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?

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