The Big Trade Off

If you asked me in a vacuum whether or not I’d prefer to accomplish more or be less stressed, I’d say “less stressed.” In practice though, I almost always choose a higher overall level of stress and accomplishment rather than a lower relative level of both.

I want to do things. Not just “I want to have things done,” but I actually want to do those things. (And yes, there’s a difference. Lots of people want a nice garden but don’t want to garden. I enjoy the steps towards my goals, for the most part.) But things cost juice, and a big component of juice is stress. So I usually end up paying the cost.

This is compounded by the fact that I have never ever been good at what I hear people refer to as “stress management techniques.” The only thing that tends to make me less stressed is having things done, but doing things costs stress, etc.

Why write about this here? I don’t like turning this blog into simply a personal venting space, but I do think it’s important to face your flaws head-on, and this is the space where I do that. So the way I see it, I have three possible avenues:

  1. Do less stuff. This would make me less stressed in the short term, but I think it would also make me unhappy in the long term. I do like the stuff I choose to do, and I don’t think any of my big rocks are things I’d get rid of in my life. But it is technically an option.
  2. Find better ways to remove the stress that results from doing stuff. I guess… meditating? I have no idea. I wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I know this is theoretically possible.
  3. Figure out how to reduce the cost in stress for doing stuff. This is where I think the gold is. If there’s a discrete unit of stress, then right now each thing I accomplish is costing me X stress. Could I reduce that to X-1? Maybe even X/2? I think it’s possible.

So there’s the real trick. How do I make accomplishing things less stressful overall?

There’s this thing called the “flow state.” That’s one way of describing this mental space of excellent workflow where you’re accomplishing meaningful, deep work for extended periods of time, and you’re really enjoying it. Feeling it. In the zone. That sort of thing. When people study this, they note that for most people, getting into The Zone requires (in addition to normal stuff like good habits, no distractions, good health, etc.) just the right mix of difficulty and reward for your work.

If your work is too easy, you’re bored. If it’s too hard, you’re stressed. I’m never bored, but often stressed. Does that mean my work is too difficult? That’s tough for me to imagine. The results of the things I’m choosing to do are very good. I’m in high margins in my chosen spheres, and I’m getting the work itself done pretty efficiently. I don’t think core difficulty is the problem.

So maybe it’s that “other stuff?” I’ll be honest – I do not sleep well. I cut WAY back on caffeine in the last year (which I’m happy about for a host of reasons) but it hasn’t done anything for my sleep cycle. And really, I think this is the core problem.

I don’t sleep well. But I’ve “not slept well” for so long, that (for lack of a better way to describe it) I’ve gotten good at not sleeping well. I can function efficiently on 3-4 hours of sleep a night, get everything done that I need to, not make mistakes, etc. But I think the cost of that is all the extra stress.

Now, the real question – is it possible for me to find a way to reduce my stress costs without fixing my sleeping habits, or are the sleeping habits upstream from everything else? If the sleep is foundational, then my road is a hard one, because I’ve been trying to sleep better for more than twenty years. But maybe it’s possible to make other changes that can reduce my stress cost without fixing the sleep habits.

Open to suggestions, as always. And if I find anything interesting, I’ll let you know.

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