always be responding immediately 100% of the time is unrealistic. And honestly, it’s probably not the other person’s expectations either — it’s your own expectations tying you to this.”
Instead, you need to create what we call a “Tech policy of one”—a set of rules and guidelines around how you use technology, how people should interact with you at work, and when you’ll respond to messages.
This could mean a dedicated time for going through your inbox, Slack “office hours” when you’re available, or even a personal “no emails after 5pm” rule.
4. Be aware of how much time you’re spending multitasking with communication tools
The tools that help us be productive can just as easily stress us out by taking up most of our days. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to communication tools like email and IM.
While most of our jobs rely heavily on communication, we’ve become so accustomed to switching back and forth between email and productive work that we don’t think it’s a problem. But it is.
According to Dr. David Meyer, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
The more you keep email open in the background or quickly jump into Slack to answer a question, the less productive you’ll be.
When we looked at the patterns of 50,000+ RescueTime users, we discovered that most people spend 40% of their workday multitasking between communication tools and other productive work, leaving them with only have 1 hour and 12 minutes of dedicated focused time in the day.
The first step is to be aware of the problem. The next, is to find solutions that make sense in your work environment. One solution researchers have recently found is to use what’s called “bursty communication”:
“People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”
5. Spend time outside the office understanding what meaningful work is to you
Sometimes we take on too much work simply because we don’t know what we should be doing. Priorities shift and it’s hard to know what your true priorities are.
But knowing what work is most meaningful in a day is a powerful way to de-stress our working days. Studies have found that the opportunity to pursue meaningful work can be more important than salary, working conditions, and other perks.
In our Meaningful Career Guide, we found that “meaning” at work comes down to three factors:
- Purpose: How much do you feel directly motivated by life goals that you value?
- Comprehension: How able are you to understand and make sense of your life experiences and weave them into a coherent whole? In other words, how easy is it for you to see your own life story?
- Mattering: How much do you believe that your work is significant and valued?
Try to find time outside of work hours to consider these qualities. Are you finding them at work? If not, that might be another significant source of stress that needs to be addressed.
Workplace stress isn’t just a time management issue.
There’s so many factors that can bring you stress at work. But there’s no denying that having control over how you spend your time is a powerful tool when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Start with a strong baseline of what you’re working on and how you spend your time. Then, use techniques to protect your time and tell others when you’re unavailable.
We’re not suggesting time management is some stress-reducing magic bullet. But simply taking control over your time can help you get through stressful work situations.
How do you deal with stress at work? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.