Stress: Finding a New Measure of Productivity

Besides running my marketing and consulting firm, I also am a Professor of Business. One of the most interesting parts of my position is seeing how stressed my students get about deadlines, assignment requirements, and, of course, their grades. I wonder to myself, “Do I create that stress?” I try to be as clear and straightforward as possible but nevertheless, the stress keeps on coming. It seems to me that, as a culture, we thrive on stress. We equate it with challenge, purpose, and accomplishment. It appears to me that when we are not stressed, we question our productivity, our passion, and our commitment.

I can’t help but wonder why stress is so important to us? Why do we believe that running around stressed all the time is proof of our devotion to success and achieving our goals?  Should stress really be a positive measure of productivity? The amusing thing is that I most likely just stressed many of you out by asking three questions in a row, without providing any answers. We don’t like unknowns and we find it very unsettling to leave questions hanging. I think that this must be what stresses my students out the most. On the first day of class, I lay out all the assignments, requirements, and expectations that my students will have to meet throughout the course. Then I leave them with “more details will come as we get closer to individual assignments.” I can feel the stress meters go up! Will it be hard? What will the paper entail, what do the tests look like, will I have enough time in between due dates? What if I get sick?

We want all the answers now. The problem is that in our attempts to just answer the hanging questions, we often miss the point and, more times than not, we come up with the wrong answers. Sometimes the question is more important than the answer. For example, take the question “Can we get a man to the moon?” It was a good question that sparked innovations in new technologies that shaped our world. The answer to the question was yes, we can get people to the moon. The answer, though profound, does little for us. It was the pursuit of the question that propelled us forward. It was the pursuit of the question that allowed greatness, innovation, and ingenuity to shine through. If we would have just rushed to answer the question, as many people did, we would have stopped at “No, it is impossible.” It was the few that allowed the question to hang in the air that changed the world.

I think that as a culture we get some things mixed up when it comes to our priorities. We constantly run frantically around from one meeting, task, or goal to the next, equating our stressful business with productivity. The constant bombardment of stress that we are under causes us to think that we need answers quicker than they naturally will come. So we take shortcuts, makeup reasonable-sounding but inaccurate answers, and lose complete focus on what really matters.

I have just a few more hanging questions for you: what would happen if you were to slow down, take on less responsibility, and trade in quantity for quality? Is it better to accomplish 100 things at 20% efficiency or 20 things at 100% efficiency? Lastly, how much of your life is missed as it passes you by at mach 1, all so that you can fall into the trap of believing that a stressful life is a purposeful life?

I know that you have places to be and people to meet but bear with me just a couple more moments. Take a deep breath for me (I did not say hold your breath). Breathe in long and slow…now calmly breathe out, feel the breath releasing the tension from your body. This next part is important so don’t just skim through.
Your purpose is not defined by how many things you can get done in a day. Your purpose is defined by how many lives you touch. Our chronic need for instant answers is a sickness that is eroding our life. It causes blindness in us and ultimately hurts our ability to be human. You cannot be effective at 20% efficiency. Think about it; the most memorable conversations you have had are most likely long and deep. I can guarantee that as you look back on what you would call your best work, your masterpiece, that it was created carefully with time, passion, and attention to detail. We think that time is too short for us to slow down, but the truth is that time is too short for us to continue speeding through life.

Great things don’t happen instantly. They are purchased with time and just like with any investment if we are not willing to put up the cash we will never reap the reward.  The moments in your day are the ultimate currency…how are you investing the wealth that is your life?