How to simplify your week to reduce stress

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“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs

I’m not one to quote Steve Jobs too much. He was brilliant, no question. But I’m not sure he’s the model to follow for a low-stress life in the workplace.

He seemed to ooze complexity. At least that’s what it looked like from my judg-ey overstuffed reading chair and ottoman.

I think he was onto something here, though, in understanding how we can simplify one of our real stressors at work — our workload.

Simplifying your work helps you do work that matters

If we think about the Apple products we use, they are dead simple.

My iPhone requires almost no instruction. The apps on it reduce complicated processes down to one or two steps I can do while I’m in the bathroom. (Don’t judge me, you do it too. 🙃)

In spite of the challenges the smartphone era has brought us, it’s also made so many things in life easier.

  • Don’t you remember what it was like trying to find answers to life’s big questions on Yahoo using your two-inch-thick Compaq laptop?
  • Remember scribbling tasks in your Monticello-themed, double-binded Franklin Planner?
  • Have you forgotten just how complicated it was to take your own pulse by using two fingers on one hand?

This was the crazy world the iPhone entered back in that dark age.

Apples’ development team started with the simplest version of what they thought could work and built on it from there. I’m sure they had a veritable scroll of features they probably could have included in that first phone (known then sweetly as “iPhone”).

But we’d probably still be waiting for that first iPhone, clumsily walking around with two fingers on our carotids and using hash marks to count our 10,000 steps.

The ensuing versions of the iPhone — all the way to today’s iPhone XR — came about once humans started actually using the phone.

I mean, who knew one day we would rarely even use these things as a phone? Who saw that one coming?Â đŸ€·

Use an MVP to simplify your work

You business-minded folks may recognize this process as a principle called “Minimum Viable Product,” or MVP.

(Bear with me. The therapist is using a business principle to make a point here.)

Entrepreneur Eric Ries was the first to toss this definition of MVP around in his book, “The Lean Startup:”

A Minimum Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

In regular-people speak:

  • Build the simplest version of your product that will let you learn how people use it,
  • Gather feedback from them while they’re using it, then
  • Add new features from what you learned.
  • And so on, and so on….

This can save you time and energy because you’re not trying to build the best product ever by just guessing what might work. That’s so old school.

  • MVP gives you a real-life lab to build a product that helps people solve the annoying problems in their lives.
  • MVP helps you see what really helps people, not just stuff you and your team think is cool.
  • People tend to celebrate and buy stuff that helps them solve problems.

Maybe you don’t build a tangible product per se.

(Actually you do! Your work is your product. Make work your product!)

Apply the MVP principle on this Monday to simplify the rest of this week

This frees you up to do the work that solves real problems and creates forward momentum.

I don’t know about you, but nothing stresses me out more than doing work that doesn’t matter.

Here’s a little MVP roadmap I made for you:

1. Create and plan a wicked simple baseline for what you want to accomplish this week

I’m showing my INFJ skin a bit here, but planning is essential to reduce stress at work. Sorry.

You have to create some buckets, even leaky ones, to capture your important work or you’ll just end up with a messy pile of pointless doo-doo on Friday.

I know that may fly in the face of your possibly more spontaneous nature, but spontaneity and joy are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t go crazy and overplan (see also: procrastination).

But do plan, please.

Give some thought ahead of time about how you want this week to end up.

  • What do you want to hold in your hand on Friday (besides a cold beer)?
  • What MVP product can you produce this week that you can then build on next week?
  • Put everything else on a “next release” list of some kind.

Be honest about what you can really do. This is an area where we create a lot of our own stress.

Our work eyes are sometimes bigger than our work stomachs, if you will. 😋

Create a workable plan that is do-able with the time and resources you have this week and focus the week on that.

2. Protect your plan by establishing boundaries around your work

I know what you’re thinking. That’s great and all, but what about when my boss runs in with a little project on fire, and I’m the one who’s supposed to put it out?Â đŸ“đŸ”„

What happens to my well-crafted plan then, sister girlfriend?

In many cases, you can give your boss some options on how you put that fire out.

“Sorry this project is on fire, Susie. Take a deep breath. Here are a couple of things we could do. Which one do you like?”

  1. Use the fire extinguisher. This will put the fire out immediately but it will also trash everything around us. It will resolve the problem immediately but we’ll spend two days cleaning up. This will delay all our other projects.
  2. Use the sweater slung over the back of my office chair to put out the fire. This will suffocate the fire and ruin my sweater, but it will most likely resolve the problem and preserve the working environment. We’ll need a minute to regroup, and I’ll need a long lunch to go buy another sweater. But we can get back on track today.

