Stress 2.0: Getting Out From Under

If you read my last post, you understand that the first step on the path to reducing stress is to acknowledge that you are the only person on earth that can change things. The world will do what the world does. You can’t control it. You can, however, change how you do things.

So, what is the next step?

A good place to start is to get everything on the table. If you are a Director of Technology, surface all your commitments and write them down. Go to each building and solicit every tech support call that is still outstanding. It’s not uncommon for some teachers or administrators to stop putting in tech support issues if they have stopped believing that they will be taken care of in a reasonable time frame. They say to themselves, “What the heck. Why bother?” Get these issues too. They are important.

By the way, no matter what is causing your stress, even if you are not a Director of Technology, collecting every tiny item that is outstanding in your to do’s and writing it down in a single place, is an important step in reducing your stress.

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Won’t seeing all my outstanding to do’s and commitments in one place make my overwhelm and stress worse?”

No, not really. Sometimes the stressful weight we carry is heavier because of what we don’t know, because of what we imagine. Seeing it all on paper in front of us can be shocking; but it actually puts boundaries on things. It’s all there. Nothing is hiding. Nothing is imaginary. We can see clearly the scope of the problem.

Now, with the scope clear, we can begin to take control. Which items can be handled relatively easily? Which items have no time frames on them? Why not put new and realistic time frames on them, rather than letting them hang out there without any commitment of a date? Which items are long overdue and should be considered high priorities? Which items can be renegotiated? etc.

I love the story of the man waiting for an elevator that had no floor indicator. He wants to go UP so he presses the UP button. He waits for what he thinks is a reasonable amount of time for the elevator to come, and when it doesn’t, he walks back over and pushes the lit UP button again. Intellectually he knows that pushing the button again will do no good; but he does it anyway.

He continues to wait and grows more impatient. Still no elevator. He loses his cool and presses the DOWN button. Because he doesn’t know what is going on, he has decided to go all the way down to the Lobby in order to go up to his destination floor. If everyone waiting for the elevator does this, it cripples the system and things slow to a crawl.

The solution, make a Floor indicator available to those waiting. Once I can see that the elevator is making its way towards me, however slow it may be; at least I know it’s coming. I won’t be pressing the DOWN button in order to go UP

Let’s go back to the Director of Technology who has collected every outstanding item in each of the buildings. She can make a plan to “catch up” over some reasonable period of time. Maybe she feels it will take a 3-6 month period, for example. She can go back to each building and lay out this time frame for taking care of their issues. I guarantee that this will make things better for them and for her.

“Well, doesn’t having this new ‘catch up plan’ add to her stress?”

Not really for she is in control. She has surfaced the issues. She has developed the ‘catch up plan’. She has laid out the time frames she feels are reasonable. She might even be able to say, “I’ll need some short term help to take care of this backlog.”

The issue of control is paramount in understanding stress. One of the foundational features of stress is feeling overwhelmed and not in control of events or issues, even our lives. Laying out all our challenges allows up to see the scope of the problem and creating a plan to meet those challenges, is a first step to putting us back in the driver’s seat.

Of course there’s much more to this; but acknowledging our role, surfacing the issues, and creating a plan to resolve things is a great way to get started.


The Journey…Step One: Look in the Mirror

The Director of Technology’s face was drained of all joy. She was sullen and unsmiling. Donna’s office was a sloppy mix of cables, computers, boxes, and papers. On her desk were a phone, a computer, keyboard and mouse. They where freckled with yellow sticky notes, each one with an urgent task to be completed. If her inner life was anything like her office, she was in trouble. It was obvious to me that she was in complete overwhelm and was suffering greatly.

Less than a week ago the superintendent had attended a meeting with some other superintendents and had returned to request that the entire district’s data and management resources be updated. He wanted a new student information system, and a data warehouse. He wanted parent and community connections and teacher web pages. All of this was great; but Donna was already tapped out, and sinking in overwhelm.

She had been putting in long hours and staying late, very late. She had a family; but she was sacrificing her home life for the job. She kept telling herself that they’d understand; and they did. But every time she missed dinner or one of her children’s school or sporting events, she felt terribly guilty. She justified it by telling herself that if she could just get this or that cleaned up, she would be on top of things again.

And then the superintendent threw all this new data stuff at her.

Added to all of this was her feeling that he and the rest of the staff had no idea of the amount of work she was putting in, and no idea how much of her home life she was sacrificing. She sunk in on herself; resigned and drained of spirit. She felt there was no way out. She showed all the signs of a growing depression.

At first Donna blamed those around her. The superintendent and staff didn’t “get it”. The demands on her time were inevitable and there was no way she could say “no” to he many requests that swamped her. If she said, “No” she might get in trouble or fired. People might think she didn’t care or wasn’t committed.

There was never money to increase staff or to get outside help.

“God,” she exclaimed in frustration, “if they only new how much time I spend updating the web page for them. Being webmaster around here would be a full time job for most people.”

