Adapting to Impossible Stress

In my last blog, I told of a friend who has a high stress job.  His works in a large government agency where external requests come in constantly.  In fact, he was getting about 250 a day.  Most of the requests are associated with high visibility political issues and it is critical that each request is processed correctly.  In order to process the requests, he has to establish coordination across many internal boundaries.  In the blog he described two angry bosses and how he transformed them through focused listening.

A few months ago, things changed with the new administration.  Suddenly, the issue he deals with intensified.  Now he was receiving not 250 external requests daily but 500 external requests.  He described a recent day.

“I felt like no matter how hard I ran, I could not run fast enough at work.  I felt increasingly stressed.  I hardly took my hands off the keys the whole day and by the evening, my wrists and forearms ached.  Every interruption increased my stress.”

His job seems truly impossible, but he shared how he is trying to adapt.  His strategy includes a number of personal changes.  His report is worthy of examination.

“For the last few weeks, I have managed to engage in a short planning session almost every evening.  This might seem like a rather small thing, but it’s a huge victory for me and I want to document and celebrate it.  In the past I have tried this and always fell off the wagon.  This time I am succeeding.”

Why is he succeeding?  He reports that this time he has made some specific changes.  Every night before getting into bed, he does several things.  Some are conventional, some are not.  Here they are.


  • “I write up today. Throughout the workday, I have an email open on my screen and jot notes of the things I accomplish and my meetings and calls.  I don’t sign off from work until I send this email to myself and file it.”


  • “I move items from my notebook to my next actions list or my journal. I take notes during the day in a notebook I keep on my desk.  I draw a star next to actions I need to take or inspiration I feel.  As part of my planning, I go back and transfer these items to my to-do list or to my personal journal.”


  • “I review my calendar for tomorrow. This one is so basic, but in the past I often failed to look at my calendar just to see what was happening the next day.”


  • “I update my next actions list. This doesn’t take as long as I thought it would.  A quick review helps me think what I should do first the next morning.”


  • “I list ten things I am grateful for today. Evening is the hardest time of day for me.  It’s when I am most vulnerable to depression and anxiety.  Disciplining myself to write “ten things I’m grateful for today” helps me get through difficult evenings.  Each morning as I review that list, I delete most of what I recorded the evening before, but sometimes I keep one for later.  I used to start my gratitude email from zero each morning, but now I always have a list from which to jumpstart my writing.


  • I Am Accountable: Besides having a defined, limited definition of what daily planning is, another important reason I’m succeeding is I have a partner.  A few weeks ago, I asked my mom if I could text her every night to report on my planning and she agreed.  Each night when I finish the steps above, I texted her something simple like “I planned.”  Feeling accountable to her has been a secret ingredient (for me) to being consistent.


As indicated, some of the step are conventional but some are not.  The last two particularly stand out.  First he recognizes that his stress often leads to depression and he knows the pattern.  He intervenes in the pattern by constantly searching for the positive during the day and then keeping a gratitude journal.  Most stressed people would be resistant to such a pattern but research suggests that such gratitude work is a powerful lever.


Second, we have a grown man involving his mother in his work.  He reports to her each day.  Again this unusual practice is supported by research.  When we decided to make a change, if we a commitment to at least one person and ask them to hold us accountable, our chance of success go up.



  • Is the stress in your job going down or going up?
  • How are you adapting?
  • What can you learn from this man?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?




Leave a Reply