How to Keep Calm and Smile On
For the past week or so I’ve come across so many friends and coworkers who are frazzled, tired and ready to give in - give in to the overwhelm they’ve been desperately trying to keep at bay; give in to the despair lurking in the relentless media broadcasts of the horrible things happening around the world; and give in to their inner voice that says “it’s all too much; I can’t do it.”
This is a busy season when work deadlines and responsibilities ramp up, school lunches need to be made, and social commitments are many. Add to that the news channels and social media that constantly scream at us with tragedies that seem to occur at an alarmingly frequent rate, and it’s no wonder everyone seems “off” these days.
What I’ve learned from intentionally simplifying my life over the last few years is that while we may not have control of the things around us, we do have control of how we let them into our lives, and how we choose to respond.
That sounds easy to say, but it’s actually also easier to put into practice than you might think. Here are super-simple ways I’ve learned to keep calm amidst the chaos.
1. Smile anyway.
Smiling reduces stress, and it puts those around you at ease, thereby making potentially complicated situations easier to handle. But smiling is more for you than anyone else. It keeps you cool and calm, and puts you back into the present moment when you realize you’re still ok. I smile a lot — in fact sometimes people think I’m a little strange for smiling so much — but it’s always served me well to keep me calm and happier, and my positive attitude (whether I'm faking it or not) seems to spread quickly.
2. Breathe deeply.
We think that we instinctually breathe — after all, we’re still alive, right? — but the fact is that we don’t breathe deeply without intentionally doing so. When we fly mindlessly through the day we take only short, shallow breaths. Deep belly breathing is what pumps our bodies full of life and new energy. It allows more oxygen into our lungs and bloodstream, thereby inducing calm and lowering blood pressure. Set a timer on your phone or computer to take a quick break every hour to stand up, put your hand on your tummy, and breathe slowly while feeling your stomach expand. Do this for 4 deep breaths. It will work wonders.
3. Sit up straight.
This is my weakness — I have terrible posture and constantly find myself hunching over my computer. Good posture is essential for a healthy body, and it also encourages proper breathing, the importance of which we now know. Sitting up straight for extended periods might be difficult if you’re not used to it, but it has the added benefit of working your core muscles. Check yourself regularly and keep your shoulders back and your stomach pulled toward your spine.
4. Eat well.
When I’m stressed, I turn to junk food for comfort and reward after a hard day. But eating poorly only adds to our inability to handle everything that’s thrown at us. Good nutrition will keep both our bodies and our minds strong so that we can fly through long days with greater ease. Keep junk food out of the house and stock your fridge with lots of fruit and vegetables. Green juices or smoothies are great for on-the-go, and keep healthy energy bars with you at all times. If I remember to have a healthy snack before I leave work, I’m much less likely to binge on pizza and ice cream when I get home.
I know this is a tough one when it’s a super busy time in your life, but taking even 15 minutes for exercise will better allow you to close the door on stress when it comes knocking. Walk outdoors for a few minutes at lunch (yes that means you have to actually break for lunch). Convince your team to have walking meetings instead of sitting around the boardroom table gulping coffee by the gallon. And practice yoga at home for 10 minutes at night to calm your nervous system and help you sleep better. Clear a spot in your home where you can easily jump on the mat and have room to stretch and practice your downward dog. You can find all kinds of great guided yoga programs online — two favourites include Yoga with Adrienne and Rachel Brathen.
6. Sleep enough.
Getting enough sleep for your system — and that’s typically 7–9 hours for most people — is essential to get through busy, stressful times. So designing your bedroom for optimum sleep is a must.
First, get rid of all electronics in the bedroom. The blue light from tablets, phones and TV’s interferes with your natural melatonin process that allows you to sleep deeply. Plus the news/drama/violence/work you’re consuming on your devices doesn’t allow your mind to wind down before bed. Shut them down at least an hour before sleep. Switch to reading physical books instead of on your tablet at night. And stop using your phone as your alarm — go back to an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.
Second, make sure your bedroom and bed are optimized for sleep. Keep your room cool, quiet and dark. Invest in blackout curtains or blinds on your windows. And add layers to your bedding so you’ll always feel cozy and warm and secure under the weight of a duvet or blankets. More ways to optimize your bedroom for deep sleep here.
