Why do we feel stressed?

A couple of years back I was heading “into the wall”. For a long period I had been working too much, resting too little and in general having a quite unsustainable lifestyle. This lead me into a condition where all my executive functions was affected – my short-term memory got bad, I couldn’t access things from my long-term memory, I had a hard time planning or even structuring my activities and so on.

This is not all that uncommon today, there are an increasing amount of people who are having sick-leave from work due to stress related illnesses or injuries. Stress in the workplace is so pervasive that it sometimes seem that everyone should go through a period of burn-out through our working lives.


So, what causes it all? Well, the obvious triggers are too much work, too little relaxation, etc. However, since experiencing it myself I’ve wanted to understand it from a broader perspective than that. One explanation that I’ve really been able to connect with is that stress is due to our working memory becoming overloaded.

Our working memory is the part of our memory which we use to store temporary information in. This memory is generally understood to be able to process 5-10 items at a time – though it can be trained & exercised to deal with more. What happens is that as we’ve moved from mostly physical (manual labour) to more abstract and conceptual work (knowledge work), the requirements on our working memory have risen – but of course, the capacity has stayed the same. This causes a lot of stress.

Think of an example of a task you might have in your everyday life – “send out meeting notes”. When you’d start on such a project you’d probably first have to break it down into smaller actions in your head, say “find paper notes”, “type out notes”, “ask peter about his feedback on X”, “find Sandra’s e-mail address”, “draft e-mail”, etc. While doing these individual actions you’d also have to keep a lot of small notes and details on how you’re doing them in your head. Additionally you might get new ideas and remember old tasks while you’re doing this – meaning more things to keep in your head.

Overall, it’s a recipe for working memory overload. So, what do you do? Well, I’ve found that for me, one of the simplest and most effective ways have been to simply write everything down. I write down each task immediately as I remember it into my todo-list and I write down ideas, thoughts, etc. in a note-taking system. Once I consistently started doing this I noticed stress went down, even as I still had a lot of things to do, but just by writing it all down and keeping it out my head, I no longer felt as stressed about it.

So, if you’re looking for a good way to reduce stress, get out and buy a good notebook, a stack of index cards or a software like Evernote (for free!) to keep it all out of your head.

The Art of Reflection

I find regular reflection being one of those habits that are really helpful, even crucial once you practice – but quite hard to implement. It’s a bit like exercise – when you need it the most, in busy or stressful times, you tend to practice it least. When I do reflect regularly I find that I come up with much more new ideas, I feel more in control over what I’m doing and more content with the thoughts I’m having.


The first step is just making space for it, having time to sit down and look through what you’re doing, what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. This is hard enough – when don’t you have a million other pressing things to do?¬†For me, I’m trying to at least make it a part of my weekly review. Then I know I have a time that I’ve set aside when I’m going to do it.

The second step is knowing how to do it. Some people I’ve worked with have found it really hard to sit down and think about these things, they schedule the time for reflection, but then sit down and have nothing to write about. One way to get around this is to think of a question you’d like to ask yourself, and then reflect on that question. If it’s still empty, you can make the question more and more narrow until you’ve got something tangible enough for you to think about.

The third step is having the tools to make it easy to keep the habit. I find blogging being one such tool, I also would like to use Twitter as a sort of micro-reflection throughout the day.

Another good habit that many have (especially girls are good at this!) is journaling. I always had a hard time journaling, until I began the practice of journaling around a question, topic or issue that was relevant to me. This made journaling make a lot more sense to me.

Thinking actively about trying to have these three steps in place I’ve found reflection becomes an easier practice to implement and keep.

Photo by johnrite.