How to make stress work for you (10 Powerful Tips)


“Stress is not always bad. In fact, a certain amount of stress can be beneficial for growth and learning.” – Andrew Huberman

Why it works

Stress has a bad rep. When hearing the term, most people think of exhaustion or burnout. Yet, these are consequences of only one form of stress: chronic stress. This long-term, toxic form of stress is often triggered by relentless pressure at work or never-ending personal life challenges. Left unchecked, this “bad” stress actually can spiral into full-blown burnout – which the World Health Organization defines as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

Acute stress is different. It’s our body’s natural response to a challenging situation. This “good” stress is like a quick shot of espresso for our system, typically lasting no more than 90 minutes. Far from being a productivity killer, acute stress actually energizes us to tackle life’s demands head-on and sharpens our cognition. Research suggests that acute stress doubles (!) our focus and cognitive abilities. Conversely, signs of chronic stress include struggling to concentrate, feeling overwhelmed by tasks, having difficulty making decisions, working longer hours but with fewer results, and feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep.

A great framework for making stress work for you instead of against you is the Yerkes-Dodson Law. It was developed in the early 20th century by psychologists Robert Yerkes (pictured above) and John Dodson. The law states that performance increases with autonomic arousal (including stress), but only up to a point. Stress levels that are continuously elevated too high don’t yield productivity, but exhaustion. In short, a little stress can improve performance, but too much harms it (see figure below). Against this background, here are 10 powerful tips for managing stress.

How to do it

1) Prioritize tasks
Use tools like the 3-3-3 Method to balance important and urgent tasks. Invented by bestselling author Oliver Burkeman, it’s a wonderful technique for balanced productivity: focus for 3 hours on your #1 thing; timebox 3 shorter tasks (e.g. email); and plan 3 maintenance tasks (e.g. health). If you want to learn more about how I use the 3-3-3 method to win my days while managing stress, check out this article.

2) Plan
Use a planner to schedule tasks and deadlines to reduce last-minute stress. The best method for pulling this off is called Timeboxing. Popularized by productivity expert Nir Eyal, it’s how the most successful and busy entrepreneurs of our time – including Bill Gates and Elon Musk – ace their days. Timeboxing is essentially about migrating your to-do list into your calendar – by turning everything you do in a workday into an appointment with yourself. If you want to delve deeper, read this article.

3) Take breaks
Incorporate regular breaks to refresh your mind and sustain productivity. According to a 2021 study, the top 10% most productive people take breaks for 19% of their day, which amounts 90 minutes in an 8-hour workday. This might seem like a lot – but if you think about it, it comes down to two 15-minute breaks and a 60-minute lunch break. As it turns out, the most effective breaks enable you to defocus both visually and mentally. Learn why and how here.

4) Limit caffeine
Reduce caffeine intake to avoid increasing stress and anxiety levels. Caffeine can help us persevere with tedious tasks. However, both quantity and timing matter: first, up to 400 mg are safe for healthy adults (that’s two regular cups of coffee). Second, having caffeine too late in the day will crush your deep sleep, which is crucial for stress management (see #6). Thus, avoid it in the last 8 hours before bed. Learn more about optimizing your caffeine (and water) intake here.

5) Deep breathing
Practice deep breathing exercises to calm your mind and body, reducing stress. When you’re more alert (read: stressed) than you’d like to be, do a physiological sigh. It’s the quickest and most effective way to activate your calmness system in real time. Start by inhaling fully through the nose for two seconds. Then, add a second inhale through the nose – on top of the first for one – second. Lastly, exhale fully through the mouth for six seconds. This works like a charm – and can help you fall asleep at night (again, see #6). Learn more about the physiological sigh and two related techniques here.

6. Prioritize sleep
Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep to boost cognitive function and mood. According to Stanford professor Andrew Huberman, sleep is the foundation of our mental and physical health and performance in all endeavors. Yet, mere quantity (like 8 hours of shallow sleep) isn’t good enough. You also need quality sleep, most notably 90 minutes of deep sleep. Get started with our 3T Method (around time givers, technology and timing) with this article.

7) Exercise regularly
Engage in physical activity daily to reduce stress hormones and improve mental health. Exercise is an excellent way to bring your autonomic arousal down whenever you’re more alert (read, stressed) than you’d like. It makes us calmer for up to three hours. As a bonus, it enhances positive mood states and decreases negative mood states for up to 24 hours. If you want to learn more about how to exercise to manage stress on a busy schedule, read this.

8) Limit multitasking
Focus on one task at a time to increase efficiency and reduce mental fatigue. Since it takes us up to 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption, multitasking (which really is rapid task switching) makes us 50% less efficient. As a result, work takes twice as long. It also makes us miserable by boosting stress and feelings of time pressure. Last but not least, it makes focused, “deep work” impossible, wasting enormous productive potential. A first step to limit multitasking is cultivating one 60-90 minute session of deeply focused work daily. Here’s how.

9) Practice mindfulness
Spend 10 minutes a day on mindfulness meditation to enhance focus and reduce anxiety. If meditation isn’t for you, get some deep rest. You think you’re too busy for that? Think again. Even Google’s CEO does a non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) session most days to better manage his energy and stress levels. Learn more about three brutally-effective and science-based forms of deep rest here.

10) Set boundaries
Set clear boundaries between work and personal time to ensure you have time to relax and recharge. A great method is Cal Newport’s shutdown ritual: at the end of your workday, do a final email review; update your to-do lists and notes; then set your goals for the next day (see no. 2). “If you strictly follow this shutdown ritual”, Newport writes, “you’ll soon discover that not only are you working harder when you work, but your time after work is more meaningful and restorative than ever before”. If you want to delve deeper, check out this article.

You can’t control what’s happening around you. Circumstances and outcomes are always changing. 

But you can prevent “good”, acute stress from turning into “bad”, chronic stress. 

Recognize the signs and find your balance.