I understand the craziness of work schedules when meeting deadlines or others’ expectations. But if you develop the habit of essentializing what you really need to do to the get result you want, life will be much easier. Essentializing, from author and professor Greg McKeown, is the art of making the wisest possible investment of time, energy and resources for the greatest return. Every day, I make a bullet list of the things I need to do, and then either delegate, get help with, or drop those that aren’t the best use of my time. I’ve learned that sometimes getting a job done is better than getting it perfect, and I’ve also learned to say no when I’m asked to do things that aren’t essential to what I need to accomplish. It takes practice, but culling down your to-do list to only those activities that are essential to meeting your goals will allow you to do great work and thrive while doing it.
8. Ask for help.
I realize we don't always have control over how much is on our plates at work. But try to take a high-level view of your job, the outcomes desired, and what your boss really wants. Then make a reasonable plan to get it done. Sit down with your manager to have a heart-heart about your workload and how you might be able to better manage it. Ask her what she needs in order to reach her own goals. Then figure out a way to help her accomplish those, while also working in a way that doesn't overwhelm you. Maybe you would work best at home on some days. Would she be willing to accommodate this if you show more productivity? Are there some things on your task list that can be dropped or shuffled to someone else on the team? Take a good look at the ROI on each of your activities and reassess where you spend your time. I've learned that most people are reasonable, mature adults who want to see both the organization and everyone in it thrive, so don't feel intimidated to speak up and ask for help when you need it.
As for home/life/family duties - start sharing the load. Teach the kids to take responsibility for laundry, cleaning and/or some of the cooking. Ask your spouse what the best division of work might be. Drop some extracurricular activities if there's just too much to keep up with. Simplify chores or just leave them for now - they'll still be there tomorrow!
9. Be still.
Taking time to be still every day is probably the most important thing on this list. The most successful CEO’s and entrepreneurs all do it. It’s essential to get quiet with ourselves, have time to processs our thoughts and feelings, and get still so that we can connect with the present, with nature, with God or The Universe. Our souls need to be fed daily just as our bodies do, and so making time every day to get some quiet time is an essential for your to-do list. I suggest making space at home where you can get away from electronics and other people to sit still, breathe deeply, and meditate if you can. Meditating doesn’t have to be difficult — it can simply be watching your breath or listening to the sounds around you. It can be checking in with every part of your body, or it can be visualizing what you want for your life. Make it easier by creating a corner at home that beckons you to come and sit for a few minutes every day.
10. Watch what you consume.
I don't mean what you eat - I mean what you take in with your eyes and ears. Stop listening to the same awful news headlines five times a day. Stop watching violent or disturbing TV shows at night when you want to "zone out." Keep work at work, and not at home late into the night. Walk away from gossip. And stop getting sucked into Facebook and everyone else's lives whenever you have a free minute that turns into thirty. A number of years ago I stopped watching the news (I get the major headlines once through the BBC phone app), limited TV in favour of feel-good and personal development books, switched any TV/movies I did watch to comedies or light dramas, and started listening to inspirational podcasts on my commutes instead of local radio 'noise'. It's made a world of difference.
11. Optimize your workspace.
The state of your desk is the state of your mind. Truly, that’s all there is to it. I know so many people who like the clutter in their offices and claim they know where everything is, but the fact is, visual clutter messes with your mind and your nervous system. It automatically makes you more tense, and therefore you’ll be more likely to feel the stress on tough days. Take an hour to organize and declutter your workspace. Clear off your desk, and set it up for optimal productivity according to feng shui. Your monitor and keyboard (or laptop) should be in the centre, with your phone and tools for writing on your right. Keep a basket or contained tray of any papers you need to your left. Don’t let papers pile up — once something’s finished, recycle it or file it away, out of sight. And keep a green plant in your office, as well as an essential oil diffuser — both with clean the air and help you destress (studies have shown 12% less stress with a plant on your desk and 25% fewer errors when the scent of lavender is in the office).
12. Design a serene home.
After a long and busy day, your home should be an oasis that helps you rest and rejuvenate. It should immediately induce a sense of calm. Walking into a cluttered entryway, unorganized kitchen, an overstuffed living room, or even empty, stark walls will not give you that sense of peace and security you need. Take a weekend to declutter and design your home for serenity.
To help with that, I’ve outlined 10 simple tweaks you can do in a weekend to get a quick start on designing a peaceful home. Get the free instant download below.