Friday, January 28, 2011

Lessons for combating stress

University is meant to be educational and I did learn a few academic things while I studied at university. But there were also other life lessons I learned. One of these popped into my head again recently as I struggled with an unwieldy workload.

The lesson came from a comment made some 20 years ago by a professor of mine. This professor, after bumping into me in a corridor, asked me how I was. I said I was feeling drained and had a holiday planned. The professor replied, to my astonishment: “You do know that holidays are for people who do not know how to manage their time.”

Of course, her statement is dubious, and I am sure the occupational health depart- ment of the university would have disagreed, but it has always stayed with me. I have taken the words to mean that, in between any busy schedule, you should find time for a ‘holiday’. This might mean taking five minutes for a quiet cup of coffee, listening to an audio book in your car, or, perhaps, stepping into a museum for 30 minutes if you happen to pass one while rushing somewhere.

In fact, in my more extreme moments and, perhaps, suggesting that some of the madness of my professor has rubbed off on me, I sometimes try to convince myself that I am always on holiday and work is the thing that continually interrupts it.

Nowadays, with roles reversed and me working at a university, I always make a point of asking students how they are in the vain hope I have some effect on their lives too (although I don’t repeat my professor’s mantra). Students, like most of us when asked this question, generally say they are very busy, despite some of them being masters of factoring in relaxation (aka drinking) time into their schedules.

‘Busy’ seems to have become the buzz- word of our age. But being busy has many different meanings. There is also a lot of cache attached to being busy. Saying you are busy is linked with social power. It says you are needed by others and engaged in important activities.

I generally use the term ‘busy’ more when I am stressed. At these moments, I am often not very focused and I tend to waste a lot of time by writing lists, which just make me more anxious about what I have to do, often immobilising me. According to Jared Sandberg, who took time to research people like me, about “30% of listers spend more time managing their lists than [they do] completing what’s on them”.

It seems that when I am at my ‘most busy’ is when I have lost perspective on what really needs to be done. For me, the proof of this lies in the build-up to a proper holiday (not one of my little in-the-middle-of-day ‘vacations’, as my professor suggested). When I plan to leave the office for a few weeks, every task on my list seems the most important thing in the world. Invariably, not everything gets done. However, one week into the holiday, what seemed really important a week before miraculously seems less significant.

Therefore, I have concluded that managing your time is not merely about organising tasks; it is about getting the tasks into perspective. It is partly a state of mind. But developing a healthy attitude to what is important and what is not seems to require time and space for reflection.

So, perhaps, my professor had a point after all and we all do need continuous ‘stress holidays’. This would benefit both our health and our productivity, and work would surely benefit from a regular dose of perspective. My New Year’s resolution is to take more regular breaks – so, right now, I am off to work on a list of actions needed to make this a reality.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2011. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 28 January 2011.