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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

The Best Way to Reduce Stress Is Work

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

This afternoon, I scrolled through the Design column on my team’s project board, at all the tasks assigned to me, and felt that old villain, stress.

As I see it, stress comes from the mountain of commitments we make to ourselves and others. Commitments could be work projects, ideas we want to turn into reality, or physical needs like buying groceries or brushing our teeth.

In an ideal world, commitments appear at the same rate we are able to do them. When the time, energy, ability to do the commitment outweighs the time, energy, ability we have to do them, we feel stress.

Stress fills up our already overbooked time as we fret and fritter, drains our energy as our mind revs at more PRMs than necessary, and diminishes our ability because our mind becomes clouded.

The balance between all these things looks something like this, where TEA refers to Energy, Time, and Ability:

Commitment’s TEA / Available TEA = Stress

Given this equation, we can reduce stress in the following ways:


Spend our TEA doing stress-relieving and energy-increasing activities to make it easier to do the work of meeting our commitments. Go for a walk, meditate, pray, read an inspiring quote, organize your thoughts in writing, make a todo list, sleep, drink water, eat healthy good things.


Spend our TEA doing the work to meeting our commitments. Fold the laundry, make the debt payment, do those pushups, have that conversation. Now, not later. Once the commitment is met, the stress of it goes away. It’s as simple as that.


Drop commitments. Deciding to cancel a commitment resolves the open-loop created when you made it. That open loop is what causes the stress and closing the loop by deciding not to close it can feel liberating.


Increase our Ability by spending our TEA doing ability-increasing activities (eg, practicing a skill, reading to acquire relevant knowledge).


Adjust our commitments so they don’t cost as much TEA but are still met (eg, decide it’s ok to exercise for 15 minutes today instead of the normal 45, replace a project that is bigger than you can chew with a smaller one that still accomplishes the main goal).

Ants on green leaves.
Photo by MD_JERRY on Unsplash

Just as the only way out of debt is to pay the debt, the only way out of stress is to resolve the commitment that’s causing it. Work and Letting Go are the only approaches that actually resolve commitments and thereby permanently reduce the stress they generated.

But the Work approach provides something that Letting Go doesn’t: a positive gain. Once you’ve mowed the lawn, now you have a mowed lawn. Graduating from college leaves you with a degree and an education. Writing that song results in a song that you’ve written.

There is an inherent risk in the Letting Go approach. If overused, it will result in new stress from not having accumulated many positive gains. And if applied to the commitments you most value, that stress of what you have left undone will haunt you. Regret cuts deeply.

That said, Letting Go isn’t all bad. It pairs well with Work. The most optimal approach is to Let Go of the 80% of commitments we’ve made that, when looked at critically, are ultimately trivial and to Work the 20% that matter most to us. You’ve heard of this before: the Pareto Principle or the 80–20 Rule.

The vital few and the trivial many. The Tao and the ten thousand things (not exactly the same thing, but there may be something to that). The point is that, to say “yes” to something, you say “no” to something else.

Again, that equation above: there is a limit to the commitments you can meet in this short life of ours. Best pick the ones that will yield the most fruit for you and others you care about rather than do so many of the barren ones that there isn’t time or energy left for any others. That’s a fruitless approach.


To really understand what something is, you need to also understand what it isn’t. Here are some false versions of the approaches above. They will whisper to your mind claiming that doing them will relieve you of your stress, but they do them and you’ll see that they don’t.


Returning to the 80–20 Rule and the importance of saying “no” to what matters less in order to say “yes” to what matters more, well, it’s hard to say “no.” The trivial commitments shout at you, declaring that they are not to be forgotten in the mix. All the commitments push on you so insistently that you can hardly tell which to do first. So you do the easiest one first or the most urgent. Or if you do manage to see your way through the bustle and sit down to Work the most important commitment, the cacophony buzzes in your head and you can hardly think.

I’ve heard a good practice, in addition to a todo list, is to write a not-todo list. You’ve heard the story that Warren Buffet told his pilot how to achieve his goals. Write them all down, he advises, then order them by importance. Circle the top five and work at them with all your might. Finally, avoid the remaining goals like the plague until you have accomplished those top five.

I have to admit, this is the counterfeit I struggle with the most. I imagine the ADHD plays a large part, but every new idea looks as shiny as the important ones. It takes a great deal of introspection and reminding to stay the course and, well, stay committed to my most valuable commitments. I struggle to muster the courage to Let Go of good things for the sake of those that are best. If you have any advice for me, please add a comment below; I’d really like to hear it.


