Tips for Keeping Cool Under Pressure

As some of you might have noticed, I haven’t always been the calmest creature in the office (I got better). As part of the process of improving my ability to remain calm in the face of schedule and workload pressures, I’ve learned a few tricks that I now pass on to you. With any luck, you won’t need most of them.

Stress relief on the job


Shallow, rapid breathing is a great way to work yourself up into a panic. I am not a yoga person (in fact, I refused to participate in a customer-led yoga class, but that’s another story). However, I am conscious of the effect that breathing can have on your body and state of mind. If you find yourself breathing rapidly from the top of your lungs while you’re sitting at your desk, you need to be conscious of that fact, start breathing from your diaphragm through your nose. It takes longer to fill up your lungs and it forces your body to slow down as it takes in oxygen. Panting is a fight-or-flight response. Yes, it’s entirely possible that you’d like to run away from your desk (see the next item), but if that is not an option, then make up your mind that you are going to maintain a cool head sitting right where you are and just…breathe. One to five slow breaths to get yourself in the habit, then get back to work. Your mind might still be racing, but you’ve given it a chance to pause, slow down, and get out of fight-or-flight mode, and that’s a good thing.

Walk away from the desk

I’ve discussed this before, but sometimes you just need to walk away from your desk/workspace for five minutes just to get some distance from the pile. If you’re on a hot deadline, this is not always practical, but once the deadline has been met, walk away before you take on the next thing.

Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign

If you’re under a deadline, you don’t need people coming in and asking you more questions about other, less-critical actions. Bosses usually override such signs, of course, but you can politely explain what your working on and for whom and ask them if it would be possible to wait.

Imagine yourself in your happy place

If you’re lucky, you have a photograph of somewhere you enjoyed where you were perfectly calm and content. For me, that place is Monterosso, Italy, where I once spent two or three hours just sitting on some rocks watching the Mediterranean roll in (photo below is from that same day, on the walkway overlooking the beach). If you don’t have a picture of that exact place, find something that reminds you of it and keep it handy for those moments when stress or negative feelings are working their evil magic on you. Imagining yourself in your “happy place” also puts you in the frame of mind you had when you were there.

Happy Place Monterosso

Stress relief off the job

Do something different with your brain

I know, I’m one to talk–I spend an awful lot of my free time reading and writing–but those are not my sole avocations. I also make certain that I get out of the apartment and walk. Exercise keeps the body healthy, and as was noted in an obesity management class I helped write, “Sitting is the new smoking” as a health risk. Beyond exercise, there are also hobbies. I’m an average cook, but I enjoy making myself something reasonably healthy and tasty. It’s also a physical activity that differs from pushing electrons around a screen.

Talk with people from outside work

I’m not saying don’t make friends or never hang out with your coworkers. I just think it’s a good break for your brain to talk to people with a different set of experiences. Besides, if you have a problem you want help with, and the problem is work-related, it is not always the best policy to discuss how you’re going to handle that problem with fellow coworkers.

Turn off the mobile devices occasionally

Yes, yes, yes. We use our smart phones for everything, from alarm clocks to grocery lists to calendars and (who would’ve thought it) actually having voice conversations. I’m also aware that some employers like to be able to reach their employees at all hours. I would push back on that. They passed a law in France recently that bars employers from emailing you at home after hours. While I doubt such laws will catch on here in the States, one can hope. In the meantime, I would try to understand or set expectations with your employer up front about acceptable protocols or “office hours” when it comes to reaching you remotely. I have yet to experience a situation where someone required an “emergency paragraph” to be written at 3 a.m. Are you a medical doctor? A member of the armed services or law enforcement? Okay, those might have actual emergencies. The rest of the time? I doubt it.

Of course I’m a freelance writer now, and customers could call at any hour, right? To reduce the possibility of hearing email chimes or phone calls at night, my last line of defense for my personal time is to turn the bloody thing off before I go to sleep. I started that rule six or seven years ago, and it did me a world of good. If most of your customers live in the same hemisphere or time zone as you, they should have some notion of reasonable working hours. And how coherent is a paragraph written at 3 a.m. really going to be, anyway? Again, I would set expectations up front. If your customer’s actual productive working hours are during the graveyard shift, you might have to adjust your working hours…but normally I would find that out during the interviewing or fact-finding process. Otherwise, an employer who’s frequently calling you during typical meal or sleep periods is just being rude. But hey, that’s me.

Use your vacations wisely

Your job does HAVE leave time, yes? Maybe you favor a “staycation,” where you just stay home and don’t work, or you might be more like my family, which takes great pleasure in planning and taking time in places away from home. Your budget might be limited; okay, take a vacation to some place of interest that is not home. A change of scenery, like a change in the people you see, can help you relax and think differently about whatever your daily routine is.

If you’ve read all these recommendations and thought, “Yeah, easy for you to say!” I’d pause a moment and reconsider. Is your work so important that it’s worth sacrificing your health? Your mental well being? Your quality time with friends and family? Are you unable to pause a single moment of the day and look out for your own well-being? In that case, friend, prepare to be wheeled out of your workplace on a gurney because you are going to work yourself into an early grave. Is the work that important? Think about it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in personal, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Tips for Keeping Cool Under Pressure

  1. Ally says:

    Great points! It’s amazing how helpful it is to step away from your desk. Even walking to the kitchen to refill my water bottle is enough to help me refocus. Provided no one talks to me while I’m up 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.