Stress is bad. Everyone knows this. It’s a well-known killer of creativity – under stress, the brain puts its resources into parts of itself connected to survival, locking you out of your creative side at a very basic level.
That’s the science. However, freelancers often have no choice about doing their work – unforgiving deadlines mean that you have to commit to work regardless of how stressed you might feel. And freelancers are often under time constraints, experience pressure to perform efficiently due to heavy workloads, and have to deliver “better than the best” to compete.
This looks like one of those bad situations where you can’t possibly win – but you can. In this post we will look at ways to harness your stress to get the best out of yourself, rather than the worst.
1. Understand That Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
Apollo 13 is a classic example that proves the “stress is bad” rule isn’t always valid. The extraordinary ways in which the astronauts and mission control experts collaborated and successfully created a solution for a desperate problem under extreme pressure shows that stress can provide a rocket boost for creativity.
This famous example proves that even significant stress doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your ability to troubleshoot and problem solve. Seeing stress as potentially good can help you overcome the negativity that surrounds it. An interesting Forbes article points out that stress is known to help you cut out irrelevant issues that normally distract you and ensure you focus on the end reward and how to achieve it.
Understanding this, you can use it to your advantage when under pressure – utilize your improved focus and initiative to get the job done.
2. Learn to Love Wednesdays
A major study claims that people feel much less stress on Wednesdays, so if you feel this is true for you, then try to arrange your efforts around this potential creative high point. (If not Wednesdays, note those times of the week where you feel less stressful, and apply the above advice accordingly.)
Conversely, Monday mornings and Fridays are said to be very stressful, so it’s perhaps best to use these days for work that requires focus and drive, which are improved by stress.
One study found that Tuesday morning is the most stressful point of the week though – definitely a time to avoid doing creative work!
If you can prioritize projects that require practical rather than creative skills for times when you feel most under pressure, you’ll get more done and you will be working with your body’s natural rhythms rather than against them.
3. Think Positively
University of Berkeley research has found that the ‘right’ amount of stress can help you in the short term to concentrate and perform better. In fact, too little stress can even lead to boredom and depression! Stress is a natural coping mechanism, and other research goes on to note that “positive” stress, such as you might feel before an important meeting or performance, can help you give of your best.
‘Good stress’ – when our heart beats faster in anticipation – is a natural part of life. In a stressful situation, meeting it with anticipation rather than fear can therefore really help; positive thinking is seen as a key part of stress management.
Try working to change your mindset from “Oh no, this is bad,” to “I know I can do this!”. It’s easy to get into the habit of reacting badly under pressure, but knowing that your mind and body can cope, and that stress can actually enhance your performance, will help prevent negativity.
4. Manage Your Time
Most time-related pressure occurs towards the end of projects as the deadline approaches, and the best way to tackle this kind of stress is to “work smart”, ensuring that you don’t put off projects just because their deadline is some way away.
If you have spare time, start working on projects with further-off deadlines, because this early investment will pay off either for this project, or for another that you’ll be able to focus on because this one is so well in hand.
However, most of us know that getting ahead is a good idea, but we don’t do it. We are all really good at procrastination! Experts suggest tactics including giving a project you’re avoiding a short chunk (say five minutes) of your time, then assessing how you’re doing; setting yourself realistic goals with rewards (anything from a cookie to watching a favourite YouTube video); or setting “unbearable” punishments for procrastinating, like paying a ‘fine’ to someone or something you really dislike.
5. Sleep On It
If you have a stressful problem you really can’t solve or a need for a creative answer that just won’t come, the old adage “sleep on it” really does appear to work. When you’re asleep or otherwise diverted, research shows that your unconscious mind is often able to solve what your conscious mind cannot.
For insomniacs this may not be terribly good news, though there are natural solutions to help you sleep more easily. Steer clear of caffeine and nicotine, use lavender pillows, drink camomile tea and use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques such as “sleep hygiene”, which means going to bed and waking up at the same time every morning (apart from a 30 minute lie-in at the weekend if you want to indulge), and doing something relaxing before bedtime.
Another tip is to remove distracting computers, phones and TVs from the bedroom if you’re having trouble sleeping. If your deadline is too pressing to take a nap, try going for a jog or doing some other activity that will take your mind off your problem long enough for your unconscious to get to work.
6. Develop a Stress Toolkit
As well as the above tips, reduce your stress levels to normal rather than chronic by increasing your physical activity or learning relaxation techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, visualization and meditation, all of which can really help fire up your creativity.
This excellent book on mindfulness is full of positive strategies, and you can learn more about yoga from relevant websites. Related techniques such as visualization are also increasingly being used to reduce stress, and meditation, like mindfulness, can be extremely relaxing.
Try scheduling a relaxation break into each day when you try one (or more) of the above techniques. It need not take long, it need not cost any money, but your efforts will be repaid.
Getting on top of stress is important, because long-term chronic stress isn’t good for you and can cause negative health effects. ‘Normal’ stress, however, can help you in a number of ways:
- Concentrate and tune out distractions
- Meet your goals
- Work harder and find ways to tackle difficult tasks.
- Perform well
With the above in mind, start tackling stress today by:
- Managing your time intelligently
- Seeing stress as a positive
- Diverting your conscious brain to let the unconscious work
- Developing a stress toolkit
Do you have other good ideas for harnessing or tackling stress? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credit: Sasha Wolff