High-pressure jobs, abusive bosses, overloaded schedules, long commutes, bad traffic, financial problems, etc., are contributing factors to the high levels of stress women experience every day as we try to manage our time between work and home. Trying to be the best at everything -- best at our profession, best mother and best partner -- can be unrealistic. There is no way of having multiple number-one priorities.
Saying "Yes" to every demand -- from colleagues, family members and others -- means you might be saying "No" to your values, your health and yourself.
We often speak of “the environment” as something “out there” -- rain forests, oceans and ozone layers. By definition, however, our “environment” is “right here” -- our immediate surroundings, or everything around us that affects us as living organisms.
I would like to bring attention to the health-affecting environment that is closest of all: your mental and emotional environment.
Your environment -- your home, office, car -- affects your body constantly and directly. Your body responds to your environment on many levels by making adjustments in bodily function with hormones and other chemical processes, which obviously affect health.
Some stress in certain situations is good because it is what motivates us to leap into action. Too much stress, however, can cause emotional imbalance and health problems. High levels of stress cause our brains to release toxins and chemicals that pollute our bodies and can have negative effects, including muscle tension, hair loss, ulcers and heart disease to name a few.
We can’t totally eliminate stress from our lives. But we can learn to moderate it and even prevent it by being aware of our thinking processes, mental state and by understanding our limitations -- and learning to say "No" to the things that are stressing us out.
1. Say "No" to your inner Wonder Woman
The first step is to accept that we cannot do it all. We have a tendency to suffer from what I call “the Wonder Woman complex,” which is the belief that we can take on more and more commitments and still be happy and healthy. And before we know it, we realize that we're overwhelmed and making personal sacrifices to satisfy the needs of others. That’s a recipe for disaster that leaves us feeling not only stressed out but keeps us from real achievement and success. We end up working extra hard and find ourselves unable to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The first step is to truly and deeply embrace the idea that we cannot, should not and will not do everything others demand of us, and everything we demand of ourselves. Something has to go, and WE -- not somebody else, not our circumstances -- are going to decide what to throw away.
2. Say "No" to ignoring your own values
Decide what's important to you, and what you really don't care that much about. Writing down our values on paper will enable you to make a more focused effort to act and live according to your own values. There's a very good reason for gaining clarity about all this: You can't make choices based on your values if you're not clear about what they really are.
3. Say "No" to unimportant, non-urgent tasks
Everything you do fits somewhere into one box of four categories, according to your own values and circumstances: 1) important and urgent; 2) important but not urgent; 3) not important but urgent; 4) not important and not urgent. Important tasks are those that support your value system -- taking care of my health, volunteering at the women's shelter. Urgent tasks involve a deadline or need to be done soon -- the kids have to be dropped off by 8, or my presentation has to be finished by Thursday. You'll find that stressed-out people try to do everything, and favor the urgent over the important (and may sacrifice health for career). It's time to say no to this reflexive approach to choosing what to do and when. See the important-urgent list above or the important-urgent chart below. That's the order they should always be done. Try to do tasks that are both important AND urgent first, followed by important but not urgent, followed by urgent but not important. And never -- ever -- do tasks that are neither important to you, nor urgent. Organizing tasks according to this schema will help you prioritize them quickly, take care of things that are important to you, and help you shrink your to-do list. One other stress-reducing, life-enhancing tip: Hang on to your long-term dreams. They fit squarely into the "important" box. I'm talking about things like learning French, or starting your own business. Keep them on your list, and, every day or every week, take at least one small step toward realizing these dreams. Don't let the urgent, short-term tasks block the important, long-term ones from your life.
4. Say "No" to feeling overwhelmed
The third step is to integrate your priority system into your actual daily calendar and to-do list. Do this first thing each day or a day ahead, before anyone can demand things of you—let yourself be the conductor of each day of your life. Sit down each day and organize your schedule, make sure you complete -- or at least make progress toward -- your most important tasks, and make sure you meet your urgent deadlines. Be conservative about budgeting your time. There are only 24 hours in the day. Make sure you clear time for sleep, travel, eating, socializing or spending time with loved ones and a little "buffer" time for the unexpected. Now, when someone comes to you with a task that isn't as important to you as the actions that are already filling your calendar, say "No." Getting tasks out of your head and into your calendar or onto your to-do list lowers your stress. Completing items by rejecting interruptions and focusing lowers your stress. Choosing to not make commitments that you don't have time to do anyway lowers your stress. And lowering your stress helps you do everything that is important to you better. Living by your own set of values as you work towards your own goals will replace the stress with a great sense of inner peace and a great sense of accomplishment each day – this is key to being happy.
5. Say "No" to your inner demons
Whenever you're feeling worried, stressed out, unhappy or angry, take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left, list everything that's upsetting you that you can control, or at least affect in some way, such as unhappiness that you're overweight or your financial situation. On the right, list all the upsetting things you have no control over, such as the actions of the government or the rudeness of a person who tailgated you on the highway. Now, transform the list on the left into solid action items, and integrate them into your calendar or to-do list by following the above steps. Take the list on the right, and draw a giant X over it. Crumple up the paper and throw it away, and with it, throw away your attachment to these negative feelings. There is no point in harboring fear or worrying about something that hasn’t occurred, focus instead on the present reality and the things you can control. You're going to take action on the things you can do something about, and you're going to let go of the negative feelings caused by things you cannot. Remember, detachment is a skill and a habit. Work at it. Get good at it. Learn to say "No" to persistent negative thoughts and emotions
6. Say "No" to unnecessary health problems
The sixth and final step is to understand that taking care of your physical body is essential to your overall wellbeing. Taking care of your body is not an option but a necessity and must be integrated as part of your lifestyle. We sometimes take better care of our cars than we do our bodies, ignoring that fact that each day that goes by neglecting our bodies by eating junk food and not exercising we are accumulating irreversible damage to all our organs. Our bodies need to be in optimal health in order for us to reach all other goals. We can enhance our bodies’ capacity to resist stress by eating healthy food, exercising regularly, doing fun things and practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation, hiking and yoga.
It's time to say "Yes" to getting control of your life. The way to do this is to understand that you're already saying "No" to something -- probably your own values, health and peace of mind. It's time to re-arrange things according to YOUR values, not somebody else's.
Life is beautiful and each day is a gift
Copyright© 2006 By Amira Elgan. All Rights Reserved.
Amira Elgan is author and publisher of Vegetarian Organic Life, a popular electronic newsletter about healthy cooking and better living. She also teaches healthy cooking classes for Whole Foods Market's Salud! Cooking & Lifestyles School and Sur La Table Culinary Program. Amira is a former top manager of some of the premier dining establishments in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Hollywood, including the Mondrian, Bonaventure and Beverly Wilshire hotels, as well as catering manager for the University of California at Santa Barbara. Amira has created innovative, healthy recipes for more than 16 years. She is an educated yoga practitioner and healthy organic living and fitness expert with a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.