If you’re like many leaders, you may feel you have the ideal life. You have a good job that pays well, you are in a solid relationship, your kids are thriving, you have a nice house in a good neighborhood. From the outside looking in, you have it all.
But sometimes, you might feel as if your life is out of control and not aligned with who you want to be. You can’t put your finger on one incident that is leading you to feel overwhelmed; instead, it’s the culmination of a lot of small pressures called microstressors.
The Microstress Effect
Microstress is the subject of a new book by Professor Rob Cross and former Harvard Business Review editor Karen Dillon called The Microstress Effect. The pair interviewed 300 high-performing professionals and found that many were secretly suffering from small, seemingly inconsequential events that, when combined, packed a massive punch.
It’s especially prevalent in today’s hyperconnected world (as I wrote about in 2020) where texts, calls or video chats can deliver microstressors. We may not be consciously aware of these small events as we would a major stress event in life, such as a layoff, but they can be just as dangerous. Stress of any kind can raise blood pressure and heart rate, or trigger hormonal or metabolic changes.
Think back to the height of the pandemic. Many people experienced “brain fog” without necessarily having Covid-19. The reason, according to Cross and Dillon, is that our brains were overwhelmed with microstressors so we had less bandwidth to deal with normal life problems. When your brain doesn’t respond to stress in its normal way but rather lets little stressors fly under the radar, they accumulate over time.
Three Types Of Microstress
Cross and Dillon break microstress down into three categories:
• Microstresses that reduce your capacity to get things done. When you feel you can’t count on a colleague or must deal with an unpredictable boss, you’re dealing with this type of microstress.
• Microstresses that deplete your emotional reserves. When your day is disrupted by office politics or a needy coworker, you are experiencing this type of microstress.
• Microstresses that challenge your identity. When you experience an attack on your self-worth or have a negative interaction with family or friends, you may recognize this type of microstress.
The Project That Weighs On You
A coaching client recently shared a story that illustrates how microstress works. He has a project in a folder on his desk. It’s not labeled, but he knows it’s there. The project isn’t due for a month, but he knows he needs to get started on it now. Every time he looks at that folder, it adds to his brain’s exhaustion.
There are “folders” in all parts of our lives—those little nagging tasks that you haven’t gotten to and aren’t necessarily urgent, but weigh on you. When you multiply this feeling at work, at home, with your spouse, with your kids, it’s all overwhelming and that creates fatigue.
The Tolerations List
One of the best strategies for dealing with microstress is creating a toleration list. This is a physical list of anything that is not working in your life, from tasks you’ve started but haven’t finished, to things you hate doing but must do anyway. Here is a checklist of types of tolerations to get you started.
I used this in my own life back when I worked in the finance industry. One day, I left work feeling depressed but not understanding why. I had a great career, a beautiful home and a healthy relationship; what did I have to be depressed about?
I sat down with a pad of paper and wrote a list of things that annoyed me in my life. Here’s how it started:
1. Waking up to an alarm at 4:30 a.m. each morning.
2. Having to work five days a week.
3. Going to pointless meetings.
Initially, this felt like a futile exercise. But I kept going until I had 232 items on the list. It included everything that was nagging me—from a kitchen that needed repainting to writing a letter to an aunt whom I knew would not live much longer. I took the next week off work and was able to complete over 100 of the items on the list. The lightness I felt was unbelievable!
I took the remaining items and merged them into a tolerations list. Once I categorized that list, I realized that around 30 items related to my job. With so many elements not aligned with creating the life I wanted and working the way I wanted to, it became obvious to me that I needed to become an entrepreneur. I needed to work for myself to attain the quality of life I wanted.
We allow our lists to grow instead of taking the time to clean them up, but there are things you can do to start to alleviate some of these microstressors.
1. Get the microstresses out of your mind and put them on paper to deal with, whether that means outsourcing or handling them yourself.
2. Rid yourself of any monkeys. The age-old management problem known as “monkeys on one’s back” is when a leader sacrifices their own time and performance by taking on employee burdens. Learn to push back and have your employees, family members and friends solve their own problems.
3. Schedule time, even if it’s just one hour a week, to tackle some items on your toleration list.
4. Practice some form of mindfulness or meditation every day to help you put your everyday stressor situations in the proper perspective.
We all accumulate clutter in our minds without being conscious of it, and it can add up and drag us down. But if you can eliminate just a few microstresses in your life at a time, it can make a significant difference. If you need a push to get started, an executive coach can help with identifying and prioritizing the microstresses in your own life.