Today I Failed: Handling Stress

I had a stressful day today – far more so than usual. My youngest was sick yesterday, so I had to take a day off from work. We are in the busiest season of work this time of year, so it’s not unusual to get 30-80 emails a day, depending on where we’re at in the season. I’m perpetually behind, quite frankly, and I expect to be running a deficit until at least October 1st. I’m also the head of the biggest committee for this reunion that I am planning which is now only two weeks away. Just as that is wrapping, my company’s United Way campaign is starting, and I am also on the committee for an independent fundraising effort. Did I mention that I’m still helping out some with the summer lunch program? Yeah, I have tikkun olam’d my ass off this summer, although these were all things I genuinely wanted to do. I also had the distinct feeling today that I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

Strictly speaking, that’s inaccurate. If you ask anyone that has ever been part of a planning committee for a large event, they will surely tell you that the weeks and days leading up to the event are the most stressful. Tying up the loose ends always ends up being a bigger job than people expect, it seems. In nearly all cases, there will be last-minute issues that arise. Final meetings have to happen, and there are tons of emails flying through the ether, attempting to string everything together and get everyone on the same page so that when the big day finally arrives, everything runs as smoothly as humanly possible. That is exactly where the reunion event is at right now.

I was in a string of emails today detailing some changes to what I had assumed were the finalized plans that I had put together. I will admit that I did not welcome these changes. I wondered who made the decisions and why, and I also wondered why, after my plans had seemingly been accepted, there was some move to change them. To me, this seemed ill-advised, given the small amount of time remaining to finish preparations. I was not happy, and I spent the better part of the day reading the email traffic and wondering where this was all coming from.

In the meantime, the final call schedule came out, and it was to take place during my workday. I wondered if I would even be able to make the call. My boss was fine with my using one of the small conference rooms and the workstation there to be on the call and continue my workday that way, but I will come back to this shortly. I also have another call Thursday night late for the other committee I steer that is related to this same organization. I am delivering lunch on Thursday afternoon, and I have a United Way meeting after I get back. I also need to send out the information about the fundraiser meeting, which happens the first day I’m back in the office after the reunion.

Can you tell that I’m not used to having this many commitments at the same time or all of the various meetings converging on the same week?

I did not handle my stress well today. I got pissed off about the curve balls. I got miffed with real work stuff for adding to the pile. By the end of the day, I was pretty beside myself, and I was having a hard time settling. I tend to get physically nervous, which is to say that I have a hard time sitting still, and I get the urge to run or do something else that provides some type of strenuous physical exertion. When I left the office today, I wanted nothing more than to go straight home, get on my treadmill, and run as fast as I could for as long as I could until I was too tired to be stressed out anymore.

By the time I actually got home, washed some dishes, and put some food on the table for the Thundering Herd, I no longer felt like I needed a run, which was honestly just as well because I did my bodyweight training this morning, and I will run tomorrow. Two back-to-back runs would be a bit of overtraining, at this point. Now, as I sit here writing this, listening to the tree frogs outside, I am feeling much better about my day, and I started thinking a couple of hours ago that I definitely could have and should have handled it better, and I am also contemplating how to mitigate the stress effects for next time. Because rest assured, there will be a next time.

The honest truth is that I have no particular desire to slow down. I may adjust the size of certain slices of my time pie, but I like being productive and involved. I never enjoyed volunteering when I was younger, but it feels rewarding now, and just as importantly, it is a good way for me to interact with people. I don’t have scads of time for socializing or dating, but community involvement has proven to be a good way for me to get some human interaction with cool people. I also have other things that I am working on outside of volunteering and steering committees, not the least of which being physical improvement. Making good use of my time and being accustomed to somewhat tightly scheduled days is necessary.

I can handle the packed schedule, but when things go awry, as they tend to do in real life, I get frantic quickly. I lose patience, and I want immediate resolution to whatever the problem happens to be. More often than not, there are others involved, and I am forced to wait on a response from them. I have a tendency to want to force the situation out of fear that it won’t turn out the way I hope it will. More than once, this frantic scurrying and attempting to solve the problems multiple ways in a short period has led to crummy outcomes. I have seen the same thing happen at work and chastised higher-ups in my mind for mucking up fairly straightforward situations in their attempts to get them taken care of quickly. In the end, you end up spending a dime to save a nickel, time-wise.

Actually, for a long time, in order to combat what would inevitably be directions that would need partial reversing, I instituted my 72-hour rule on major work projects. Whenever something came in with the almighty red exclamation point marked for “High Importance,” I would read the directions, take a look at one or two examples, and then age that email/project for 72 hours. Invariably, sometime during that period, we would receive a set of conflicting instructions, and people who dove in head-first would wind up going back and redoing work or, as I liked to call it, “paying for the same real estate twice.” This is dumb and inefficient. Better to wait, take a few deep breaths, and then come back to it after you’ve had time to consider all of the angles.

