The Best Strategy for Reducing Stress

Imagine you're sailing in the Bahamas, sipping a cold drink and listening to the water lapping the sides of the boat.

Relaxing, right? Not for my friend Rob.*

Rob is not usually stressed-out. For many people, Rob's daily work would be hair-pulling stressful — he's a real estate developer who routinely deals with a multitude of nagging problems related to renters, banks, lawsuits, property management, and rapidly changing valuations. But Rob routinely handles it all with steadiness and perspective.

So why was he stressed that blissful day on his boat? The same reason most of us get stressed: frustrated expectations. Rob had an important call to make and his cell phone wasn't working. He was experiencing the gap between what he expected to happen and what was actually happening.

That's the underlying cause of stress and it's afflicting us more these days than ever because our expectations keep rising, thanks in part to exponential improvements in our technology.

In a hilarious interview with Conan O'Brien, the comedian Louis C.K. talked about how everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy. He tells the story of being on a plane and, for the first time, experiencing working Internet at 30,000 feet. He was amazed. The person in the seat next to him was also surfing the web happily until the connection dropped. The man immediately threw his arms up in the air and yelled, "This is bulls--t!"

"How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago." Louis C.K. said.

I fall into this trap, and most people around me do too. We expect more not only from our technology, but from each other and from ourselves.

Rob is usually laid-back in the face of his ever-present problems precisely because they're ever-present. He expects them. Renters always have complaints. Banks always want more information. Lawsuits happen. Valuations always change. These things are routine and he has routine responses to them, so they don't stress him out.

But that day on his boat, Rob was expecting his cell to work. So the cell outage far from land, where there's no alternative means of communicating his absence on an important phone call created a stressful unmet expectation.

So what can you do about the stress and frustration that comes from unmet expectations? You have two choices: Either change the reality around you or change your expectations.

Sometimes it's possible to change reality. Continuously frustrated with an employee? Try to help him improve his competence. If that doesn't work, you can fire him.

But often the reality around you is difficult to change. What if it's a peer with whom you're frustrated? Or maybe an entire department? You can't fire them all. Maybe you can stop working with them, but that's probably not in your control. You could quit, but that brings with it a host of new stress.

In my experience, trying to change reality isn't usually a stress reliever, it's a stress creator. A small thing — like changing my seat on an airplane — can be such a pain that even if it works it's often not worth the struggle. And the bigger things — like getting more accomplished in a day — can be even more frustrating. That last example is especially frustrating because it's an expectation I have of myself so I really believe it should be in my control.

Which leaves us with what I've come to believe is the best strategy for reducing stress: Change your expectations.

In other words, get used to not getting what you want. I know this isn't consistent with the kind of go-get-'em attitude most of us have been taught to embrace. But most of the time, fighting reality is not worth the effort. Either you can't change what's around you, or the fight is more stressful than the reward.

If changing your expectations proves too hard, your next best move is to get some perspective.

Imagine a scale from 1-10 with 10 being the worst reality you can imagine -- like living in a war zone or being in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Maybe 9 is a serious illness that most probably will result in death. Perhaps 8 is something that will forever alter your life, like going to jail or an accident that puts you in a wheelchair. Let's say 7 is something that temporarily alters your life like losing your job or having to move out of a home you can no longer afford.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Almost everything we freak out about is somewhere in the 1-2 range of dashed expectations. In other words, our moods and our stress levels are determined by events that actually matter remarkably little.

That's useful to remember when you find yourself utterly irritated at your cable company because they erroneously added $5 to your bill or keep you on hold for 30 minutes while they investigate the matter. Or when a direct report gives you work you consider sloppy. I'm not saying don't correct the work. I'm simply suggesting it may not be worth getting worked up about.

That's not always easy. A number of small stressors add up to a lot of stress and it's natural to be stressed by things that don't really matter in the whole scheme of things. I do it all the time.

But we can substantially reduce our stress by recognizing that in many situations, we have become perfectionists in realms where perfection isn't necessary, realistic, or even useful.

Rob's stress was highest when he thought the problem was just with his cell phone. But, eventually, he found out that there was a cell outage throughout the Bahamas. Somehow, that helped him change his expectations. He knew there was nothing he could do.

And once he settled into his new reality, he was able to get some perspective. Where was missing that call on the scale from 1 to 10? No more than a 1.

And just like that, no cell service for 12 hours turned into a real vacation.

*Name changed

Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review