In this age of hyper-connectivity, constant pressure, long workdays and growing complexity, stress is unavoidable. What separates those who thrive under pressure from those who crumble is how they cope with that stress.

Building good habits to transform stress into motivation is an invaluable tool for avoiding burnout and staying sharp.

The Power of Good Habits

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg explores the neurological and psychological processes behind how habits form and how to break them. Duhigg writes,

“Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit the old pattern will unfold automatically.”

The habitual behaviors we engage in after becoming stressed – clamming up, slowing down, falling behind or worse freezing altogether – are often some of our biggest obstacles to success. But Duhigg has developed methods for avoiding these self-imposed stumbling blocks, and creating positive habits that result in perseverance.

1) Identify Your Habit Loop

In order to build effective ways to cope with stress, you must first figure out what your habit loop is.

  • Pinpoint the Cue – What triggers you to feel stressed?
  • Identify the Routine – How do you react in the face of stress?
  • Determine the Reward – The payoff, in this instance, will always be feeling less stress.

2) Pinpoint The Cue

What is causing the most stress in your workday? Is it email pileup? Underperforming funds? A demanding boss? Unhappy clients? The moment you experience that heart-racing, head-spinning feeling, jot down answers to the following questions:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your specific state of mind?
  • What was the immediately preceding action?
  • Who are the people involved?

Keep this log until a pattern emerges. Once you discover what sets off your anxiety, you will begin to understand what prompts you to panic. By identifying the triggers that cause self-defeating habits, you can begin to cognitively overcome them.

3) Recognize the Routine and Change it

Next step: Identify how you react in the face of stress. These are often some of our biggest roadblocks to career success. Once the cue triggers anxiety do you lash out at a colleague or subordinate? Do you avoid the problem at hand by procrastinating or moving on to a less urgent matter? Do you react automatically without taking the time to think the problem through?

Examine the benefits and burdens of your habits and begin to experiment with alternate routines to handle the intense emotions triggered by your cue. When you would normally cave, try to buckle down. Focus on overcoming your less productive or even damaging behaviors and supplanting them with bursts of effort or new approaches.

If you need to reduce stress to move forward, don’t be afraid to take a moment to breathe deeply, find a brief distraction, socialize with colleagues or even leave your desk for a mental refresh. But then get down to business.

4) Enjoy the Rewards

The constant emails, volatile markets and demanding bosses that trigger stress will never go away. As your career advances, these pressures will only increase. By creating positive routines in the face of the triggers that cause you to feel overwhelmed, you will be able to harness the powers of stress to compel you forward, and not take you down. You’ll begin to feel a sense of pride for reacting in ways that increase productivity and creative problem solving. Nothing feels better than success in the face of defeat.

Breaking a bad habit can be a difficult, and often unsuccessful, process. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By learning to identify the cues behind our bad habits, and better recognizing the habits themselves, we can develop positive ways to achieve the payoff we crave without the counter-productive routine.

What are your most effective techniques for handling stress at work? How do you turn that negative energy into positive reactions and results? Share your best tip in the comments below.

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