Under Pressure
January 29, 2009 6:39 PM   Subscribe

How do stop feeling like I'm under pressure all the time?

Ever since, let's say 1996 (when I entered High School), I've felt an enormous pressure to get things done. From trying to do well in school, to getting into college, to getting good jobs, etc. Anything I set my mind to, I can't help but feel like I should be doing a billion things to get there.

At one point, it got so bad that I burned out from working too hard. Since then, I've managed to keep my work-level reasonable. But I still find myself frothing with an angst to keep pushing myself. It makes it really hard for me to relax and just read a novel, or something.

I have relaxation techniques, but it's a constant struggle. After a relaxation stretch, I feel hungry again. I think it feels the worst when I'm driving or walking somewhere, because then all the thoughts of "do this, do this, you have to do this, you can't let this go" come creeping in.
posted by philosophistry to Human Relations (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm with you, especially if you add in a dose of crushing Catholic guilt that whispers in your ear that you are never doing enough.

I find that I get way too stressed when I have too many tasks, no matter how big or small they might be.

Can you set fixed goals that have definite end points, so that once you have achieved a certain thing, there is no "more, harder" possible? Can you break your goals/projects/work down into discrete "achievements" each with end points and (important) REWARDS that you administer yourself?

If you commit in advance that you will buy yourself a puppy, for example, or spend an afternoon in a spa the day after you (finish this accomplishment), you will maybe get more comfortable with the notion of achievements having end points, instead of being just a series of steps that never end. You'll also have "forced" yourself to take a break/reward at regular intervals, which is good for ongoing sanity.

Best of luck.
posted by rokusan at 6:56 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That's an interesting strategy. I was raised Catholic too, so that may be a cause.
posted by philosophistry at 7:19 PM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster: your suggestion triggered some other ideas:

1 - I remember hearing a principle from someone, "you're not done until you're done celebrating.

2 - I think maybe I need to spend more time living for me, and not for things, ideals, or whatever else.
posted by philosophistry at 8:19 PM on January 29, 2009

I've got this problem, along with a bit of that Christian (although protestant) guilt. I've found listening to podcasts/audiobooks as I'm driving or out walking around help me to focus on something positive rather than the anxiety of my brain. Find a book you want to read, get the audio version (Audible.com is a godsend), and learn something new rather than ruminate on your guilt. You'll feel like you've actually accomplished something in that time instead of hate yourself for doing enough.
posted by fishmasta at 8:33 PM on January 29, 2009

Have you thought about what you would tell a friend who feels the way you do?

Do you expect more - way, way more - of yourself than you do of others?

If so, ask yourself what effect that's having on you. Try listing as many concrete, specific examples as you can ("I never feel really well rested. Several of my friends have said I'm not around to just hang out when they'd like to do that. I don't have time to make myself good meals and sit down to enjoy them.").

Now, imagine, as vividly and specifically as you can, what a healthy, well-rounded, Good life is - the life of someone who lives well, in contrast to someone who Does Good Things all the time. (I'm not saying the latter isn't important; I'm just saying they can be rather different things.)

Now, list the ways your life would have to change if you were to live well, like that.

When you're ready, try a few of those changes and see how they feel. Give each one a few tries, over time, to give yourself a chance to get used to the differences.

A few other suggestions:

Set aside one day a week as non-worldly time. Spend that time NOT working on projects, NOT checking things off on the to-do list. The only activities you're allowed are fun, relaxing, exploratory, rewarding.

Especially on those days, learn to spend some time walking slowly. Think about how slowly people walk in a wedding processional. Do that. (If you have a labyrinth where you are, try walking the labyrinth. It's wonderfully meditative.)

Try meditation. Learn to sit and let your thoughts go, and to realize that while you're sitting, there's nothing you can do to move anything forward. Come to terms with that. A lot of people come to really appreciate that feeling.

Learn walking meditation. When I'm taking time for myself and find my thoughts churning, I'll start to just think about my breath. "In." "Out." "In." "Out." The more I practice, the more I'm able to have times when I'm NOT thinking thinking thinking.

Finally, think about what it would mean to you to live a life of pure self-fulfillment. I've definitely been at points where I thought, "If I don't do this (clean the house, write my congressfolk, cure cancer, save the world), who will?!?" SOMETIMES, the answer is - believe it or not, someone else will. And sometimes, the answer is, believe it or not, it can wait. Or it can even not get done.

Sometimes thinking about that made me worry that I would swing to the other extreme and never get ANYTHING done. But what actually happened is that I've learned to strike a better balance between building a life that makes me happy and doing things that take effort but will make my life or my world better. The thing is, it doesn't have to be 110%, all the time. Do work; do good; but take good care of yourself first.
posted by kristi at 8:40 PM on January 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

I feel you. Currently in my last year of college, so the notion of finding a job is also eating into my mind.

Be willing to make sacrifices, and learn to say no if too many requests come up. Realize that you can't do everything everytime, and others have their limits too. Don't be afraid to ask someone else to take the responsibility, even if you have to pay that person to do so.

