VOCA, the company I lead, has been conducting research into sources of your stress at work.  In this post, we reveal the number one source of stress as reported by our poll takers. Prepare yourself to be underwhelmed. With almost 500 pieces of data in, the bottom line is not that surprising.

The number one cause of stress at work is stress, that is, the overwhelming demands of the job. We are overwhelmed with seemingly equally important tasks, priorities, and meetings. This leaves us feeling like we cannot possibly keep up. And this perceived inadequacy leaves us extremely stressed. So how do we get a handle on the excessive demands of our workplace?

1. It’s not the demands, it’s the fear. 

Think back to Posts 3 and 4 in this series. Remember that stress is not created just from demand. Stress comes when we interpret overwhelming demand in a negative light:  overwhelming to-dos cause us to spiral down into a doomsday scenario.

 I have too much to do. So, I will never get it all done. So, I will fail at this job. And therefore, I will fail at life. The final outcome is that I will end up a joke.

Doomsday. Overwhelming demand creates stress because if feeds a doom-loop mindset.

If we believe we are on our own, that it’s all up to us to figure this out, and that our value and identity are determined by our work, then threats to our work performance will be stressful at a toxic level: everything is at stake. Practically speaking, finding a source of meaning and security that is not dependent on career success can neutralize some of this stress. For me, this is where I play the God card. See post four for more on that.

2. Find ways to tame demand.

Lion tamers never permanently tame lions, they just learn to keep them in check so they don’t get eaten. This is the proper metaphor for the demands of your job. The demand list will always be fundamentally wild. Organizations have an insatiable appetite for the time and talent of their employees. If you’re useful, they never say no. So what can you do on your side?

a) Become an Expert on Important

If you have fifty things to do, they are not equally important. Using the 80/20 rule, (80% of your success comes from 20% of what you do), only 10 of those tasks are essential. If you could only do 3, which ones would you choose and why? If you could only do 1, which one would you choose and why?

Answering these questions is an exercise in identifying what’s important. How did it feel? In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey suggests that effective people do first things first. First things fit into 2 categories. The urgent important and the non-urgent important. The non- urgent important are activities that expand capacity for deeper and/or wider impact, growth, and productivity. The urgent important activities are those you have to do now to keep the results flowing, to maintain customer loyalty, etc.  If you can label something as important, it is a distraction.

How many of the things on your seeming demands list are truly important in the effective execution of your job and how many are non contributing distractions?

b) Ruthlessly eliminate interruptions

Another reason you feel overwhelmed is that you allow yourself to be interrupted hundreds of times a day. Every time a notification goes off on your phone or computer, you are distracted and have to reset. Yast.com estimates that it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on focus after an interruption. They suggest that we may waste up to five hours a day recovering from interruptions. Microsoft estimates that all this interruption had dropped the average human attention span to 8 seconds, which is one second less than a goldfish.

You feel overwhelmed because you are allowing interruptions to ruin your brain’s capacity for focus, depth, and productivity. So what to do?

  1. Turn off notifications on everything.
  2. Answer email during specific blocks of time, not all the time.
  3. Use an automated scheduler for meetings so you don’t have to engage in endless email ping pong to set up a connection. I love X.AI.
  4. Only answer phone calls from numbers you recognize. If the call is truly important, they will leave a message.

c) Do Hard Things First

Take your day’s list of important tasks and do the hardest thing first. This creates momentum.  If you do the easy things or the little things first, most days you won’t get to the hard things and then you’ll be behind.

d) Work a Plan for your Work

You have to adopt or create a plan for how you will prioritise your work. You have to work on your work, not just in it. Michael Hyatt recommends a 3-3-3 plan. Identify the 3 most important things for you to accomplish in the next quarter. Then, in light of those 90-day goals, begin each week by identifying the three most important things you have to accomplish that week.  And then begin each day with the three most important things you have to get done that day.  If you work 240 days in a year, you’ll get done 720 important things!

Tame the lion of demand by regularly stepping out of the ring to update your plan for getting important things done first.

RELATED: How Do I Overcome Work-Life Stress (Part 1 of 8)

3. Get off the Treadmill

Work cultures are embedded in places, embedded in industries, and embedded in industries. Sometimes the only way to tame demand is to make a move to a different place, a different shop, or a different yet related industry. If you’re in medicine, for example, there is a big difference in pace between a New York City trauma unit which is connected to one of the Ivy’s and a small-town clinic.

Forgoing a promotion, moving to a slower paced community, or even changing careers is sometimes the best way to manage demand that is embedded in abusive work cultures.

How About You?

  1. When you think about the stress-inducing demands of your job, is it a fundamental identity issue, a task, and schedule management issue, or a “get off the treadmill” issue?
  2. Based on your answer to the above question, what 3 action items will you enable you to tame the lion of stress-producing demand in your work?

This post was originally featured in Patheos. 

Dr. Chip Roper is the President and Principal Consultant of The VOCA Center. VOCA’s vision is to make work better for individuals and teams by transforming secular jobs into sacred callings. Trained in Executive Coaching at Columbia University, Chip tackles the vocational challenge from 30 years of experience as a small businessman, a pastor, a career coach, and a business consultant.