Stress Management for Dummies

marcks2At a recent visit to the National WWII Museum I came across a “Rupert’, the nickname given to the small decoys parachuted into France during the D-Day invasion to lure the Germans away from the actual landing sites. Ruperts were often simple molded forms or stuffed cloth figures, only around two feet tall. Some 500 of the paradummies were dropped into enemy territory at the time of the Normandy invasion and they are credited with at least briefly drawing key German units away from the real Allied landing zones.

Examining a Rupert close up in the museum I could only wonder how anyone would have been fooled by these unassuming miniature caricatures of real infantrymen. They looked more like rag dolls than soldiers. Yet experts suggest that observers on the ground who might see them dropping from planes at a distance would have no reference point in the bare sky with which to judge their actual size. Without some visual comparison to gauge them by, these two foot dummies could easily be confused with real six foot paratroopers or, for that matter, ten foot giants.

I thought about Ruperts just the other day as I was anxious over several simultaneous challenges at work. Were they full sized catastrophes in the making or really only two foot imposters? My answer required some rule by which to assess how tall a particular challenge might be, and whether it was life-sized at all.

Let me suggest a measuring stick that I often use.

During executive coaching, I often tell managers who are trying to prioritize their time to draw a 2×2 matrix diagram on a sheet of paper. On the x axis is a task’s degree of importance and on the Y axis is the degree of urgency. Then take your activities and plot them into one of the quadrants: urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent and those activities that may be neither important nor urgent. Now this in itself is a demanding and subtle exercise that forces us to continuously redefine “importance”. But the very act of placing the components of your “to-do” list within this context gives a sense of order to your planning.

But when problems from work, or children, or school or life in general are descending on you like enemy paratroopers there is even a tougher exercise that I often recommend.

Create another matrix diagram, only this time the X axis is degree of potential harm and the Y axis is degree of tractability. How bad are the possible consequences of a problem and how much of an impact can I have on it? The challenges and stress-inducing problems that you face each day can then be sent to one of the quadrants: harmful and unyielding, mostly harmless and unyielding, mostly harmless and yielding, and harmful and yielding. Those in the mostly harmless quadrants? They are your Ruperts and they are only two feet tall.

One common way to increase stress is to spend too much emotional energy on challenges that pose no real, long term danger. Doing so also deprives attention from truly serious problems that are less tractable and therefore require extended effort. When problems come in droves or when we are tired and worn down it is easy to be fooled into seeing giants everywhere.

There is no magic to using these little tools. Determining which problems are relatively more harmful and tractable than others is neither scientific nor does the exercise represent a complete inventory of prioritization criteria. It is very difficult indeed to truly know what is important and what isn’t. For example, how would you classify a decision that will likely never go wrong but if it did, the impact would be catastrophic? It is hard to do. Nonetheless we profit from the attempt, and the little matrix diagrams can become handy guides for where best to invest your energy.

Each mo15._ed._dummy_paratroopers__500_were_dropped_on_Calais_on_the_eve_of_D-Day_featurerning for decades I have taken a piece of paper and listed out all of my upcoming activities and tasks. Where I listed them on the page was roughly equivalent to which of the four quadrants of the first matrix they fell into. I was in effect, redoing my own personal task assessment every single morning.

And when it felt like the sky was full of enemy paratroopers, the second matrix was often just enough to keep me mindful of which concerns were full size threats and which were simply Ruperts drawing my attention from the real battle.

It was either learn that or just treat everything as a crisis. But who’d be the dummy then?


Goodbye Football

22526A few weeks ago a friend posed a thoughtful question along these lines: “what cultural practices are we engaged in now that, when we look back on them in a few decades, we will regret having taken part in?” It is difficult to conceive that slavery was once an accepted part of our community, and a century ago a majority of the population was content that women could not vote. What will we be similarly embarrassed about in coming decades? There are lots of large and small candidates.

My own vote was football.

I enjoy watching football; it is the only sport to which I routinely pay attention. The combination of strategy and execution in each game, even the various off-season moves capture me. I like the draft, the signings, the personalities, the controversies. But over the last few seasons I have been unable to escape the violence.

Football has always been about large fast objects changing the direction of other last fast objects to advance the ball. But recently, for me at least, the pure physics of the sport has surrendered to a growing brutality in its execution. Football today seems less like chess and more like assault. We appear to be on the cusp of a widespread diagnosis of lingering brain trauma among players whose bodies have been pummeled by larger men hitting them at greater speeds. Signs that these players may have been, and may still be, at risk must not be understated by the sport’s governors or, by extension, fans like me. It is sad that commentators now routinely suggest that it is not the best teams that have playoff or bowl success but rather the ones that have been least ravaged by serious injury during the season.

Off-field violence among players has appeared to increase raising concerns that the brute passion so useful within the field of play, is bursting the confines of the game and making its way into player domestic relationships, sports celebrity expectations, and popular culture itself.

The observation that football players are America’s gladiators is unoriginal. But ancient Rome had as complicated a relationship to its gladiators as America does with its quarterbacks and linebackers. The gladiatorial code spoke to bravery and honor, even in death, values the Empire largely revered, and the original contests were usually ceremonial and commemorative events.  But the gladiator spectacles gradually became costlier, more self-indulgent and cruel, no longer linked to a shared value but instead cynical political entertainment exploiting the bloodlust of the crowd until the advent of Christianity as the Empire’s state religion dulled the appeal of the contests in the 4th and early 5th centuries.

American football is not the same. It does not applaud cruelty. Not yet anyway. But it is now a costly, indulgent, powerful commercial spectacle increasingly associated with violence, on and off field, and unless the game itself can recover its soul we fans will demean ourselves when our passion as spectators requires these men and boys to forfeit their physical and mental health, shorten their lives, and restrict to the field of play that cultivated aggression without which they cannot achieve athletic success.

Perhaps I will discover that the incidence of domestic and other physical violence among football players is no higher than other similarly situated populations, and possibly we will learn that the rate of head trauma has been overstated and the game can be made safer than it currently appears. I hope so, because local sports loyalty is one of the few remaining unifying, democratic, non-partisan endeavors and football still rules local sports loyalty.

But I am not going to wait. This year I have chosen a tiny little private boycott. I will not watch the live broadcast of any professional game. This is not a moral crusade; I won’t avert my eyes from football reporting during the local sportscast, and I’m not recruiting for a big cultural movement. I’ll still read the NFL coverage every week and even give myself a free pass for the Super Bowl. But until then I deliberately refuse to watch a game live until I can convince myself that decades from now I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, without shame, that I did so. I do this not because I don’t like football but rather because I like it very much.

As I related my intentions recently someone said “if the Cowboys are 6-2 at midpoint of the season we’ll see if you keep your promise.” It’s a good point.

But I just don’t think that’s a big risk this year….