“Anxiety,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you.” And as Seth Godin said, “If you’re drowning, you make a lousy lifeguard.” Stress creates a bell curve effect — some is good and can be a necessary catalyst for action. But too much and we hit a topping pint. Soon our decision-making begins to suffer and we take actions that we’d never do with a clearer mind.
When we’re stressed, we tend to think more in the short-term. We stop considering long-term consequences and only focus on the rewards. It’s why we struggle to avoid junk food and a few drinks after a tough day.
Stress also makes us more impulsive. We want to take action now, regardless of the risks. Action — even poorly thought-out action — lets us feel more in control and less stressed. Those long-term impacts are worries for another day.
This shortsighted, impulsive behavior isn’t automatic. It’s merely a symptom.
When you’re stressed, you have a lot on our mind. And when you have a lot on your mind, you’re not too interested in adding to that cognitive load. So you take shortcuts. You consider what’s directly in front of you. And you don’t worry as much about the downstream impacts.
Stress doesn’t make you impulsive and shortsighted. It just wears down your mind. Impulsiveness and shortsighted decisions occur because they’re the easiest path when your mind doesn’t want to think too hard.
If you want to change that, you just need to give yourself a better option.
Stress Brings Out Our Habits
“It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” — Hans Selye
In one study, University of Southern California researchers monitored students’ routines for a semester to better understand how behaviors changed during periods of high stress, like final exams. They found that when students were stressed and tired, they were more likely to stick to old habits. Students that ate unhealthy foods throughout the semester were more likely to eat unhealthy during exams. But students who had healthy habits were more likely to stick to those.
Students who had a habit of reading newspapers or going to the gym continued to maintain these habits under stress. Even when their time was limited and stress levels were high, people who habitually read the news or went to the gym stuck to those same habits. As Stanford professor Wendy Wood explained,
“Habits don’t require much willpower and thought and deliberation.”
In another study, fMRI scans showed markedly different brain activity of stressed participants. Instead of activating the associative (goal-setting) circuit, stressed brains activated the sensorimotor (habitual) circuit. Our minds, looking to use less energy in a stressed state, fall back on our habits to dictate our behavior.
Stress doesn’t make us shortsighted and impulsive. It reverts us back to our habits. It’s just unfortunate that most of our habits are both impulsive and shortsighted.
Once you know that — and you do because you just read it — you can plan for it. And give yourself some better options when those stressful times come around.
Give Yourself Better Habits to Fall Back On
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” — James Clear, Atomic Habits
When most people struggle to develop new habits, they focus on willpower and motivation. They try to force their way into behaving better.
Yet this strategy’s doomed for failure. When you’re stressed, your mental energy will be low and you won’t be able to rely on that willpower to carry you through. Instead of trying to do something hard and drain your mental energy, do something easy and conserve it. As Leo Babuta put it,
“Make it so easy you can’t say no.”
Start small. Do something easy that doesn’t need a lot of motivation.
Don’t try to start running ten miles on day. Run for a 1/4 mile. Don’t sit down to read for an hour. Read for 10 minutes.
Then each day, increase that activity by a small amount. Do 11 pushups instead of 10. Read for 16 minutes instead of 15. If you can increase a small amount each day, the results continue to compound.
If you started with 15 push-ups a day and increase by one each day, you’ll have done nearly 1000 push-ups by the end of the month. If you start readying 15 minutes and increase it by a minute each day, at the end of the month you’ll have read for nearly 16 hours — more than enough time to tackle 2–3 good books each month.
Don’t rely on willpower. It’s unreliable and one of the first things to go in times of stress.
Start small. Make it easy. And build new behaviors each day.
Because the behaviors and habits you build today will dictate your actions when you need them the most.
Set Yourself Up for Success
“Self-control is simple when you understand that it involves putting yourself in the right situations to develop the right habits.” — Wendy Wood, Good Habits, Bad Habits
Bill Gates describes his business habits with a flying metaphor: “Pilots like to say that good landings are the result of good approaches.” Our own behaviors are no different. Our actions mirror our level of preparation.
In times of acute stress, our minds aren’t at their best condition. We don’t access our goal-setting neural networks, instead falling back on the habitual circuits.
We have a lot on our minds. And we don’t want to think too much in the moment.
In these situations, we fall back on our habits. The only question is whether those habits are going to help you come through that stress or whether they’ll add to it. In the wise words of Jim Rohn,
“Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”