Image from the cover of Chaos: Making a New Science
The other day, I ran across this 1983 New York Times article questioning whether “stress addiction” was a legitimate phenomena. Given the behavior of the typical cellphone toting, iPad poking, Twittering Tumblr-tagging teen, or the number of people you see walking down the street eating lunch as they text and talk to the earpiece in their ear, I think we can safely lay that debate to rest, and assume that some form of stimulation or stress addiction seems to afflict a lot of modern people.
So why does it seem like some people seem comfortable, even eager to add more stress-inducing activities to their life, while others seem to be trying everything imaginable to reduce the stress factors in their life? I think one of the first problems in “dealing with stress” is that there isn’t even a widely accepted definition of what it IS. This University of Maryland page says it’s a form of anxiety, which “is a feeling of fear, unease, and worry”. Merriam Webster says it is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”.
Good Stress & Bad Stress
That dictionary definition above highlights a common misconception about the broad array of things we might call “stress”. From a common sense point of view, and in a view that is becoming more pervasive in health and wellness circles, stress can actually be a GOOD thing. In its simplest form, it’s a heightened reaction to external challenges or stimuli. So as long as the those external stimuli aren’t so persistent and intense as to overwhelm the individual, it’s a healthy survival response that helps us meet and overcome challenges. Historically, war has been one human activity that would reliably overwhelm the human organism, leaving many of its survivors with sometimes permanent stress-induced mental and physical health problems. But what about the crazy, stressful activities that people INTENTIONALLY engage in, like skydiving, bungee jumping, running for political office, or working in the finance industry?
Maybe You’re A Stress Addicted Chaos Junky
Strangely, like almost anything else, it is in fact possible to be addicted to stress or chaos, as mentioned at the top. The same chemical processes that are going on in the brain when you’re screaming and waving your arms on the trading floor may be very similar to those that are occurring when when you’re overindulging in your drug of choice. I’ve been on both sides of this fence, so I can speak with some expertise. Before I entered recovery a few years ago, I maintained the most immaculately orderly home and work environments you will encounter. The most common remarks people would make about my character would usually reference my organization, cleanliness, and grooming. Little did they know that these external things were the only thing anchoring the turmoil in my heart and head; my external world was a desperate attempt to maintain order SOMEWHERE, and physical objects and strict schedules make this fairly easy. Interestingly, after a few years of personal evolution in recovery, I find my home and workplace are often a lot messier, but I’m probably getting ten times as much done as before, and perhaps more importantly, I’m HAPPIER.
Your Personal Best Stress Level
I’m of the opinion that – as is so often the case in contemporary culture – the emphasis on reducing stress in our lives is oversimplified, ill-conceived, and is an easy monetization tool for the health care industry. A couple of problems with most people’s approach to stress are that a.) they lack the self-awareness to usefully define their stress levels, and b.) they lack the self-awareness to usefully define their stress levels. Yes, the two reasons I’m suggesting are the same. On the one hand, many people aren’t aware that the very tools they use to create organization in their lives are in fact the number one source of their chaotic and stressful existence. On the other hand, most people are unable to separate anger over personal dissatisfaction (i.e. frustration with unexpected outcomes, etc.) from a normal “stress” reaction. I personally THRIVE on a significant level of stress. The thing that will take me into an unhealthy zone in this regard is WAITING. Not because I demand that things be done on “my time”, but because I’m most centered when I’m “doing”. So if – like me – you struggle to maintain a high enough stress level in your life to satisfy your addictive nature, below are some tools I recommend for enhancing the overall chaos level in your life. Maybe embracing them all can make you finally snap, and then ease back into your own “good level”.
5 Sure-fire Tools To Enhance the Level of Chaos in your Life
If you really want to escalate the level of disruption, distraction, and disorder in your day, use email. According to this NYT piece, in a 2007 study a group of Microsoft workers took – on average – 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. Email is a great tool for chaos generation all around. Also make sure you always have at least 10 messages in your inbox that require replies, send important messages as you LEAVE the office each day, and check it first thing in the morning. I jest of course. I just named three of the basic things that destroy attitudes and productivity. The point is, email is a useful tool, but if you don’t use it with some conscious thought, it will eat half of your day, and keep you in a perpetual tizzy. Empty your inbox. Could that one message be handled better with a quick phone call? MAKE IT. Is there going to be anything in your inbox at 7am besides problems that someone left you late yesterday? Probably not. Wait a couple of hours and get your workday going before you disrupt it!
Face it. You’re not. Unless you’re amongst the 2 percent of people who CAN, according to research, and there’s a 98 percent chance you aren’t. So really all you’re doing when you multitask is under-performing, and stressing yourself out. But if you really are seeking that level of stimulation, there’s probably no better way to achieve your goal than texting and talking while driving, typing an email while talking on the phone, or doing all of this while you’re having lunch with me. Because then I’LL get stressed out, because ill-manners make me angry, and since you’re on the phone, my polite nature will force me to wait until you’re done to scream at you, which will add to YOUR stress level.
According to 2010 figures from the White House Office of Management and Budget, Americans spent 8.8 billion hours completing government forms. That’s just government forms! In America, employees print an average of 45 sheets of paper per day, and 30 percent of all employees’ time is spent trying to find lost documents. No wonder there are over 50,000 primary storage facilities in the US alone. We’re all afraid of throwing that thing out, because Lord knows when you’re going to need it! But seriously. Try a system like the Noguchi Filing System or a variation of the 43 Folders method, and those piles of documents that are crucial to national security – even though you don’t know what’s in them – will disappear.
Have lots and lots of meetings. Hell, have a special meeting just to talk about all the meetings you’re having. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unnecessary meetings cost U.S. businesses approximately $37 billion in 2005 alone. I think your team should meet to discuss that problem. I’d share more thoughts on how the the travel and task switching aspects of meetings consume more time than the meetings themselves, but I’m late for a meeting.
You’re going to find this hard to believe, but I have a time travel machine. In fact, this is one of my favorite chaos generation tools. I bet you have one too, and don’t even realize it. It’s right in your head. I’d bet a nickel that one of the greatest productivity inhibiting, stress-generating tools at our disposal is in use nearly constantly by all but the most advanced Zen Masters. I have to confess that even while typing these words, I thought about a couple of meetings this week, and answered the phone twice, transporting myself across time and space to a place full of problems that actually don’t concern me right now, and that I can do nothing about. Want to stay in a constantly stressed state? Think about everything BUT where and when you are right now.
I don’t have one. That’s up to you. There are thousands of books and websites out there offering solutions to your stress-related problems, but frankly, I find merely searching and browsing these sources stress-inducing. Why not try a simple approach. Pause. Take an honest look at how you use technology, for starters. And then examine if you’re simply angry that things aren’t the way you want them to be, and get to work on changing them in manageable steps.