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How to be less frazzled in the new year

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Dear Annie: My only resolution for the new year, which I made while on vacation with my family last month, is to find some way to feel less stressed out about everything I have to do. Yet we’re barely into January and I’m already wondering whether that’s possible. This year will be even busier than 2014, since my team has a couple of big projects in the works and we’re short one staff member. But I want to be able to handle it all without letting my schedule make me crazy. Friends have suggested that I find some serenity by taking up yoga or meditation, but I really don’t have time. (I’m not kidding.) Do you have any suggestions, or am I being totally unrealistic? — Running as Fast as I Can

Dear Running: You’re not being unrealistic at all. In fact, the overwhelmed feeling you describe, if you don’t get a grip on it, is likely to lead straight to a bad case of burnout.

You’re not alone, of course. Scott Eblin is an executive coach who counsels plenty of high-powered clients in search of some serenity in their overloaded lives. The problem is so widespread, he wrote a book about it that you might find helpful, called Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative.

“The recession kicked off this era of doing more with less, so the scope of most managers’ jobs just keeps expanding,” he says. “At the same time, smartphone technology has erased any sense of boundaries that people might have had, so everyone’s accessible 24-7. The brain gets a shot of dopamine every time a smartphone pings, and it’s pinging 200 times a day.”

Over time, the effect is not only mental and emotional, but physical too. The human sympathetic nervous system responds, Eblin notes, by keeping people “in a chronic low-grade state of ‘fight or flight,’” which, if it goes on indefinitely, is not just exhausting but toxic.

Luckily, the biology of stress doesn’t stop there, since humans also come equipped with another set of responses, from the parasympathetic nervous system. These are known as “rest and digest,” or “feed and breed.”

As those nicknames imply, these kick in when we’re feeling calm and in control. “‘Fight or flight’ is the accelerator,” says Eblin. “‘Rest and digest’ is the brakes.” The habit of deliberately shifting into “rest and digest” mode several times throughout the day is generally called mindfulness, and it has caught on at so many big companies that business schools are beginning to teach it.

“People often think that practicing mindfulness requires engaging in some special activity, like yoga or meditation,” Eblin notes. “But the reality is, there are lots of simple things you can do” that will fit neatly into your hectic schedule. Here are four of them:

  • Get off to a calm start. Instead of plunging straight into your current morning routine, take a couple of minutes to do some stretching and deep breathing as soon as you get out of bed. “It will energize you and center you for the day ahead,” says Eblin. Then, before you check your email or respond to any of the pings that may already be pouring in, “write down your top three priorities for the day,” he suggests. You may have to tweak them later, but “you’ll be a lot less likely to get caught up in distractions” from your most important goals.
  • Listen to music. Research shows that music you enjoy, even if it’s only playing in the background, activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Not a music fan? Try pausing for a moment, now and then throughout the day, to take three deep, rhythmic breaths, which can also engage the “rest and digest” response. “Limit your exposure to breaking news alerts and other stimuli from television or social media,” says Eblin, since “they just add to your sense of ‘fight or flight.’”
  • Slow down. This takes conscious effort, since most people live and work in environments that seem to demand constant speeding up. To locate where in your life you might find some breathing room—and some time to spend collecting your thoughts, so that you feel less overwhelmed—Eblin suggests using “the 20-80 rule: What 20% of what you do every day makes 80% of the difference?”
  • Let go of something. Most people who take a close look, Eblin says, are surprised to find that some of their excess workload is self-imposed. Letting go of a few things that don’t really matter, but that suck up precious time and energy, usually means delegating them to someone else, and some people (maybe even you) have a really hard time with that. “When I ask managers, ‘What parts of your job are the parts that only you, and no one else, can do?’ it’s usually a very short list,” says Eblin. “It’s just that people usually don’t stop and think about it.”

The irony is that your teammates and subordinates may wish you would. In hundreds of 360-degree evaluations he has conducted in companies over the past few years, “I often hear people say the boss is holding them back by not delegating enough and giving them the chance to stretch and learn new skills,” he says. “I’ve never heard anyone say the boss delegates too much. Never. Not even once.”

Your resolution to be less frazzled and more mindful may take some time to achieve, Eblin adds—and that’s fine. “It’s rare that anyone changes old habits instantly. Take baby steps,” he says. “Start by doing one or two things that come easily to you, and you’ll notice a difference.” That will encourage you to go the rest of the way. Good luck.

Talkback: Do you feel overwhelmed by trying to do too much in too little time? How do you handle it? Leave a comment below.

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