When Demands Exceed Capabilities: Reducing Stress in Your Life

My favorite definition of STRESS is: when demands exceed capabilitiesIt applies to each and every application of the word stress. So in order to contend with stress, we need to address both sides of the equation: demands and capabilities.

Demands are the responsibilities half of the stress equation. They are found in: I-beam loads, financial obligations, family parties, household chores, work projects, volunteer commitments, heavy payloads, mega-data, emotional crises.

Capabilities are the resources half of the stress equation. Think: material strength, money, time, skills, knowledge, physical fitness, machine horsepower, computer processors, coping practices.

When demands grow or capabilities shrink, we get closer to a tipping point...or a breaking point.

When I feel the pressure building, I rely upon some personal strategies:

ANTICIPATE THE OVERLOAD. If your "system" is experienced enough to forecast increasing demands or decreasing capabilities, you can get ahead of the crisis. Keep your "finger on the pulse." Maintain situational awareness and understand your environment and how you or your organization observes changes. 

DROWNING IN PUDDLES. When I talk to people in a state of crisis, there is often not just one aspect of life that's out of control. While there may be one significant issue, oftentimes there are many small issues that have added up and snuck up on them at once. The good news is that, when you stop the drips, small puddles dry up quickly. 

VISUALIZE THE DEMANDS. Accounting for the outstanding demands is a critical step to keeping accurate score. I'm not a fan of lists, but they're better than nothing. Maybe sticky notes are the answer. It's possible that seeing all your responsibilities at once becomes MORE overwhelming. But only at first.

TRIAGE. Instead of checklists, I prefer a hybrid system that addresses not only a task's importance, but also its urgency. (Followers of Stephen Covey or Gordon Graham understand the difference!) The process prioritizes responsibilities - and often demonstrates that not everything in your in-box is a huge deal in need of immediate attention! 

GET TO WORK; BUT REST. Sitting on the couch rarely accomplishes anything. Especially when time is ticking away and the projects keep adding up. However, proper sleep and rest is important...in the right doses at the right time. For those shift workers out there (like me!), you understand the need to formally structure sleep into your days and weeks. 

RE-ENGINEER THE SYSTEM. We can all use more efficient processes. Maybe your current daily routine, or schedule, or "life hack" smartphone app isn't cutting it. Maybe it's time to re-evaluate the systems you have in place. Maybe it's time to hire a lawn care service or outsource payroll. If money is the issue, maybe it's time to start cutting your own grass! If you recently had your first baby...you're going to need a complete overhaul of your life system. 

BOLSTER CAPABILITIES. When demands can't be reduced, maybe you can increase your capabilities. Get stronger. Go to school. Learn new skills. Practice your art. Sharpen the saw. Build an organization system. Expand your knowledge and understanding. Collaborate with your teams and groups. Grow your people. 

START SAYING NO. If you accept every challenge and take on every opportunity, you will find your demands escalate quickly. Saying no is more than just reducing new demands; it might also mean ridding your life of existing demands. The line between quitting and re-prioritizing is fine...and not always understood by those on the outside. 

GET SOME FRIENDS. I don't mean co-workers or school acquaintances. I mean true friends. Humans are social beings who crave intimacy with others. I'm fortunate enough to have a tight group of trustworthy friends - the guys who I can count on for anything. With them, I grow my strength and resiliency. They don't tell me what I want to hear; they tell me what I need to hear.

Stress does not simply go away. It requires effort. And purpose. And thought. The demands of life compete with finite resources - whether time, emotion, money, or skills. 

The above strategies can be applied to a variety of situations. I hope you find them useful and apply them to your daily challenges in a life worth living.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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