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The Inertia

When looking to improve your health, it’s easy to focus purely on the physical. Many people devote a lot of energy to looking for a more effective workout plan, buying new gear they hope will improve performance and tweaking their nutrition and hydration. All of these can be beneficial, but to enhance overall wellness, we also need to consider other, non-physical factors that may be having a deleterious effect.

One of the biggest ones is chronic stress. As Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg rightly point out in their brilliant book Peak Performance, we need some stress to prompt adaptation after a training session and to motivate us in other areas of our lives. And yet if we’re permanently stuck in a high-stress state, our body gets locked in fight/flight/freeze mode, which inhibits our ability to recover, rest and repair. Chronic stress can lead to systemic inflammation, which is a major contributing factor to disease, and can start to limit mental and physical output. Not to mention making us irritable, cranky and generally Grinch-like.

Over-training/under-recovering, workaholism and constant connection to technology can all contribute to high stress. So can filling every possible moment of each day as we attempt to live our lives on a Henry Ford assembly line model of getting as much done as possible. Between training, work, kids’ activities, social commitments and the rest, many of us are leaving ourselves little if any true downtime. And our health is suffering as a result.

So what can be done to turn the tide? In this series, we’re going to look at some practical and easily applicable ways to reduce stress in your life. The first involves taking aim at that overcrowded calendar. If you’re anything like me, you’re always saying yes to things, believing that because you can work hard and fast, you’ll always be able to add one more thing. There’s also a FOMO element – what if saying no to an opportunity means you miss out? The problem is that you can only accomplish so much in any one day and every time you say yes to something, that means you have to say no to something else. That can mean sacrificing time with your kids, time on a more meaningful project and, as often happens, of making the excuse that you’re too busy to exercise – all of which are going to have a negative impact.


To start setting better boundaries, all you’re going to need is a two letter word: no. When someone asks you to do something, consider whether it’s going to advance the ball toward your main goals, or merely divert your attention. Then assess what impact saying yes will have on existing projects. Also check your calendar and objectively evaluate the time commitment involved. If the new opportunity butts up against a scheduled appointment, that’s going to put you under pressure and encourage rushing around. During such an evaluation, keep the phrase, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind.

As Greg McKeown puts it in his excellent book Essentialism, “Nonessentialists say ‘yes’ automatically, without thinking, often in pursuit of the rush one gets from having pleased someone. But then comes the pang of regret. Eventually they will wake up to the unpleasant reality that something more important must now be sacrificed to accommodate this new commitment. Of course, the point is not to say no to all requests. The point is to say no to the nonessentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter.”

If you’re caught in the habitual trap of saying yes to everything, it’s probably going to feel uncomfortable to say no for a while. But stick with it and you’ll start to make your peace with turning things down. If you do, you’ll reduce your stress level and take back time to unwind and decompress. Playing the ‘no’ game will also empower you to improve the quality of your work, time with family and friends and your workouts. Plus it will reset expectations for everyone who’s come to think of you as a pushover.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series from Phil White on reducing stress.




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