Psychologist Mark Wetton of Psychology Consultants Brisbane explains why working harder isn’t necessarily the best option.
Work-related stress (and of course this includes the important work performed by “stay at home” mums and dads) can have a significant impact on one’s life and is a common reason for people to seek the support of psychologists.
High levels of perceived stress have the effect of making it harder for us to take a broad, considered view of the situation to work out the best way to solve it. It makes it very hard to identify our priorities, so we often end up just running around trying to put out the “spot fires” instead of focusing on the main fire!
One of the most common causes of work-related stress is feeling like there simply isn’t enough time to get all the jobs done. In this situation, a common approach is to work harder and faster!
Studies investigating the relationship between stress and task performance demonstrate that best performance occurs at medium levels of stress, and worse at low or high levels of stress. While people differ as to how much stress they need for best performance, one strong finding from the research is that for most people, high levels of stress results in lots of errors and therefore worse performance.
Given that high stress makes people perform worse, working faster when experiencing high stress usually results in error leading to precious time spent correcting. Mistakes can also be demoralising and un-motivating, and at worst can have serious consequences for job security and impact our long-term mental health.
So rather than working faster, make small changes that may save you little bits of time here and there.
Here are some ways to cope with stressful periods:
1. Be aware of the difference between urgency and importance.
Make a list of the “important urgent” things, the “important non-urgent” things, the “unimportant urgent” things, and the “unimportant non-urgent” things. Then get stuck into the important things first, and the unimportant things last. As an example, emails are usually urgent but most are not important, yet most people prioritise responding to email first rather than attending to more important tasks like completing a report for the boss!
2. Complete one task at a time.
Most tasks involve quite a bit of attention to complete properly and also require you to remember what part of the task you are up to, and what you need to do next. Research has found that if you switch between tasks frequently you can often lose track of what part you were up to, making it harder to recommence and complete the task. If a task is very large, break it down into smaller chunks and focus on getting one chunk done at a time. This
approach will build a sense of making progress and so keep you motivated! Only attempt to juggle tasks when you are completely confident that there is a time benefit in doing so.
3. Be aware that when stressed you are likely to make more mistakes, so slow down!
It is sometimes inevitable when work gets busy to make more mistakes, but recognising that you are perhaps working too fast for the job at hand will allow you to minimise mistakes by slowing down when you need to.
4. Reward yourself for your hard work by taking frequent short breaks, and make sure to eat your lunch!
As the body and brain become fatigued it becomes harder to concentrate and you will be more likely to make mistakes and generally work slower. Brief breaks and nourishing yourself every hour or so allow the body and brain a moment to refresh, thus making you more efficient across the day. Even doing something for five minutes that takes your mind completely off the task at hand is useful, but make sure it isn’t so enjoyable that it makes it hard to start work again!
5. When you have finished work for the day, give yourself a genuine time out!
Working really fast all day can make it really hard to slow down when work is over! People differ in what helps them de-stress. Remember that pleasurable activities are just important as work related tasks. Take some time to exercise, play a team sport, watch tv, do arts and crafts, interact with loved ones, friends, children or animals, take a warm bath, meditate, read or cook. As long as you experience a de-stressing effect from it, it is worth doing!
6. And finally, when the period of high stress is over, take a little bit of time to plan for the next stressful period.
When stress dies down we often need some time to recover and replenish. This is very important to take but also a time to consider whether there is anything you can do to reduce the amount of work-related stress you may experience in the future. Take a moment to evaluate the most time consuming or stressful tasks and trouble shoot ways to make them easier.
As the old adage implies “work smarter, not harder”. Remember, any slight decrease in the time and effort it takes to do your work will add up to much less stress over the long term!