I like the idea of one relaxing day per week. On such a day, don't even LOOK at anything that'll remind you of work (so if you use the computer for work, leave that off). A better idea would be to set aside time every day, maybe before bedtime, to simply relax and read a book or listen to music. Probably the simplest thing to do, really. A short relaxing walk every evening, just half an hour or so, can work too.
posted by curagea at 9:18 PM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I think a common theme that's echoing in my mind is to have more me-time. I actually have a lot of "free" time, but I have all of that mostly spoken for with these extracurricular projects that are primarily for the benefit of others, and usually unpaid.
posted by philosophistry at 10:27 PM on January 29, 2009

When I feel this way, what helps me is to start prioritizing and scheduling.

It's hard to do, and you have to trust yourself a little, and you have to be able to make real decisions.

1- Get everything out of the way early. If it CAN be done now, do it now. The clean desk concept- if a task comes due, don't procrastinate.

2- Corrollary- know when a task CAN'T be done now, and be able to set it aside and not worry about it. Trust yourself that you know when you can do the thing, you will.

3- Only do one thing at a time. If you are working on something and the phone rings, be able to make the instant decision which is more important: finishing the task at hand, or answering the phone. I can't tell you how much more efficient I've become since I have developed this thought process. Basically, it's the "if it's important, they will call back" rule. Trust others to do what's in their own best interest- if what they are calling about is indeed important, they will leave a message or call back. And, of course, you have to then remember to return calls.

4- Only do one thing at a time. Maybe it's just me, but I just can't stand it when I'm at a party, and there is a constant stream of people swooping in and out, because they have 8 parties to go to that day, and all they can talk about is the logistics of their long day of visiting. Which isn't really visiting, it's making a spectacle. Do some freaking culling! If you are going to do something, do it right. Be in the same moment as the people around you. If you have a lot of things to do, figure out a way to do them right, or cut out the less important ones.

5- Only do one thing at a time. Work when you are at work, don't work when you aren't. This is hard for some people and some jobs, because other stressed out people think it's no problem to violate your off-work hours because they are violating their own. Look around- how many "super busy" people do you see who spend the day chatting on the phone and running errands on their lunch hour, who then are lugging work to and from home?

6- Plan for driving time. Give yourself enough time to get where you are going. Driving isn't wasted time, it's neccessary evil time.

I find that doing these things when I'm feeling over burdoned helps keep the stress down and I get more done.
posted by gjc at 6:37 AM on January 30, 2009

For a short time relief, other than relaxation techniques you have tried, try to do something that is fun and engaging. I used to make up stories on the spot when I felt my mind was racing. It helped me focus, relax, and have a little fun at the same time.
The added bonus for you is that you can do these sort of things while walking or driving.

It seems to me that part of the reasons you do this is the perfectionist desire in you. Which is all fine and good. It drives you to be better. But I echo rokusan - set limits. Break down your projects into discrete achievements. And what I found to be helpful when I was a grad student was set yourself a deadline. Work as much as and as hard as you can till you hit the specified time, then stop. Oh..you will rebel initially, but once it's a habit, it's a lifesaver.

The other part is that you seem to bite more than you can chew. In which case, learn to say no. I know, it's exceedingly hard to do. But a little phrase of "I'm sorry but I have a prior engagement" will do you wonders.

Finally - relax. Many things are not as important as you once thought. Again to use me as an example - when I started my job, I started to develop a nasty crackberry habit. I couldn't take the weekends without checking my email. Finally I said to myself, "You know...you are not THAT important. The company will run fine without you checking in every 5 minutes."
It is a bruise to the ego to learn that. But it's true.

*Disclaimer* I am not trying to suggest to you to slack off. Just to put things into perspective.

Good luck.
posted by 7life at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2009

I saw very wise advice recently, "be in the room you're in". I'm currently doing a phd, and I have 5 jobs (!) to make ends meet... The pressure can really seem overwhelming, I think about what PhD work I should be doing when I'm at job A, or what needs doing at job C when I'm at job D.

All these things about planning and organisation are very important, but also I think just giving yourself time to be in the situation you're in is very helpful. That includes when you're meant to be relaxing.
posted by Augenblick at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2009

I vote for Irresponsibility Day! It's a day that I schedule in advance in which I don't have to answer to anyone or do anything that I "have" to do--unless I want to. And I mean really *want* to. Most of my irresponsibility days involve poking around in the library, going to a movie, taking a book out to lunch, digging in the garden, that sort of thing. I sometimes also do things that lead to a goal that's important to me, but I'm doing it for me, not because I "should."

Added bonus: on Irresponsibility Day, when I think, "Now I'll do X," I stop and check whether I'm doing X because it's enjoyable or because I feel I *should* do it. This helps me develop the ability to notice during the rest of the week when I'm agreeing to something out of a sense of "should" and therefore getting overbooked and detoured from my main goals.
posted by PatoPata at 10:13 AM on January 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Horray for irresponsibility day.
posted by philosophistry at 1:24 PM on January 30, 2009

I'm curious. Do you have a generalized system for your tasks? Or do you just do stuff based on crises?
posted by filmgeek at 1:37 PM on February 2, 2009

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