Six steps to a stress-free career

By Matthew Stibbe Matthew Stibbe
Totoro behind a ticket counter at the Studio Ghibli museum

There’s a fantastic article on the website, Six steps to a stress-free career. I wondered how well I was doing.

New Scientist’s top tips

  1. Create a good space. I’ve written before about Peopleware, which goes into great detail about how to create a highly productive workplace. (For example, in Rules of thumb for writing.) New Scientist’s recommendations tally: quiet, a comfortable chair, natural light and privacy, temperate air conditioning and so on.
  2. Raise your status. The higher your status, the less stress and the longer life, says the magazine. I agree. This is why I gave myself a grandiose title – “Writer in chief” and I boss myself around mercilessly.
  3. Be social. Apparently sociable baboons have fewer stress hormones. I don’t get friendly with baboons, although I did have a cup of tea with my bank manager recently. Seriously, though, wasn’t it Freud who says that you need two things to be happy: work and love.
  4. Don’t be too social. I score big here because I work in my own private office. Researchers at UC Irvine found that on average people manage to get only three minutes of sustained work between interruptions. This is far, far less than the time required to get into a flow state. On average it takes 15 minutes to achieve a communion with your work and concentrate fully on it. (I wrote a post for my company, Articulate, on How to concentrate on writing, which covers some of this ground.)
  5. Learn to switch off. This is hard for writers, especially when they’re on a deadline. I must learn to shut my study door when I finish my work for the day. And keep it shut.
  6. Modern stress busting. Yoga, deep breathing and walks are good, says New Scientist, but oxygen is better (perhaps). Power napping also helps. Churchill famously slept nearly every afternoon and worked into the early hours every night. I understand that B2 bomber pilots take a deckchair along on their 20-30 hour flights and take power naps regularly to keep themselves going.

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Matthew’s Stress-free career tips

  1. Get a job you love. I really enjoy my writing work and I have much less stress than in my previous career. My friend Claire says that ‘if you do what you love, the money takes care of itself.’
  2. Little treats. I like tea, cookies, epic baths. I can work pretty well if I know I’m going to get a cup of tea soon. (See my post: Tools for writing: a nice cup of tea.) Philip Larkin said that if he were called in to construct a religion, he would make use of water. Me? I would use tea.
  3. Remember: done is better than perfect. It’s all to easy to get caught up in the pursuit of perfection. But getting stuff done has a perfection of its own.
  4. Exercise. I don’t like doing it but it helps me concentrate and work out my frustrations. Also, I enjoy training with other people and that is a friendly part of the day. Sometimes I take long walks and catch up on podcasts as I do it. That’s almost working!
  5. Tidy up. It’s amazing how therapeutic a good tidy up can be. Apparently, Margaret Thatcher used to do housework to calm her down. I don’t have much in common with her but I like a tidy desk.
  6. Write down your tasks. This is, of course, the gist of Getting Things Done. If you’ve written it down somewhere, you don’t have the stress of keeping it (and dozens of other tasks) in your brain.
  7. Get a hobby. If work is stressful but you are a type-A personality, sometimes a challenging hobby can be relaxing on the principle that a change is as good as a rest. For me, flying is oddly relaxing because I have to concentrate so hard on what I’m doing that there’s no bandwidth for anxiety or work thoughts. (See my other blog, Golf Hotel Whiskey.)
  8. Meditate. Works for me when I have the discipline to do it. The Berkeley Buddhist Monastery has a fabulous online meditation timer. There’s also this cool app that does the same thing.
  9. Count to ten. Really. This may be the single most important secret of a stress-free career.
  10. Reduce stress by not giving a shit. Sometimes (just sometimes!) give yourself permission to slack off, kick back, leave it to someone else, deal with it tomorrow. You’re a good person and you’ll do the right thing. But not yet. Sometimes problems fix themselves if you leave them alone.

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