I offered to coach her through this.

In our first meetings we talked about the predicament in which she found herself. Who was accountable for it?

Over and over, she fell back into the victim’s story. It wasn’t her fault. There was nothing she could do.

It took some time, more than one meeting with her; but eventually she began to see that it was she who had said “yes” to the requests that had plowed her under. It was she who created the unrealistic expectation that she could do everything, be everything to everybody, as if she had some magic abilities that no one else possessed. It was she who was unable to verbalize her value or take a strong stand for more staff, more resources, and outside help.

When “push came to shove”, she de-valued herself. She subordinated herself to others, and rationalized it as being dedicated. It was she who was willing to sacrifice her home life for her work life. She had lost her way. Her purpose for entering education was long forgotten.

As she began to see the role she, herself, played in creating this situation, she began to feel ashamed of herself.

“I can’t believe I am so weak that I let this happen to me. I am a loser.” was her general feeling.

Shame is negative self-judgment and added nothing to the situation except to make her feel worse about herself.

I continued to work with her.

“The past is done. We can’t change it. It just is. What we do from here is filled with possibility. You’ve taken the first step. You’ve recognized your own accountability. You’re looking at yourself, the one person involved in this drama that you can control; and you’re saying you can do better.”

She smiled for the first time since we started working together. It was a smile of recognition of some inner knowledge that she was remembering,

“I’m changing my story from ‘Oh woe is me! I’m a victim of people who don’t understand me; to a new story … I have a choice about how I do my job, and how I live my life!”

“How does it feel when you say that out loud”, I asked.

“I feel a little afraid; but overall it feels like a weight is off my shoulders.” she paused, “I feel hope for the first time in years.”

Her face dropped back into doubt, “But what am I going to do? What’s going to happen if I…”

I interrupted, “You’re slipping back into doubt again. Whose life is it, Donna?”

“Mine, Pete. It’s my life!”

Donna had taken the first step; she had looked into the mirror.

And so began this leaders journey


Ed Tech Overwhelm

Technology can be complex, and the students, teachers, and staff that use it can be even more so. We can spend our days putting our fires, supporting our colleagues, answering phone calls, and pulling special reports for our Superintendent, to list just a few of our responsibilities. Sometimes we get swept away by the swift current of appointments, deadlines, commitments, and “to do” lists. When this happens we feel overwhelmed and anxious. We feel like we can’t keep up and no matter how hard we work, we fall further behind. We don’t feel in control of our work, or our lives.

It’s not uncommon for us to feel like there is nothing we can do about our overwhelm. We feel like victims. I remember the Principal who spoke up at a meeting to declare,

Say what you will, no matter what I have on my personal “to do” list, once the first person shows up in the doorway to my office, I have a steady stream of people and things to take care of, until long after the last student has left for the day.”

The first thing to realize is that it is you who have created the overwhelm. It isn’t the demands of others, nor the business itself that creates your hectic schedule. It is you. It is you who says ‘yes’ to the requests, makes the commitments, the appointments, and yes… the stress. It is you who has decided to never close your door and who lets every person who casts a shadow in your office interrupt you. When you accept that you are accountable it makes it easier to change the pattern of overwhelm because all you have to do is change your own behavior.

Should be easy, right? All we have to do is say ‘No’ more often, make commitments with due dates that are reasonable, delegate more, schedule appointments only when needed, or block time on our calendars for things that are strategic.

However, like most things, there is a big difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

I like to use losing 10lbs as an example. We know how to do it. We need to skip a few of the in between meal snacks, eat better at meals, and exercise regularly. The problem is we tend to grab the cookie on the counter as we pass by, go for seconds at dinner, and drive by the gym on our way home.

What makes us say “Yes” to things when we know we should say “No”? It can vary from person to person. We may want to have an identity with others that is caring, kind, and generous; and fear that saying “No” would run counter to that image. The truth is, if we ARE caring, kind, and generous.; if we truly believe that we are, then saying “No”, when we need to say “No” won’t change our relationships with others.

Saying “No” can be uncomfortable. we have been taught to put others ahead of ourselves and it seems like a selfish thing to turn someone away so that we have time for the things we feel are important. Keeping a balance in our lives is not selfish, it is critical to our effectiveness and success. When we am balanced, our purpose, values, and beliefs align with our actions. There is room in our lives for family, friends, books, reflection, exercise, personal learning…all the things that, along with work, fuel our hearts and souls. If we do not pay attention to ourselves, we bring less and less to others.

Another way to look at this is to think about value. If we do not value ourselves, our time, and our talents, then others will not value us either. We will be taken for granted, just as we take ourselves for granted.

Knowing that we are accountable for our overwhelm and shedding the role of victim, being deliberate about the commitments we make, having the courage to say “No” when necessary, staying true to our purpose and not allowing ourselves to be distracted from it, valuing ourselves and our time, and understanding the importance of balance to our overall effectiveness as leaders…is the foundation and ground from which we create a new way of being in the world.