4 ways to harness stress without burning out
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4 ways to harness stress without burning out

Jun 30, 2022 · 3 min read · AICPA Insights Blog

Anything worth doing requires effort, which is going to involve some stress on your mind and body. But not all stress is your enemy.

“Accept that the problem isn’t stress in and of itself,” writes Hamza Khan, author of The Burnout Gamble: Achieve More by Beating Burnout and Building Resilienceand speaker at this year’s AICPA® & CIMA® Women’s Global Leadership Summit.

“It’s pressure that converts into distress, and prolonged periods of stress, along with intense stress, lead to burnout.”

Although a healthy amount of temporary stress can be necessary to reach your goals, an excessive amount can be deadly. According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, an estimated 120,000 people die every year in the U.S. as a result of excessive workplace stress.

In The Burnout Gamble, Khan offers advice on how to harness stress without burning out. Here are a few of his top tips.

Clarify what success looks like for you

People will often burn themselves out in pursuit of vague or unrealistic goals. For example, if your goal is to become rich, you could work forever without knowing if you’ve finally succeeded because “rich” is a moving target.

Khan has learned that success is all about realizing a vision. That vision is specific to each person.

Take a moment to figure out what specific idea you want to realize. Make sure it’s not something society, friends or family say you should want, but something you really want in life.

Success for you could mean spending more time with your kids, or it could mean buying a sailboat and learning how to use it.

Reframe good stress

Good stress is temporary and feels like an adrenaline rush. It can happen when you’re watching a scary movie, sledding down a steep hill or presenting an important project at work.

In The Burnout Gamble, Khan refers to the work of Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who argues that embracing and reframing good stress can help reduce the risk of burnout.

You can reduce the harmful effects of stress by embracing it, finding meaning in it and trying to reframe the situation, McGonigal suggests. For example, instead of telling yourself “I’m failing,” remind yourself that you’re stressed because you care about what you’re working on.

“That simple redefinition can create a more positive, less damaging stress experience,” Khan writes.

Focus on momentum over goals

Working toward a big goal can be overwhelming, and the gravity of your ambition could crush you before you even begin. Khan recommends building momentum instead.

“Focusing on momentum rather than goals breaks up your big and audacious goals into daily imperative actions that are bite-sized and nowhere near as daunting as the goal statement,” Khan writes.

For example, if your goal is to get physically fit, you might start by walking or running one mile every day, followed by 20 push-ups and crunches. You might also incorporate fruits and vegetables into your meals.

The key is to avoid having any “zero days,” meaning days when you take no action at all in pursuit of your goal. Even if you only manage to do one push-up, that day will not be wasted, and you won’t lose momentum.

Schedule non-negotiables and learn to say “no”

The people around you will commandeer your time if you let them. You can easily wake up to find your calendar filled with other people’s priorities unless you create boundaries and schedule non-negotiables into your week.

Examples of non-negotiables that can prevent burnout include eight hours of sleep each night, exercise, time with friends and family, dinner without distractions, self-reflection and vacations without a hint of work.

Making room for these non-negotiables and other top priorities will almost certainly require you to say “no” to things. Just remember that saying “no” to some things means saying “yes” to the things you care about.

“It’s tough saying no, especially when there’re power dynamics in the room,” Khan writes. “Women, in particular, have been conditioned to be willing, caring, helpful and giving with their time. Being able to assert yourself leads to reduced anxiety and increased self-esteem.”

If you’re looking for more tips on burning bright instead of burning out, Khan will speak at the AICPA & CIMA Women’s Global Leadership Summit, held in Miami and online Nov. 8–10. Register before Sept. 25 for early bird savings.

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