The Necessity of Difficult Things

Yesterday afternoon I was chatting with a friend about our respective plans for the remainder of the Sunday afternoon. I mentioned I was waiting for the thundershowers to let up, that the weather radar showed a good solid hour or so break from the rain that would allow me to go out for a run close to home. I had planned out my first dedicated hill workout for the season, and I anticipated a hard run. My friend suggested opting for an easy run given the weather and the lazy Sunday atmosphere. Our chat then moved towards a discussion of the need for and usefulness of hard and difficult things, and as our conversation progressed I thought it might make a good blog post to share.

Let’s face it, life is stressful.
Some days are more stressful than others, and stress comes in all sorts of different flavors (personal, professional, acute, chronic). Learning how to manage it is an acquired skill, and what works for one person isn’t going to work for another. This is a discussion of what I have found works (and doesn’t work) for me in hopes of inspiring you to push your limits and find/try some things and strategies to deal with stress in your life that you may not have previously considered, or you thought were beyond your reach or capability.

First, let me share what I found does not work- some of the time or all of the time. I’m a co-owner of a small business, and as all small business owners know the work load does not end at 5pm, nor does it end on Friday. I have a terrible work-life balance, mostly I have a worklife and no balance, and I fully acknowledge that it is unhealthy and not sustainable. But yet I am unable to make changes that provide a better balance. And even before I was a business owner I worked in high stress- high stakes- high workload environments like Wall Street investment banks and cancer research where work responsibilities came first, second, and third, and everything else came after. So one coping mechanism to deal with stress was to work more and work harder. It helped me meet my deadlines, it helped me produce better quality product… BUT the more I accomplished the more I was handed. Funny how that works, the more capable you prove yourself to be the bigger the list of things you find yourself responsible for. So this strategy, while building a good reputation, did very little to reduce the stress level, and rather seemed like it added to it. Over time one can adapt to the increased workload… that heightened level of work becomes the new normal. But at some point it is not sustainable, and something suffers- health (physical & mental), sleep, relationships, hobbies & pastimes, etc.

Now as a small business owner, I am constantly changing hats to address all aspects of the business with some easier to manage than others. Business owners often find what they had been trained & educated for is only part of the job and they often have to learn on the fly the skills needed to successfully fulfill other duties. I am putting out fires at 8pm on Fridays, we have business hours on Saturday, and on and on. And I confess even during time I have to step away from the business I find my mind reviewing what needs to be done, or what I did not accomplish yesterday. So for me a stress reliever needs to be SO encompassing it forces me to push aside any urge to think about work and focus only what I am doing at that time. For me right now, running is that stress reliever. I don’t really like running, it’s not something I have done since I was young like many people who grew up with running – I started running in 2009 at the age of 35. I have an unstable right knee and history of back issues (thanks to carrying my two beautiful daughters!) so running is challenging.

Now back to that hill workout… I have established a reasonable level of fitness over the past three months so I felt it was time to rotate in my first hill-focused run of the year. And frankly yesterday with the lazy Sunday atmosphere I was not overly excited to be looking at a hill workout… but I knew I needed it. The hill (part of it) is in the picture above, it’s close to my place and gives me a safe (few fast moving cars) half mile the equivalent of about 15 floors of elevation. In the discussion with my friend we went back and forth about needing to accomplish something we individually felt was hard, because the feeling of pride and achievement (and exhaustion) is worth it.

While running those three hills reps I had to focus 100% on getting to the top each time, and the worry and thoughts of work just stop- as there is no room for them during that time. It’s refreshing as much as it is exhausting, to step outside the omni-present responsibility for even just 45 minutes. And after a shower when I sit down again to re-engage on work stuff I am able to look at what needs to be done and triage better than if I had not stepped away. So in life there are difficult things, some helpful and some not so much. One key to managing stress can be finding some hard things you can constructively use to help shift focus away from the stress in your life. Difficult things that you can derive some satisfaction from, can be an important part of stress management. And understand that ‘difficult’ has distinctive meanings for different people- and for the same person at different times. Three months a go running one mile would have registered as VERY HARD on my difficult-ometer, but I chipped away at it over time and adapted to it. Once I adapted, and consciously made myself acknowledge that the improvement over time was an accomplishment in it’s own right, I set my sights on upping the ante, so to speak, all in an effort to provide myself with a healthy outlet, a stress reliever that truly works for me.

As you think about how this might apply or not apply in your life, think about the stress that you have and think about what you personally need to feel relief from it. Is a change of scene adequate for you? Can you go outside, visit a park, lake, or beach and find relief? Do you need to occupy your mind? How about a book, magazine or crossword/sodoku puzzle? Do you require something more all-encompassing, like me? Run, bike, boxing class, etc. Spend a few weeks trying a couple of different options and see what for you provides the best respite. This is not meant to eliminate the stress, but to provide your body and mind a break from it in an effort to re-energize, and manage it better. Coach Lou Holtz- no stranger to stress really nailed in when he said “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s how you carry it.”