(Fire people are going to kill me on this one. It’s an analogy. If there’s an actual fire in your office, please be safe and follow your company’s fire safety plan.)

Of course there are plenty of unexpected things that pop up in the work week. But they don’t have to completely derail your work.

Unless they truly have to.

The best part about having a plan is how you can adjust it to meet changing needs.

But you can also protect it by offering other options besides you always having to set everything else aside.

And you still have a shot at maintaining momentum with your plan while getting credit for helping put out a fire, too.

3. Capture feedback to build your next version

In building an MVP, capturing feedback is what drives the best new version of the product.

Thoughtful and engaging feedback makes your work better.

If you work in a team format, you absolutely should be open to feedback. Unless you’re freakin’ Leonardo da Vinci, you need other perspectives to do great work.

Here’s the dealio with feedback, though.

You’re not necessarily required to convert that feedback into action items. And certainly not this week.

If the feedback is a game changer for where your work is headed right now, then be for real and change your plan.

But don’t feel like it’s always required. Put the feedback on your “next version” list and see how it may fit in later.

Put a little fence around your work and be your own gatekeeper.

This serves to focus your best cognitive energy on the feedback you can use now to do your best work this week.

4. Make it your task to understand how your work ties in to a larger goal

Why do you do the work at your job? I don’t mean to start you on an existential quest here, but really … why are you doing this work?

Part of an MVP is knowing that your work is accomplishing a specific outcome. You can touch it, define it and explain it.

Apple’s slogan for the first iPhone was “Apple reinvents the phone.”

Apple reinvents the phone - 2007 Macworld Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone

“Apple reinvents the phone” by Nobuyuki Hayashi is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Did the developers working then understand that? I hope so because they did reinvent the phone. They absolutely did.

This is where Steve Jobs’ focus on simplicity comes to bear. He was obviously great at painting a vision, not just for customers but for the people doing the work.

And it made all the difference.

Many leadership teams lack the skills to communicate business goals in simple ways.

How does Allison in accounting understand how her weekly report contributes to the company’s quarterly success? To her, it may be just a thing she does on Monday before lunch.

Yes, the burden of that understanding should really fall on Allison’s company.

But remember, the power to reduce stress is in our hands, not waiting for someone else to figure it out for us.

So Allison may have to ask that question of her boss or someone else at her company who’s in the know.

This is an excellent way to make sure the work you’re doing is needed.

If not, you can apply your efforts toward something that will.

Now what?

Companies who use the MVP approach have seen enormous, even overwhelming success. It allows them to put great work out there and let others help them refine it.

You can do the same in your workweek if you resolve to keep your stuff simple and workable.

  • Be honest with yourself and others about what you can do.
  • Don’t be afraid to set boundaries around your work.
  • Let others use their perspective and knowledge to inform your work and make it better.
  • Seek out the larger picture for yourself, and bring it back to your desk every day.

 


Check out my new Alexa Skill – Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller

You’re busy at work and at home, and you take care of everyone else. You’re allowed to have a few minutes in each day to set your focus, regroup and feel a little more in control.

Join me every day as I bring you simple and practical tips you can use right now to gain a little more control over your life.

Visit my Amazon page for more information.

Amazon Alexa skill - Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller


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Give yourself a Mental Health Moment every day!

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Amazon Alexa skill - Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller

Sometimes you need some encouragement right at the top of the day so you can stay focused on what will keep you energized and productive. 🌝

I’m excited to debut my Alexa skill, Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller.

It’s a little shot in the arm to start your day.

Every day I’ll talk about small ways you can inject a bit of sanity in your day.

If you have an Amazon Echo you can enable Mental Health Moment in the Alexa store. You can also download the Alexa app on your phone or tablet and enable the skill there.

Check out all the details on my Amazon skill page.

Feel free to leave me a review. I’d love to know what you think! đŸ€”

Deep breathing isn’t just “take a deep breath”

Deep breathing Man sighing in stress

Part of managing stress in our crazy, modern world is learning how to manage what stress does in our own bodies.

What I hear from many clients is just how out of control they feel when things start spinning. How do you make good decisions when you feel overwhelmed?

It’s hard to come up with solutions and ideas when things are going whack-a-do around you.

Maybe this sounds familiar.

  • Driving to work this morning felt very much like running a qualifying lap at Daytona
  • The kids just won’t stop…, you know, they just won’t stop
  • Your boss just completely changed how you do your work without asking how the changes might affect you, and
  • That creditor who calls every day has called you twice already today.

You know you have to keep moving through the day. How do you gain back enough control to just keep your head straight?

The best tool you can have in your stress toolkit is deep breathing

I think we all instinctively know that taking a minute to breathe can give a little time to refocus. And we have to breathe anyway, right? So that seems easy enough.

