Our best advice for managing stress

lost in thought
CC BY 2.0 Marina del Castell

From staying on top of the to-do list to sticking with a regular routine, Margaret and Katherine discuss their methods for keeping stress at bay in this installment of Town & Country.


There’s a lot of advice out there for things you can do to de-stress: take a hot bath, go to a yoga class, go for a walk or a workout, sit for mediation, keep a gratitude journal. I’m sure all these things work for some people, but for me, they’re just another thing on my to-do list.

They’re all things to do, and having more things to do doesn’t really address the source of my stress, which is all the tasks I juggle on a daily basis. For me, the only way to really reduce stress is to get to work and cross things off that to-do list, which is sometimes a physical list that I write out and sometimes just a set of tasks in my mind.

But there’s one key thing that helps me prevent getting that oh-my-god-there’s-so-many-things stressed out feeling. It’s staying present.

For me, staying present is a way of acknowledging that I can only do one thing at a time. It’s a way of saying, ok, I can’t do everything at once but I can make progress towards one thing. And that’s the best I can do. It’s a lot harder to feel overwhelmed when you’re focused on getting something done, often for me that’s reporting or writing, but it also applies to things like errands and chores. And staying present for good things, like hanging out or relaxing, can make those times feel richer too.

I don’t always succeed at this. Sometimes I still get stressed out, the list seems too overwhelming or the dread of a particular task builds up more than it should. But usually, the best way of dealing with the negative feelings around something I don’t want to do is to just get it over with. Many of the tasks I put off the most are in fact not so bad when I’m doing them. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to re-focus on the next thing that needs to be done—without thinking about the rest of the to-do list.

It’s OK to fail sometimes at managing stress. It can tell us when something is wrong or can motivate us to work harder and make necessary changes. I often try to use that stressed-out feeling as a chance to take a step back and look at what’s bothering me. And so often, the answer is that I have a lot of things competing for my attention and energy, and I just need a gentle reminder that I can only do them one at a time.


I don’t consider myself to be a high-stress person, but there are a few things that always manage to ramp up my blood pressure and make me irritable. One is not having enough time to get my daily writing done for TreeHugger. Another is when I’ve had enough of my two little kids and feel done with parenting for the day. Finally, I get stressed when my social calendar fills up too quickly.

If one or all of these things hits me at once, my performance plummets in all areas. I become less focused while writing and it takes me far longer to finish a post, which exacerbates the already-present stress. I become less patient with my kids, which they sense and react negatively to. And I definitely have less fun going out and meeting up with friends when all I really want is to be at home.

I’ve learned over the years that the most effective way to combat this stress is to stick to a routine. It forces me to think consciously about how I plan and fill my days, reminding me of my mental limits.

It was having children that taught me the importance of routine. Once I lost the luxury of being able to procrastinate, I realized that I needed reliable and consistent blocks of “me” time in order to maintain my sanity. By implementing a parenting routine in the form of feeding and sleeping cycles (thank you, Baby Whisperer), I was able to count on having a certain amount of time to myself on a daily basis.

The routine I established when my first son was born nearly six years ago has carried on to this day, and it’s what keeps me productive, happy, and well rested. Most days follow the same pattern with relatively little deviation. It would have sounded horribly boring to me in my former university days, when routine was the antithesis of my lifestyle, but now I love it.

First of all, I wake up early, around 5:30 each morning. That gives me 1.5 hours of uninterrupted time to do my TreeHugger posts before my kids wake up. The house is quiet and calm and my mind is clear. That way, no matter how busy the day gets, I always feel good about getting some work done.

Second, my preschooler takes a nap after lunch, which gives me two hours of time to do whatever I need to do. Sometimes I nap, read, clean, cook, do online research, or work on drafts.

Third, when my husband comes home from work, I head to CrossFit several times a week. This is a wonderful antidote to stress, as it gets me out of the house, gives me a break from the kids’ demands, and puts my mind in a totally different place.

Fourth, I make sure the majority of weeknights are unscheduled, partly because I need to go to bed early in order to get up early, and partly because I need the mental break. My kids go to bed at 7 p.m., sleepy or not, and I have 2 to 3 hours to myself to sit on the couch and read, which is one of my greatest passions. This quiet reading time has a huge impact on my mood, which is why I limit weeknight social obligations to one or two nights only per week, if that.

My obsession with routine wouldn’t work for everyone, nor will I need it forever; but for the time being, while living with two energetic little people (and a third on the way) and working from home in the midst of all that chaos, it’s proven the best strategy for keeping stress at bay.

Tags: Health | Work


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