Huffpost Healthy Living

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Russell Bishop Headshot

Where Did All That Stress Come From?

Posted: Updated:

Have you noticed an increasing amount of stress in your life? Sure, there are plenty of things to be concerned about, not the least of which is the economy.

However, I'll bet that before things turned south, you still had more than enough stress. If this sounds familiar, then I'd like to explore a sleeper source of stress and tension. We all know the obvious ones, or at least the ones that seem obvious. This one may be a little less obvious.

In the past two weeks, we have looked at the difference between multi-tasking and multi-goaling. One of the keys turned out to be what I called "half-tasking." Half-tasking is that kind of experience we have probably all had - you start working on one rather simple task, and then your eye catches another piece of paper, and you start working on that one; then you notice a new email has arrived, and so you turn your attention to that; then the phone rings, a text message shows up, you leave for a meeting, and so the day goes.

At the end of the day, that one simple thing you started to work on is still there, still incomplete, still occupying a piece of your attention. Part of the problem is that as much as we have attention on that one thing, we also have attention on multiple things. Human beings seem to do better when they can focus rather than having their attention or focus split.

That's where we're heading: what has your attention? Perhaps even more important, what has your fleeting attention? And even more important, what takes your attention away from where you have your attention?

Getting confused? Well, that's one of the outcomes of flitting from one thing to the next without completing what you started.

As my good friend and former partner, David Allen is fond of saying, "Pay attention to what has your attention." Part of the reasoning is that if it is grabbing your attention, it is because something needs to be done about it. Ever have that recurring reminder show up in your head at just exactly the wrong time? Like just as you are going to sleep, taking a shower, or driving somewhere in your car?

Some part of you is doing a great job at remembering what you have your attention on, just at the wrong time and place. At least you are remembering.

Another inopportune set of reminders that most of us have experienced takes place when you sit down to work on something that you might have been putting off for some time. Just as you settle in to this piece of work, your brain does you another favor: "Oh, by the way, if you think this is important, what about these 2, 3 or 15 other emails that you need to send? Just helping!"

And off you go on the never ending set of rabbit trails of remembering this, that and the other thing. You wind up distracted over and over again, and just about everything takes twice as long as it should, if not more.

Do you ever have that nagging feeling that there are things you should be paying attention to, but just can't seem to bring anything to mind right now?

Ever notice how productive you get just before a vacation is about to start? Dozens of things come out of the cobwebs of the mind and get addressed. You plough through sticky notes, clogged email in boxes, and scattered to do lists. After all, you can't go on vacation unless you are at least temporarily caught up, now can you?

Of course, you can always take your laptop and Blackberry with you so you can stay in touch, handle what you might have forgotten and otherwise distract yourself from real rest and relaxation.

Well here's the sleeper part of all this: if you aren't paying attention to what has your attention, you will wind up paying with tension, otherwise known as stress.

Borrowing from our friends at, and combining a couple of definitions in a way that might be useful, we come up with this: Stress is a form of pressure or force exerted on one thing by another along with the importance or significance attached to a thing that results in physical, mental or emotional strain or tension.

Your stress may well be coming from pressure or strain due to important or significant things that need doing, but aren't being managed well or done in a timely manner.

In last week's column, we suggested keeping a number of different lists for the kinds of things that need doing. Said differently, these are lists of things that have your attention. If you can keep your lists fairly complete and up to date, if you capture things that come to mind and put them on an appropriate list, you will find some part of you beginning to relax.

That's because you now have your attention captured in one place. From there, all you have to do is review those lists (daily, weekly or in some reasonable frequency), do the ones that appear most timely, and keep track of the ones not yet done. If you keep the list(s) current by adding new items, and crossing off completed ones, your mind will then have to keep track of only one thing, instead of dozens of things - namely, where's the list!

How could this help relieve stress? Aside from the obvious part about getting things done, it will also allow you to review the list (at the end of the day, before leaving for the weekend, or before starting your vacation) and get something done that might have slipped through a crack somewhere. That alone will begin to relieve some of the pressure.

Once you have caught something that might have slipped, you now have a list of things that need doing, just not now! You can consciously and purposefully choose to not do those things, at least not now.

As soon as you can look at what's not being done, decide that it is OK to let them go for now, you will finally be able to relax and enjoy your time off without constantly having to remind yourself of all the stuff that isn't yet done. Just be sure you keep the list in a safe place, with a digital backup if you're keeping it on your computer.

Hope this one helps!

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

From Our Partners