A long time ago, your biggest source of stress might have been local predators, to whom you looked like a tasty snack. Your fight-or-flight instinct would kick in, but once you evaded their pursuit, the stress would subside. In the modern world, you rarely encounter a ravenous animal with bad intentions, except for my son's cat Ozzy, a real rapscallion. Ozzy embraces that he is natural born predator with claws and fangs, though so far he hasn’t decapitated any bats.
Instead of the heart-pounding stress of fleeing a saber-toothed tiger, the modern world more often treats you to a constant stream of low-grade stress. This pressure is different in kind. Even though there is little physical danger (unless you try to rub Ozzy’s belly), there is a strong sense of being under constant psychological threat—especially when you are overcommitted to a monstrous task list, including things you never actually promised to do. This stress is worse for you than short-term trauma, but fortunately you can identify what causes it and learn to handle it.
The Sources of Low-Grade Stress
My email inbox contains 246 emails. Some are important, many can be deleted without a second look, while others require me to do work. There is a large bill, for instance, with a note to tell me the prior large bill they sent me was incorrect. I don't know if the bill is correct or not without auditing it. There are requests to appear on podcasts, something that requires a review of my calendar and a negotiation. And of course there are requests from people inside my company, partners outside of my company, and other "asks" that require conversations and decisions. There is no real risk from waiting until tomorrow (or next week) to deal with most of these emails, but there is a sense of stress and obligation from having so many emails.
Your own inbox might bring up a dozen other issues that create a sense of stress and strain. Perhaps two members on your team are not aligned on some issue that has gone unaddressed and unresolved for too long. Because they are both trying to avoid any conflict, they have kept the peace to prevent the problem worsening, but you can see the storm clouds gathering. And then there are the two clients struggling to produce results who need your help—but they’re both clinging to outdated assumptions, refusing to do what's necessary now, especially if it means spending money they would rather keep.
At home, your car needs its annual maintenance at an inconvenient time, requiring you to dump a couple hours into picking up and returning a rental car. Add to that a worn-out spouse, a couple kids who are miserable about their Zoom classes, and a pet that isn't aging well. These are just guesses, of course, but I’m sure you could fill in your own list of stressors. So what can you do about it?
Resolving Low-Grade Stress Through Outcomes and Priorities
In 1988, Stephen Covey published The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In that book, Covey advised readers to design their life around their roles and their priorities, planning their week ahead of time and ensuring the most important outcomes found their way onto the calendar. He called these priorities "big rocks," providing a story about a teacher who asked their students how to fill a jar with big rocks, little rocks, pebbles, sand, and water. The teacher explained that first you have to put in the big rocks, followed by small rocks, pebble, sand, and then water.
Let me update this story, as it is many decades old. The jar represents your time. You have a pile of big rocks, way too many to fit in the jar. No matter what you do, there will be more rocks on the outside of the jar than fit inside. Now, you might believe that you should fill up the jar with the smaller rocks and pebbles—a tremendously awful decision, as the rocks and pebbles prevent you from even seeing your big rocks. Adding sand is even worse, as it obfuscates your view of everything else.
The Superpower That Enables Priorities
To set meaningful priorities, you need to get comfortable with the idea that you will leave a lot of things undone. Many people worry about all the little things that don’t get done while they’re allowing a lot of larger, more important things to go undone.
To prioritize, you must start by recognizing which big rocks go in the jar and which big rocks will not command your attention. Yes, some of your big rocks will sit outside the jar, staring you in the face and veritably begging for your attention. If you don't have enough time and energy for all the big rocks, why on earth would you fill your jar with small rocks and pebbles?
Some have criticized Covey's prioritization, coding the most important outcomes with A, less important ones with B or C, and so on. Covey saw further and with a clearer view than most. There is no reason to do task Z14 before outcome A, as it is sand.
The person waiting for you to return their email is at that same time avoiding their own inbox. The person that asks you to participate in their project has rejected other people's requests of them. You don't need a bigger jar, as all you would do is fill it with more pebbles and sand. Instead, you have to learn to live with the idea that not everything you could do—or even should do—will get done.