But deep breathing is more than just inhaling and exhaling with purpose. And it’s not just breathing deeper, as crazy as that sounds.

Deep breathing is a specific technique that allows you to use your breath to actually change how your body physically responds to stress.

This is a powerful skill used by soldiers, law enforcement and other high-risk/high pressure professionals.

With some practice, you can make deep breathing your “thing that always works.”

And here’s the best kicker: Deep breathing can buy you the control and time you need so you can respond to your stress in more helpful ways.

How does it work?

Deep breathing reverses the fight or flight stress response

The “fight or flight response” is supposed to be your body’s way of helping you survive something, like running from a hungry tiger or getting out of the way of a moving car.

Here are a few lovely things you can expect when you are in “fight or flight” mode:

  • Your heart starts beating faster
  • Your blood pressure goes up
  • Your pupils dilate
  • Your muscles get shaky
  • Your stomach starts to cramp
  • You suddenly start sweating.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack while sitting at your desk at work, these symptoms may also sound too familiar.

There’s no real predator at your back, but you feel completely overwhelmed, powerless and amped up all at the same time.

Thanks, Body, this is a very clever process to quickly remove me from danger. But I’m currently sitting at my desk not running from anything. I’m just trying to finish my weekly report before I go to lunch, if that’s okay.

Notice, too, that your breathing has gotten quicker and more shallow. Instead of slow, deep, calming breaths, you’re now taking quick-little-breaths from your chest.

Focus on breathing from your diaphragm

That’s a nifty little muscular organ that sits right at the base of your chest. It inflates to help you pull air into your lungs, then flattens when you exhale.

The diaphragm is the Rodney Dangerfield of bodily organs. It doesn’t get much respect but it does have a real part to play.

The trick to deep breathing is to focus on filling your “I don’t get no respect” diaphragm — your belly — with air, instead of your chest.

Why is this important?

Filling your belly with air stimulates your vagus nerve.

That’s a long nerve that runs from your brain stem down into your abdominal area.

It’s one of the most important nerves in your body because it regulates processes in just about all your major organs.

Never heard of it?

The vagus nerve is kind of the introvert of the human body. You don’t hear from it much until you need it, and when you do, you find yourself drinking from a firehose of practical solutions and actionable information (a shout out to awesome introverts everywhere).

Who knew that expertise was sitting there all this time?

Well, your vagus nerve has been sitting there all this time — cleverly, right behind your diaphragm.

The vagus nerve is responsible for … wait for it …
  • Slowing your heart rate,
  • Controlling sweating,
  • Regulating blood pressure, and
  • Keeping your digestive system relaxed and working well.

Soooo……taking intentional, deep breaths from your diaphragm presses on your vagus nerve, which sets about the task of slowing you the heck down.

Breathe2Relax

There are some great tools out there to help you learn how to breathe from your diaphragm. You can let the Google box do the work for you on that.

But my go-to app to do the work is called Breathe2Relax (for iPhone and Android). It’s a free stress management tool developed for combat veterans.

The app offers a tutorial to get you started with the technique. Then it takes you through a cycle of breathing that guides you through the inhale and exhale. You can repeat it as many times as you need to. If you’re using an Apple Watch, it captures your heart rate too.

I’ve used this app in my car, in a bathroom stall, in my bed, at my desk and one time in a McDonald’s drive through.

There are no breaths to count or memorize. Just focus on filling your belly with air and let the app do the counting.

Some days it’s the only thing that keeps me balanced.

Take 5 Breathing

If you don’t like apps or don’t have a device handy, you can use a technique called Take 5 Breathing. This one works great with the kiddos, too.

  1. Lay your right hand on a flat surface, fingers slightly fanned out.
  2. Then, starting with the bottom of your thumb, with the index finger on your other hand, trace up, inhaling deeply into your belly.
  3. As you trace back down the other side of your thumb, exhale slowly.
  4. Continue up the next finger (the index finger if you’re keeping score at home), inhaling, and so on, back down, until you reach the last finger on your hand.
  5. Rinse and repeat until you feel more relaxed and calm.

Deep breathing isn’t just a one-and-done approach

Learning how to breathe deeply gives you the power to instantly change how your body physically feels during a stressful moment.  But in order for it to work so powerfully for you, you have to make deep breathing a daily practice.

I would say it’s even a discipline.

Just like exercise or meditating, you have to train yourself to learn the technique and use it until it becomes second nature to you.

And the best time to do that is when you’re not feeling particularly stressed. Maybe start your day with it, or when you’re spending a few minutes in front of the TV.

Making deep breathing a regular part of your day will help your nervous system stay conditioned to help you relax more quickly when you need it.

