Stressed woman working with daughter

How to Remove Stress by Sticking to Priorities

You know that setting priorities is important for success in both business and life. If you are like me, however, sticking to them can cause stress. Why? The very nature of priorities requires choosing some things over others. This past year, I realized that there are actually two different levels that this choice occurs at, and that the secret to reducing stress lies in ensuring you have made the choice at both.

Most years, business slows down at certain times of the year. For us, it is usually at the end of summer and over the winter holiday season. Many clients postpone sessions due to holidays and we get to enjoy a nice break from the hustle of the other 10 months of the year. This past summer was a different story.  We were blessed with a large influx of new clients eager to ramp up their efforts in August, and slowing down for the summer was the last thing on their minds! While we are always excited to start working with new people, it did tax our time and energy resources. After all, we had two of our own vacations, plus numerous evening and weekend activities planned with friends and family.

August rolled on and I found my stress level rising despite (or, perhaps, because of) all of the time off we were taking. Because a major part of the work I do with clients is teaching them to better manage their time and energy by understanding their priorities, I began to postpone non-critical items such as meetings to reduce my commitments as much as possible.

What I hadn’t done was to reduce my expectations of myself. Despite outwardly re-prioritizing and de-committing, inwardly I was feeling a bit guilty for doing so. I felt bad for postponing meetings for a second or third time. I worried that I would be seen as unprofessional by other members of my networking group because I had missed the last three meetings due to vacation. I had let my regular house-cleaning routine slip because I had decided beach picnics were more of a priority than clean floors, but I was still letting the dirty floors bother me. In short, I was definitely sweating the small stuff!

One day at the beach with our kids, a friend made the offhand comment that I seemed pretty stressed for someone who was taking so much time off. As I sat on the gorgeous beach watching our kids frolic in the water, it dawned on me that I was really not present for this moment. I was so busy in my head thinking about all of the stuff that I was going to need to get to “some time” that I wasn’t even enjoying the choices I had made in order to enjoy the summer.

I was reminded of a Zen parable about two monks walking through the woods. At one point, the monks come upon a beautiful woman unable to cross a stream for fear of getting her elegant kimono wet. Without a thought, the older monk picks her up and carries her across the stream. The woman goes along her own path and the monks continue along theirs.

For several hours, the monks continue in silence. Then, the younger monk, unable to contain his stress, turns to the older monk. “Brother, I can’t believe that you picked up that woman and carried her across the stream. Do you not take seriously our vows to forsake all contact with the opposite sex?”

“Brother,” the older monk replies, “I only held her for a few moments as I lifted her across the stream. You have been carrying her for the whole afternoon.”

From that point on, I vowed to be more aware of letting go of the things that I had chosen to put on the back burner so that I could be fully present to enjoy the choices I had made to enjoy my summer. I am definitely doing much better, but it is a constant process. Every once in a while I catch myself carrying a heavy load of expectations and have to take a few moments to unburden myself.

Whether you’re entering the busyness of fall or the stress of the Christmas season, I encourage all of you to look at your values, choose your priorities carefully, and above all, to let go of the things you did not choose so that you can savour the ones you did.


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