7 ways tech pros can reduce stress right at their desks

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It seems like there's a day or a month for every little thing now, ranging from the downright ludicrous to the historically important. But there may be no greater time to take note than during National Stress Awareness Month-after all, nothing in this life matters more than your health. And it's no secret that stress can turn an otherwise healthy body into a sick one.

Of course, staying stress-free in today's ever demanding world can often feel like a job in itself. Since most of us barely have enough hours in a day to even eat a real lunch, we decided to find out how we can work on reducing stress straight from the office. We spoke with New York City-based Carrie Barron, M.D., a psychiatrist with the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

1. Cultivate a quiet mind

Creativity is an essential ingredient to success, but getting to that place isn't always easy, especially when we're constantly over-stimulated by so many things happening around us (cue the open-office conundrum). In order to truly tap into your creative place, the first step is to quiet your mind. As Carrie said, “A quiet mind is really the source of creative innovation.” And while we may get solid ideas from our peers at any given moment, bouncing “Aha!” moments back and forth, we still need to take the time to reflect. “If you don't go back into that deep place in yourself and really digest those thoughts and come up with your own deeply personal, original use of that information, you're not going to be creative.”

2. Disconnect

So, how exactly do you get to that quiet place in your mind? You meditate. Now, before you roll your eyes and shrug it off, there's a reason that we're still talking about meditation: It works. “It's a cliche, and a word that's used a lot, but I think it's clinically, medically true that meditation or the relaxation response can train you to enter a meditative state,” Carrie said. Here's the good news: It doesn't have to mean looking like a total weirdo at work. “You can do it and people don't know that you're doing it. You can be at your desk and stare at an object, and be thinking about a mantra or poem or something comforting to you in your mind. It's a private moment that you can have; it's a disconnect.”

3. Be patient

Meditation, of course, isn't something that just happens overnight, like any worthwhile feat, it takes practice. Carrie suggests yoga as a good jumping point, “By going to yoga for a few months, you learn a scale.” That scale helps you create what Carrie calls an internal buffer. “The breathing works if you have connected it to a certain kind of training.” But you'll be happy to know that training doesn't have to happen in tight pants. With a good deal of patience and a little bit of research, you can train yourself to meditate. “I think you can get a few tips from researching and Googling how to meditate and practicing it yourself, practice it at work if you've never done it before. It's teaching yourself to tune out, it is hard but it can be done.”

4. Daydream

If the whole idea of meditation is just too much for you, give it another name. Carrie put it nicely when she said that meditation can be just like a daydream. “Think about when you were a kid in class and you didn't have directed attention. Your attention was undirected, and maybe you were floating somewhere in your mind.” This mind-wandering is essential for self-reflection; another key ingredient of creativity. “It's a whole issue of having a reactive life versus an internal life, we're all being trained to be reactive. It's all external and selecting … and there's not a lot of time to draw something from within. That used to be really common before we had the Internet.” Daydreaming takes us back to that place when our lives were less chaotic, and it forces us to look within.

5. Doodle

Speaking of ways you used to kill time in school, it may be time to pick up a pencil and a notepad and start doodling again. It's not the doodles you're creating that are helping your brain, but rather the action with your hand. “You could even be writing the same word over and over,” Carrie explained. And while you might think that your hands are already getting plenty of this positive action from coding on a keyboard all day long, it's not. “There's so much richness in the keyboard. It's too hard to create an empty space with that; things from within can't present themselves.” If doodling doesn't work for you, Carrie suggests doing another kind of rote task like organizing your desk or going outside and walking around the block a few times.

6. Create a ritual

You've already made it a habit to get to work on time and meet your deadlines, but have you been as diligent with scheduling regular breaks? While your jam-packed day may appear to have no room for a breather, it's absolutely essential that you take one anyway. Rather than thinking of it as time lost, focus on the efficiency you've gained after allowing your head to clear for a few minutes. “If I'm sitting for a few hours, then I'll get up and walk,” Carrie said. It's in these less stimulating moments that we're more likely to find inspiration.

7. Know when to stop

Too often it's tempting to use our downtime to catch up on work or take on an exciting side project, when we really should take that time to do everyday, ordinary things. Carrie said it can help to redefine our concept of completion, “What is it to have finished and to have put in a good day?” Rather than asking ourselves if a certain task is completed, we can begin thinking about it differently. “The task is never completed because there are always another 50 things that pop up." Carrie said that we need to tune into ourselves to determine our progress for the day, and whether or not it was enough for us to feel like we were productive. “This doesn't mean going without food or sleep, or not having talked with a friend. It's redefining the concept of what it means to be finished.”

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Stacy Warden

Stacy Warden is a contributing editor of the Pluralsight blog and has worked in publishing since the dawn of the iPhone. Currently, Stacy deals in tech and education--a combination that she finds absolutely fascinating. You can find her on Twitter @sterrsi.