“The One Thing” Approach to Managing Stress

Growing up in a household with two academics, September seemed more like the start of the new year than January. Everything was fresh and exciting. Who would be in your classes or on your teams? What teacher(s) would you get? What clothes do you wear? As a kid, it never occurred to me that my parents’ jobs went from a summer lull to “September stress” at the exact same time that their three busy kids’ lives did. It must have been madness.

As a parent myself now, September is a proverbial freight train. I know it’s coming, but I am never appropriately prepared. The impact was magnified this year because Mr. Stevens left the country for a week and I had a can’t-miss business trip at the same time. Over the weekend, presentation writing and finishing an RFP got done in between “Back to X” meetings, sports practices, dog walking and field hockey equipment shopping. By the time I got myself to the plane on Monday afternoon, I’d been up at 5am, gone to four hours of back to back meetings, squeezed in an emergency run to TJ Maxx after forgetting to pack a dress for a gala event, then coordinated with several customers, tutors, trainers and doctors in the Lyft and at the airport. The pinnacle was texting our overnight sitter to connect her with my amazing neighbor so they could try to free a squirrel we had discovered nesting in our fireplace. My text to her read, “Yes, this is really happening.” If someone had asked me my stress level on a scale of 1 to 10 at that moment, I would have said 11.

We sat on the runway and after a few deep, mindful breaths, the cortisol levels started to drop but not by nearly enough. So I pulled out a notebook and a pencil and started to write down every single thing I was stressed about. By the time I was done, the list filled two pages, a total of 31 entries. Many were annoying but solvable: “my phone is at 6% and my seat back charger isn’t working” and “Need shin guards for field hockey by tomorrow.”  Several were urgent and important like, “my presentation still isn’t done.” A few were existential threats with no imminent solution like “the state of our political system” and “climate change.”

Looking at the list, I realized that the first way to categorize it was by time frame. Nearly 50% of the items on the list would be resolved, one way or another, in the next 7 days. Another 30% would be resolved one way or another, in the next year. The remaining bucket were those few items that didn’t have a defined time-frame. Just that categorization was eye-opening.

The next step I borrowed from my system for prioritizing time. In that “One Thing” approach, you ask “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary.” I modified it a bit to say “What’s the one thing that I can do such by doing it everything else will be less stressful” and then came up with an answer for each entry.

I asked the guy across the plane aisle if I could borrow his charger. I then made a list of the calls that could be made while battling Chicago rush hour traffic on the way to the gala. I found the one Boston area store with shin guards that offered online ordering AND in store pick-up that night. I accepted several invitations to events in New York for Climate Week, but I also decided to shorten another trip. I worked on my presentation and rallied my team to help.

In less than 30 minutes, I was feeling calmer, cooler, more collected and in control. Yes, the list was still a mile long and no, I wouldn’t solve the state of American politics or climate change. But I would be channeling my anxiety into action, one of the best solutions for reducing it.

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. One of his core principles is that excellence is not about radical change, but about accruing the profound impact of regular small habit changes.

The same principle can be applied to stress reduction. If you have major stress and there is just one key driver of it, like a health issue, toxic work environment or an abusive relationship, then a radical change may be necessary. But for most of us surviving the September rush, small, regular actions to reduce stress will lead to profoundly better wellbeing.

So if you are still staring down that September freight train, write it all down. Categorize it into time frames and then determine the one thing you can do that makes everything less stressful. Then go, in the immortal words of Nike, “Just Do It.” Then feel yourself become calm, cool and collected as you turn your anxiety into action into impact.

Quote of the Week: “Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.”

Walter Anderson

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