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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  • That was a lovely post! very inspiring! 🙂

  • Joe Scherrer

    Thank you Crafts and Choc!

  • Lele5

    Great article. This was very timely for me. Last week I began a 3-month leave of absence from my job. After a year of anxiety, depression and overall stress from being on auto-pilot, I had to do something drastic to get back to ME. It’s been a little less than a week now, and I feel more alive than I have in years. I knew when I walked out the doors of my job last week, that while this was a temporary leave, I would not return, because of the new me I was to discover.

  • Joe Scherrer

    Congratulations on your leave of absence Lele5. It sounds like you are already reaping some excellent benefits with the adventure just beginning. Exciting!

  • Joe Scherrer

    Thanks Crafts & Choc!

  • Lucy Roleff

    A very good read, Joe. Thank you. I struggle with the anguish of not being in the ‘right place’ in my field all the time and realised recently that it’s such a destructive type of anxiety that inevitably distracts you from the actual ‘experience’ of what it is you love/want to achieve.

  • Hilary Scott Gibson

    Thank you Jo I am booking my mini break for me, now

  • Joe Scherrer

    Enjoy the break Hilary

  • Joe Scherrer

    You’re welcome Lucy–I hope you continue to gain clarity about the struggle you you seek to enjoy the journey you are on.

  • Raul

    This article was very timely I am 46 and feeling the need to reboot! As a contractor I have been burning the candle at both ends for some time now. I’ve just started a new version of me in which I feel there is something bigger out there for me to be a part of. I also am appreciating the smaller things that matter most. Thank you for your insight

  • g4life

    Wow…you nailed it with this post. After 2 years of being strapped in a job that completely stressed me out, which at the time I knew I was stressed but didn’t realize how much, till one day when I decided to walk the plank and move on. My first week unemployed was all about me asking myself did I make the correct move? By the second week I was surfing more often then usual, playing golf w/ friends, reconnecting w/ family and friends and most importantly, spending much more attention and affection towards my wife. By the third week yoga and meditation was introduced back into my life. The fourth week consisted of me selling a lot of material things I had, which I never used but it was cool to say that I owned them. I didn’t need the money but it felt amazing to get rid of all the expensive clutter in my life that I never used. I only hung onto to those items because they were a status symbol that I was a “successful” professional. Nowadays, meditation, yoga and spending time w/ my family take up about 40%of my day w/ the remaining time contributed to ways of income which in fact lets me work whenever/wherever. I do make less income, but I’ve never been happier in life which is an amazing feeling. Thanks for your post…it reassured me that I’m on the right path. Cheers!

  • Mahesh

    Simple and clutter free article and message is also simple and clutter-free life life. Thank you.

  • Joe Scherrer

    Thanks Mahesh…

  • Joe Scherrer

    Congratulations on taking that first big step, then hanging with it and discovering what really matters to you…

  • Joe Scherrer

    Raul, I’m 46 as well. I can identify with where you’re at. I got some great advice as couple of years ago that really helped me stay committed to this new path, “Be faithful to the call.” I offer that to you, if it resonates.

  • Joseph Robinson

    Great Post. Trick for me is to take that “vacation mind” and bring it back home while in the fray and not get all stressed right away again.
    Keeping the simple, sacred, and safe feelings of a journey like that in the face of a busy world is tough.
    Thanks sharing your advice.
    One thing I’m doing now is to take a small symbol of the trip and use it to remind me how it transformed my thoughts and keep it close to my desk. A photo, a sea shell, or even a little stone. Weird I know, but it helps me keep the newly found conscious state alive.
    On my mission to be more evolutionary in my consciousness these little talisman’s seem to really help.

  • chibimaru_puppy

    Joe, thanks for this post! It was so simple and concise and it was even more refreshing for me to read as I take a break from stressing out over my work. Even though I’m not out in the real-world work force yet, I feel like I’m up to my neck in things I need to do as I live out the college life while constantly thinking about the future…