Here's one thing we can all agree on: Changing careers is stressful business. You're moving from the known to the unknown and working at one career while trying to position yourself for another. How's it going for you? If your career change is stuck in neutral, perhaps some of the problem can be traced to stress.
The "bigger, faster, you can have it all!" mantra has been taking some serious hits recently, and I'm glad to see it. We know in our heads that stress isn't good for us, yet we decide that there isn't any alternative. The thinking goes like this: Isn't everyone overscheduled and stressed? I just have to accept it and tough it out. It's the only way to get ahead.
Along with the 24/7 adrenaline-addicted existence has come the idea that there is something wrong with those who don't willingly follow that playbook. Some employers do their best to keep the macho game going. Don't want to work 60-hour weeks? Well, you're obviously not a team player. No promotion for you, buddy.
And then there is the ever-escalating boasting about number of hours worked per week. 80 hours? 100? It's time to get real, folks. There's something terribly wrong with awarding merit badges for that kind of insanity.
Thankfully, evidence is mounting about the toll of an always-on, information-overload lifestyle. Just the title of a February 2003 Wall Street Journal article said it quite well: "Multitasking makes you stupid, studies say."
Multitasking. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've seen that word in resumes and job descriptions and articles about time management. Sure, you can talk on the phone while you're tapping out an e-mail, but both tasks are being done with less attention and, therefore, diminished capacity. Someone, please explain to me what's so glorious about doing two things at once, but doing both poorly? Switching quickly from one task to another isn't a good idea either. The WSJ article said that too much multitasking creates short-term memory problems. And the adrenaline rush response to chronic stress can damage cells that allow us to form new memories.
Are you concerned yet? Two recently reported studies provided more bad news. Stress still addles our brains, and it's killing us.
Research done for Hewlett-Packard by the University of London's Institute of Psychiatry looked at the "abuse of always-on technology." Constantly checking e-mail and text messages 24/7, the study found, was an addiction for some. The researchers coined a term for tech overload - info-mania. And here's the biggie: The always-on distraction of e-mail and ringing phones produced a ten-point drop in IQ. That's a bigger decline in mental sharpness than would be caused by smoking marijuana.
A study led by a UC San Francisco team and published in the December 7, 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that chronic stress (and even the PERCEPTION of being stressed) shortens cell lifespan, contributes to cellular deterioration and increases aging (causing weak muscles, wrinkled skin and diminished hearing and eyesight).
There are alternatives to being stressed to death. First, start paying attention to where the warning signs show up in your body. Headache? Jittery stomach? Tight muscles in your neck or shoulders? When that begins, you'll know it's time for a break.
Develop a quickie de-stress program - something that will, in a short time, help you relax whenever you feel the tension building. Play soothing music, take a ten-minute walk, meditate or simply sit quietly, close your eyes for a few minutes and focus on your breathing.
Some good news: A 10-year study of hypertension done in West Oakland, Calif., tried to help people reduce their blood pressure and stress levels. The options were using (1) Transcendental meditation, or (2) progressive muscle relaxation, or (3) conventional health and education techniques.
The meditation group achieved a statistically significant reduction in blood pressure and use of medication and "showed a 23 percent decrease ... in all-cause mortality [and] a 30 percent decrease in the rate of cardiovascular mortality ... and a 49 percent decrease in the rate of mortality due to cancer ..."
In addition to frequent little de-stressing breaks, get serious about a larger stress management plan. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Change your attitude. It's not O.K. to be busy every minute. Get better at saying no. Leave blank spaces in your daily calendar.
- Create a few non-technology slots of time in each day. Schedule quiet time without e-mail, phones, computers or background noise (loud music, television, radio).
- Find at least one slowing-down activity to do several times a week (i.e. meditation, walking, yoga, gardening, journaling, reading).
- Exercise three to four times a week to get your heart thumping and reduce stress (i.e. jogging, dancing, power walking, aerobics, gym workouts). Find an exercise buddy to help you stick with it.
We'll all be healthier and probably happier, too, if the American mantra can move closer to Slow down! Learn to tune out!
The Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger, dated February 27, 2003, can be found in the archives at www.wsj.com.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 7, 2004.
Hewlett-Packard press release dated April 22, 2005, "HP calls for more appropriate use of 'always-on' technology to improve productivity."
American Journal of Cardiology, Vol. 95, May 1, 2005.