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4 Super Simple Habits That Relieve Mental Stress

Some habits are far easier than stopping before you've eaten too much ice cream.

Key points

  • Finding things can take an unpredictable amount of time, so it's helpful to find what's needed to complete a task before the deadline is near.
  • An alarm is a helpful reminder to get ready for the next task when there's a chance of getting too absorbed in the task before it.
  • Planning ahead for the worst thing that could go wrong in a situation relieves stress and lessens the impact of other worries.
Isaiah McClean/Unsplash
Source: Isaiah McClean/Unsplash

Blog posts I write about habit formation tend to be popular. People love to hear about habits that will help them that are also far easier than cliche habits like sticking with daily exercise or stopping before you've eaten too much ice cream.

Easy habits for stress relief

Here are four habits that offer outsized stress relief for the very minimal effort they involve.

Note that these are contextual habits, not daily habits. We have far more contextual habits than daily habits. For example, when you sit in the driver's seat of a car, you start a sequence of behaviors. Sitting in the driver's seat of the car is the context—the contextual trigger that signals you to start the habit. How often it happens is irrelevant.

1. If you need to find a physical item or piece of information before an upcoming appointment or event, find it now (as soon as you think about it).

Sometimes we think, "Before I go to..., I need to find or do..."

Perhaps you need to:

  • print something.
  • find the email where your friend told you Google Maps doesn't work for finding her house, and you need her directions.
  • bring documentation to a meeting.
  • bring cash for a cash-only store.
  • find the receipt for an item that needs returning since you'll be passing the store later.

Finding things can take an unpredictable amount of time. You don't need to allow 15 minutes to do it if it will take 5, but you also can't only allow 5 minutes if there's a chance it will take 15. You can clear your mental clutter by taking your "finding/locating" task off your mind now. Otherwise, you could easily have several mild, annoying thought intrusions about it until you do it. This is disruptive and redundant.

Tip: An exception is that you shouldn't use this habit when you're doing a session of "deep work." Deep work is so valuable that, in that case, the cost of potentially forgetting about your minor task probably isn't as significant as the cost of interrupting your deep work.

2. Before you need to jump on a Zoom call or leave your house for an appointment or friend date, set an alarm.

When we have an imminent appointment, we often think, "I need to keep an eye on the time." For example, you need to leave your house at 10.05 a.m. to make a 10.30 a.m. appointment. So you think, "Just before 10 a.m., I need to get myself ready."

In the meantime, when you become absorbed in any task, you'll constantly feel a little distracted, watching out for the time. Solve this problem by setting an alarm, so that you can allow yourself to become absorbed in another task, without fear you'll lose track of time and be late.

Tip: To make this easy, use a voice assistant you can call out to. It's not a great idea to have your phone next to you while you're working, and you're more likely to form this habit if you reduce friction that could occur. If all you need to do is call out to a voice assistant to set an alarm, you won't need to interrupt your workflow and if your hands are full, that's not an impediment.

3. Identify when a decision is unimportant.

I've written about this tip several times before (e.g., here and here), but it's been so personally useful that I keep highlighting it!

Identify when a decision is unimportant. For example, I need to do a 20-minute task before the end of the month (which as of writing is two days away). Should I do it today or tomorrow? That's unimportant. Should you pay $20 to upgrade your rental car to the next size? Also unimportant (in most cases).

Mentally labeling tasks as unimportant gives you flexibility. If you're dispositionally gritty or a perfectionist, then you don't need to apply those skills to an important task. If you're naturally gritty, being more judicious about when you apply that strength will benefit you. Plus, important decisions are less likely to slip through the cracks if your mind isn't cluttered with decisions in which either choice is fine, and what you choose doesn't matter much.

Tip: Take on the role of sleuth. Practice catching unimportant decisions as they pass through your mind. Label them as such. The more you practice labeling decisions as unimportant, the better you'll get at it. You'll get better at recognizing and labeling a wider range of different types. Start where you are, even if that's with labeling just a few choices that are really obviously unimportant. This post contains lots of additional tips for making better, faster decisions.

4. Plan for the most likely thing to go wrong.

Planning for everything that could go wrong is inefficient, exhausting, and frankly, impossible. We can't worry ourselves into a state of calm, or ever reduce all uncertainty to zero.

A good middle ground is to plan for either the most likely thing to go wrong, or the worst thing that could go wrong.

This strategy avoids the pitfalls of being blindly optimistic and will give you plenty of practice in creative problem-solving. For example, if I participate in an online offer, I will take a screenshot of the offer. That way, if the company tries not to honor it, then I have a record. If I call customer service and they give me information that I don't entirely trust, then I'll get the name of the person and note it, plus the date and time of the call. I may also ask them to read back to me what they've written in their notes.

Make planning for the single most likely thing to go wrong a heuristic—your general habit for avoiding problems. Notice if you find that handling your biggest worry helps you mentally let go of smaller worries.

Anxious people sometimes get so overwhelmed by the volume of all their worries that they don't mitigate against any of them.

Which of these tips seems most appealing to you? If you're interested in other stress-reducing habits, try these 5 Simple Habits That Can Make Your Life Easier.

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