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How to Reduce Stress and Focus More on What Truly Matters

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” ~Socrates

Did you ever wish you could just take off from work and get away from it all?

This past summer I had the opportunity to do just that.

I was wrapping up a twenty-four-year career in the Air Force and had saved up two months of vacation time. So my wife and I decided to visit Rio de Janeiro and live by the beach.

The tropical weather was everything you would expect it to be: sunny, warm, and gorgeous.

But surprisingly, the time off gave me so much more.

Being away from the daily grind of work prompted deep reflection on my part. As a result, I came to some unexpected insights about my career and my life. The lessons I learned are:

Ambition can make you miserable.

When you’re on the fast track, you’ve always got this nagging, stomach-knotting anxiety that you’ve got to go and make it happen or else you’ll be left behind, unable to take your place at the table of materialistic plenty. Worse yet, you start to worry that others will elbow you out and grab your share.

For sure, our competitive society is full of this kind of attitude. And it’s easy to get pulled into it yourself.

I’m not saying that ambition is bad—especially when pursued for good reasons, like taking care of yourself and improving your state in life.

But the dark side of ambition is that it can pile on the stress. Remember that knot in the stomach I talked about?

I learned that only when you take a break from the grind can you realize the impact of your ambition on your spirit.

Only then can you discover what’s driving you and sort out whether it’s truly important or not.

For my part, I discovered that “climbing the ladder” in an organization was no longer important to me.

What emerged as most important was using my strengths and experience to coach leaders, help them solve their problems, and make their own marks.

You may be more stressed than you realize.

After about two weeks of sleeping in and waking up to the sound of waves and tropical birds, I realized the knot in my stomach was gone. What’s more, I didn’t realize how big of a knot it was.

A good chunk of the stress knot was present because of my own doing.

For many of us, this knot of stress is the price we pay for trying to make a living and get ahead. The price includes responsibilities that bear down on you. Maybe over time your health and wellness starts to slip away.

The next thing you know you’re in the grind.

But what’s being ground up is you.

At this point, I learned I had a choice: I could go back to the grind or I could use the strengths I developed over my career to serve others in a more balanced way.

I’ll give you one guess what I chose.

You really don’t need a lot to live well.

While we were in Rio, my wife and I rented a tiny one-bedroom studio apartment. All of our household goods had been packed up and stored, so the sum total of our possessions amounted to a couple of suitcases of clothes.

And that was plenty. In fact, it was more than enough.

Living this stripped-down lifestyle removed the hidden burden of having material things to worry about. I’m talking about things like a house, two cars, furnishings, bikes, golf clubs, lawn mowers, washers and dryers, and all the other things we buy to simplify our lives.

The radical downsizing opened me up to experience the rhythm of a simpler life.

And it wasn’t boring at all.

On the contrary—with the hustle, bustle, noise, and possessions gone, I had time to notice the little things that make life rich and enjoyable.

Like the cooling ocean breeze or the small monkeys that jumped from branch to branch in the trees outside our apartment window.

Like connecting more with family, friends, and the transcendent.

Living with less clears away the clutter of our go-go modern lives and allows us to get reacquainted with our authentic human selves.

The Big Lesson: Taking Time Away to Reflect Can Change Your Life

Extended time away from work can improve your life. It certainly did mine.

However, my circumstances were unique. For the vast majority of people, getting away from work for an extended stretch is a challenge.

So what can you do to incorporate reflection in your life?

If you can’t take extended time off, you can take small breaks. These breaks can come in all shapes and sizes such as:

  • Meditation
  • Turning off the TV
  • Setting aside your smartphone
  • Journaling
  • Going on a hike
  • Taking a run
  • Getting away for a weekend

Use these small breaks to progressively gain perspective on what truly matters.

Even these little breaks away from the routine will bring insight and understanding. Over time, they will grow into tools that you can use to transform your life.

Plan your small breaks (or a big one) now.

And move toward a life that is simpler, less stressful, and more fulfilling.

About Joe Scherrer

Joe Scherrer helps leaders solve their toughest problems, move their organizations forward, and make their mark. He is the founder and president of The Leadership Crucible, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. When he's not coaching leaders and their teams, you can find him on the driving range trying to hit a golf ball as long as he can.

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