With some disciplined practice, you can pull this one out on a dime and give yourself a better chance to respond to what’s happening around you.


Check out my new Alexa Skill – Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller

You’re busy at work and at home, and you take care of everyone else. You’re allowed to have a few minutes in each day to set your focus, regroup and feel a little more in control.

Join me every day as I bring you simple and practical tips you can use right now to gain a little more control over your life.

Visit my Amazon page for more information.

Amazon Alexa skill - Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller


Subscribe to the Be Well, Do Well newsletter

GET THE BE WELL DO WELL DIGEST!

Info and tips each week to help you improve and change your life!

Episode 2: Sticky note wins the day

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Here’s a quick way to set yourself up to find your wins for the day. And it uses an old-school office favorite – the sticky note!

You can listen to this episode right here! 👆

And don’t forget to subscribe to hear future episodes wherever you are! 

Full transcript

Hi I’m Lori Miller and this is your Mental Health Moment.

It’s important to recognize what you do well every day.

This is especially true if you’ve had a day when everything seemed to feel like an Avengers movie. You know what I’m talking about.

It’s so easy to forget what you actually accomplished today when all you remember is that new project your boss dumped on you at the last minute.

Here’s a quick way to set yourself up to find your wins for the day right from the very beginning.

Grab a sticky note right now. On it, write the words Today’s two things.

Then list the numbers 1 and 2, and leave some blank space next to each one.

Stick that bad boy on your steering wheel so you see it when you get in the car at the end of the day.

Or stick it to the inside of your iPad case so you see it when you settle in on the train ride home.

Or put it on your bathroom mirror. Doesn’t matter.

Any predictable after work place will do.

At the end of the day, when you get to that spot, right then and there, stop and give yourself two minutes to list two things you accomplished today.

Reflect on anything that felt good to finally finish, or maybe helped someone else finish something. Or maybe it’s just something that made you look good.

You probably came up with two things right off the bat.

Those wins are there for you no matter how busy or stressed you feel.

We tend to give our mental attention to what’s always vexing us, right? And then what do we ventilate about when we get home? All the stuff that went wrong.

Taking a few minutes to reflect on what went right today goes a long way to help reduce stress. And it’s also a nice buffer to help you relax and enjoy the rest of your evening.

For articles and videos about stress and mental health, visit my website at Lorimiller.me.

 

Thanks for listening!

I’d love to hear what you think!

  • Leave a note below or ask me a question in the comment section below.
  • Share this episode on Pinterest, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Help spread the message about good mental health!

 


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GET THE BE WELL DO WELL DIGEST!

Info and tips each week to help you improve and change your life!

Episode 1: An introduction to Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller

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You get to have a few minutes in your busy day to shift gears and focus on your best performance. Take a moment — or even five minutes — to set yourself up for success.

Join me every day in my new Amazon Alexa skill and podcast — Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller.

I’ll deliver a new tip every day that you can use to reduce stress and improve your mental health!

You can listen to the first episode right here! And don’t forget to subscribe to hear future episodes wherever you are! 

Full transcript

 

First of all, what is a Mental Health Moment?

Well, tell me if this describes your workday morning.

If you’re a commuter who drives, you most likely

  • drove in the parking lot on two wheels,
  • barely dodged fellow coworkers walking in,
  • lurched into a parking space,
  • piled all of your bags on your shoulders, and
  • raced into the building.

Slow down there turbo.

You most likely just defied death at 80 miles an hour on a busy highway and you maybe even took some calls already.

You get to have a few minutes in the car to reset your focus before you go into work.

Take 10 seconds or even five minutes to shift gears and set yourself up for success before you even get out of the car.

Here are a few ideas

  1.  Take some deep breaths. This will get your heart rate and your blood pressure back where it needs to be so you can be the calm one who walks in the door.
  2. Enjoy putting your favorite lipstick on. Take a few minutes to carefully apply that beautiful shade you just picked up and then smile at yourself in the mirror.
  3. Watch a funny YouTube video. Personally, I enjoy anything from comedian Brian Regan. He’s hilarious and laughing will also get your heart rate and blood pressure down.
  4. Listen to that one song that totally fires you up. My current one is never give up by Sia. It’s a great soundtrack to make a grand exit into work.

Feeling rushed and frazzled doesn’t help you feel resilient.

Take five minutes to set yourself up for success.

Give yourself a mental health moment!

Thanks for listening!

I’d love to hear what you think!

Help spread the message about good mental health!

 


Subscribe to the Be Well, Do Well newsletter

GET THE BE WELL DO WELL DIGEST!

Info and tips each week to help you improve and change your life!