Stop, Drop and Roll: Put Those Stress Fires Out (Without Getting Burned)

We are organized, punctual and efficient—most of the time. We are great at prioritizing and masterful schedulers.

Despite all this, stress happens. Even personal situations such as illness, family needs, moving or prepping for a vacation can shake our career focus and ratchet up stress levels.

People who constantly stress experience poorer health outcomes and a lower level of satisfaction in life, according to a study out of Oregon State University published in the journal Stress and Health. We tend to be happier when we accept that we can’t be all things to all people—and that there’s no such thing as “perfect balance.”

There are things we can and should do on a daily basis to de-stress. Problem is, those things might take a little time, so we say forget it—we don’t have enough time to begin with.

But combating stress often requires deliberate tactics. It helps to compare it to what we’re told to do when in a fire: Stop, Drop and Roll. Here are three top stress ignitors, and the ways to extinguish them.

The Stressor: You think you have too much to do in too little time.

How to Extinguish It: STOP—concentrate on a task, not on the clock.

Talking about how much we have to do creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, writes author Barbara Nixon.

“It’s something we do [to] spur ourselves on, rather than thinking it could have a detrimental effect,” Nixon says.

Instead, Nixon advises, replace the workload list in your head with one or two critical tasks, and be realistic with yourself (and others) about what you can actually do in the time you have. She suggests these tips:

  1. Catch self-talk and turn it positive. Instead of “I’ll never get it all done,” try “I’ll get done what I need to do.”
  2. Pause a minute and re-focus. When you start to get the feeling your time is spiraling out of control, take a minute to clear your desk, clear your mind and focus on getting one important task done rather than putting it all on hold. (If nothing else, you’ve accomplished one thing: You’ve organized your desk!)
  3. Remember to be realistic. You can’t do the impossible, like trying to be in two places at once (such as driving to pick up a child while on a phone conference call. Sound familiar?) Logic tells us that we can really do only one thing completely at once—so we should listen to it.

The Stressor: You got something done—but aren’t 100% confident you did it right.

How to Extinguish It: DROP the second-guessing.

Quit looking for mistakes that might not even exist. Make the best decisions you can and then don’t worry about it, says Michael Woodward, PhD, an organizational psychologist and author of The YOU Plan.

A lot of the time, we’re the ones—not our bosses, co-workers or others—who create this stress. And most of the time it’s completely unnecessary. Yet once we start with the self-doubt, it can be impossible to turn off, like an annoying song that gets stuck in our head.

There are three things you can do to dispatch the noise:

  1. Zero in on what exactly you’re stressing about. Was a project turned in incomplete? Did you forget a step? Try to pinpoint what’s specifically worrying you.
  2. Ask: Can I fix it? If you feel there’s something you did wrong, take specific steps to fix it if possible. If that isn’t possible, there’s no use dwelling on it.
  3. Subtly try to head off trouble. A preemptive strike might not accomplish much, but it’s something proactive that will calm your fears. It could be something as simple as an email: “I sent you my annual report; if you have any questions, please let me know.”

The one thing to avoid: Letting anxiety cloud reason. If there’s a problem, you’ll likely be the first to know. But what you’re stressing about may not even be on anyone’s radar other than yours. So going over and over it won’t do anything except raise your blood pressure.

The Stressor: You’ve got a boatload of possible scheduling conflicts.

How to Extinguish It: ROLL with it—avoid the urge to over-plan.

We know more than a few women who are great at scheduling, but always seem swamped. Why? Because they overbook themselves to the point that they don’t leave any room to breathe—which causes more stress than simply saying no to something.

Don’t let this be you. Life often has really bad timing; an onslaught of events can happen all at once. When it does, just roll with it—and resist the need to fit everything in. Here’s how:

  1. Categorize the conflicts. List the non-negotiables, the flexibles, and the toss-ups. The non-negotiables you can’t miss or move—they’re set in stone so they must be worked around. The flexibles need to happen, but could be switched around, or postponed if needed. The toss-ups are the things you’d like to make but can be sacrificed.
  2. Make some moves. Is there a way to fit some errands in before a work function? Can you ask a friend or colleague to postpone a meeting so it’s more convenient? Moving things around takes a bit of time, but could result in a huge difference in your scheduling stress.
  3. Meet each commitment as it comes. Your monthly day-planner is a sea of notes—the trick is, don’t look too far ahead. Concentrate on one week—even one day—at a time. Looking at what you have to do in a whole month is a lot more overwhelming than merely the next week. Focus on getting through each day; before you know it all your commitments will be met.

“Planning ahead, having a backup plan, and having a network [of] support make you better able to reduce conflicts,” says Kelly D. Davis of OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, the lead author on the study.

Not to mention, better able to reduce stress.