Friday, January 23, 2015

Stress Management Strategy: Creating Gaps During Work

Stress Management Strategy

(c) MCStrom Photos

Going from teaching tennis to running a nonprofit was certainly a radical shift in my life.  My office was now a little box rather than the great outdoors.  When I looked up, I saw a ceiling rather than the sky.   I had to learn a whole  gamut of new skills.  Rather than the simplicity of focusing on the ball and my student, I had a complex web of critical relationships to nurture and maintain, with staff, Board, funders, and volunteers.

One of the toughest parts of adjusting to an office job was that there was no longer the natural rhythm of activity, then break, of the tennis court.  I began each day with a huge to-do list, plus had to deal with quite a flood of emails, phone calls, and knocks on my door from colleagues needing support.  It was easy to get swept up in non-stop doing, going from one task to the next without a break.

I quickly realized that, if I didn’t want to drown in an ocean of endless doing, I needed to create gaps between activities.  For example, rather than getting off the phone and instantly checking email, I would pause and take a few conscious breaths.  When, I felt stress building up, I would take a walk around the block.

The very act of creating a gap is powerful. The moment we put aside our work, we are saying to our subconscious, “I have enough time. I not only have time to do all I truly need to do today, I even have time for a break.” This frees us from the hold of the ego/mind, which is constantly telling us, “There’s not enough time.”

Be creative during your gaps. Do what works for you. If you love to dance, put on your favorite CD,  If you're tense, use whatever relaxation techniques are the most effective stress management for you. Be spontaneous and playful. This is your chance to break out of the purposeful doing mode and to relax and enjoy yourself.

I think you’ll notice almost right away that when you start creating more gaps during work, your level of performance increases.  You return from even a very short break feeling refreshed.  Your mind is clear and your body more relaxed.  You not only enjoy your tasks more, but consistently do your best work.

Most Executive Directors of nonprofits burn out within a few years.  I lasted 15 years as ED of Joy of Sports Foundation,  making it through numerous financial crises and challenges with difficult employees.  I attribute my longevity largely to applying the principle of alternation between activity and breaks which I’d learned on the tennis court.

The many short breaks I took during each workday helped me to get through most days without feeling exhausted or fried.  As I will discuss in future blogs, I also did my best to use longer gaps (mornings, evenings, weekends, vacations/retreats) to renew myself.

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