I am instituting a revamped version of my own 72-hour rule with myself. When I start to feel stressed out or angry about a given situation, especially when it involves working with others who may have different timelines or visions for something than I do, I need to take a step back and breathe. When you can control literally nothing else in your life, you can almost assuredly control when you can breathe. It sounds silly, but learning how to step back and take 10-20 controlled breaths is a valuable skill, and it’s not particularly hard to develop. I know this, and I have not been using it.

The first key to breathing is recognizing that you are stressed out. Sometimes that is hard for me, but I am old enough now that I can recognize the physical symptoms of stress better than I could 20 years ago. The key then becomes taking yourself out of the game for a minute to take those breaths, remembering to tell yourself that, in all likelihood, you will not remember this episode one year or even one month from now. Feelings and situations are fleeting.

I have found too that when I step back, changing my viewpoint is essential. The instinct with stress is to go to a negative place and think, “I can’t do this. It sucks, and I hate everything about it.” It is far better to step back and reevaluate your obstacle with the view that it is a challenge and an opportunity to learn something. It is one thing to learn something by reading or hearing someone else talk about it, but when you have to go through something, it becomes evident that experience is the ultimate teacher, and most lessons learned from experience need not be repeated, at least if you have learned them well.

When I got home today, after I had had a chance to cool down and think about things, I realized several things. The first was that there was an obvious opportunity for everyone to win, including actors present that I had failed to imagine in my initial analysis of the situation. I also realized that I was getting too attached to a specific outcome, ignoring the fact that my perfect version was not necessarily someone else’s, and that there could be more than one excellent outcome. The final thing I realized was that I had a golden opportunity to learn better how to work with others and how to handle myself like an adult.

Bluntly stated, I acted like a kid today, at least in my own eyes. I handled myself poorly, and I let my emotions get the better of me. That is something that children do. That is why children throw tantrums; they are not emotionally mature enough to direct their feelings in a positive way. I am unimpressed with the level of maturity I displayed today, and I will endeavor to handle myself with improved grace and aplomb next time.

The good new is, there will be a next time. I will most certainly have plenty of opportunities to redeem myself. Stress, like so many other things, can be mastered by repeatedly contending with it. Initially, I thought to myself, “It will be fine. You’ll get a break in September. You just have to make it through August.” While that is somewhat true, I realized that I have set myself up for a marathon, not a sprint. August is a sprinting portion, true enough, but given all of the things I have lined up into next year, it appears I may have signed up for an ultra rather than a 5k. And you know, that’s a great thing. If your goal is to run ultras and not just 5ks, you have to build up some serious endurance. You have to be on your game every day.

We all know someone who is on their A-game every single day. We admire those people. They always manage to show up right on time, they look good, they have notes ready, and they bring good ideas to the table. They don’t linger in doorways, and they are off to their next item once the present one is concluded. Nobody has to guess at their intentions, and they handle crazy situations with minimal fuss. Everyone wants to be that person, but most people don’t want to put in the work necessary to become that person.

Well, I do want to put in the work. As one of my favorite ladies, Lana Del Rey, said, “I believe in the person I want to become.” You have to emulate what your best self looks like, and if your best self shows up on time with their hair on point and all of their notes ready, you need to figure out what it takes to do that. I’m finding more and more that it consists of making small tweaks to the daily routine that result in larger moves over time. Every once in a while, you find a big lever, but it seems like you have to make a lot of minor moves first.

I know that the reunion will turn out great. It will be a fantastic weekend full of favorite activities, favorite people, and fun times. When it comes time to write the book on it, nobody is going to split hairs about what was on the tables or how we organized the tables or what we had for dessert. The only thing people will remember is how it felt to be there and in each other’s company.

When I think back later on the two stressful weeks leading up to the start of this weekend and to the last week of August for my best friend’s wedding, I won’t remember feeling angry. I won’t remember being beside myself. I will remember that I made it work and got it done. I would also prefer to remember that I handled myself gracefully, instead of looking back and wishing I could act like a damn adult.

That is my challenge to everyone today, including myself. Learn how to step back, breathe, and take a look at the big picture. It is not always about your personal glory or your personal agenda. You want to be able to look back and feel proud of your accomplishment, as well as the way you handled yourself on the road to that accomplishment. So tomorrow, when I have 10 emails that came in overnight and a change to one of the meeting times, I’m going to breathe, smile, move the event on my calendar, and consider myself fortunate to have an audience for my opinion and my ideas.

Stay thirsty, kids!