Alleviate stress for a moment by looking away, becoming temporarily numb to it. Distraction masquerades as the Energize approach. Energize is also a temporary approach. But relieving stress and building up energy doesn’t resolve the commitment, and sometime soon thereafter, the stress will return. Energizing yourself is only done to power you up, to give you enough energy to do the Work approach. That’s all.

Living in Energize land too long is called Distraction and will have the reverse effect. You will come away from an hour of social media, binge-watching, or stress eating not energized to Work but drained and depleted. You have spent your energy but have no positive gain as a reward.

We may start to Energize with good intentions. But it’s easy to continue a healthy activity beyond the point of usefulness. These activities often involve consuming or resting in some way: food, sleep, entertainment, relaxing. These things feel good! So we keep doing them.

And we keep doing them. Until we lose track of why we started doing them in the first place. And then we keep doing them until we come away feeling bloated, regretful, and exhausted. And being thus drained, our equation above becomes even top-heavier and our stress increases.

And then because our stress has increased, we try this false approach all over again with more binging, more inaction, and the vicious cycle continues.

A good rule of thumb comes from (I think) a Japanese saying: Eat until you’re 80% full. Keep your eye on the Work; remember that that’s what you’re energizing for. Stop when you could still consume a bit more and start Working.

Another practice I’ve used with surprising effectiveness is to add distractions to my todo list. I’ve added “worry” and “sit and think” and even “waste time” to my todo list. Oddly enough, upon writing them down, their pull on me was immediately gone. I haven’t done it frequently enough to know whether the novelty of it will wear off and my mind will get wise to the trick. The jury’s still out.


One cleverly disguised version of this is the counterfeit of Learn. We feel we need to develop more ability in order to complete a project or achieve a goal, so we read, watch, get educated. But taken too far, and we fall into edu-straction. We continue to learn well beyond what is needed for the project or goal or go off on an interesting tangent. Worst of all, we often already know all we need to succeed, but our insecurity or fear of starting convinces us that this little pit stop in the library or the Internet is necessary. Hours or even years later, we still haven’t begun the Work.

A good rule of thumb here is, to begin with Work and only pause to employ the Learn approach if you find you truly can’t continue because you truly lack ability.


Stripping a project down to only its essential components results in not only inefficiency but a kind of beauty. It’s the commitment level application of the 80–20 Rule. But if you mistake the trivial for the essential, or if you aren’t even trying to discern the difference in the first place, you could unwittingly throw out the baby while keeping the bathwater.

Have you ever seen a parent commit to spending more time with their children only to be on their phone the whole time? Have you ever determined to read a book on personal development but became so eager to finish so you could achieve your related goal of reading a certain number of books per year that you didn’t spend the time and energy to ponder and practice what you read?

If you really do want a good relationship with someone, merely spending time in the same room isn’t going to achieve that; it takes time and focused attention, not to mention a host of other time- and energy-intensive words and deeds.

If you really want to learn a principle, finishing a book on the topic won’t, in and of itself, give it to you. It may be the first step, but if you consider your commitment met when the book is done and not when the principle has been deeply ingrained in you, you’ll still experience the stress that led you to want to develop the principle in the first place.

Reduce the time and energy you spend in meeting a commitment to the point where the commitment is only met on paper but not in spirit, and you’ll find what little you did spend was wasted. You spent less time and energy, but you still have nothing to show for it.

A good rule of thumb here is, when you feel an urgent need to start or finish something right away, to ask yourself what the positive gain you hope to see from it.


Work is the only true and reliable approach to resolving your commitments. But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and Jill a dull girl.

TEA. Work has costs. It takes time, energy, and ability. Time is an unchangeable constant. Optimistically, it is a renewable resource, offering itself bountifully each new day. Or, if you like, it is finite and can never be increased or decreased, only spent or wasted. Ability increases with use. But energy needs to be replenished. Replenishing your energy takes time, ability, and energy. Play, rest, sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and so on.

When only the Work approach is used to decrease stress by meeting commitments but the Energize approach isn’t also used, Work becomes less and less effective. To show why let’s take another look at our equation:

Commitment’s TEA / Available TEA = Stress

The more Work we do, the more commitments we meet, and therefore the less stress we feel and the more positive gains we enjoy. However, Work costs energy. The less energy we have available, the less effective our Work is, the fewer commitments we meet, and therefore the fewer positive gains we enjoy and the more stress we feel.

On top of that, with less energy to withstand seemingly quick fixes, the more alluring the counterfeits appear, the more we fall pray to them, spending our precious time and energy on them instead of on Work, resulting in even less Work and even more stress.

When Work never pauses to allow for Energize, burn out occurs. When this happens, energy restoration becomes stunted. It takes a great deal of time, in the absence of stress, for the normal rate to return. To not feel stress for that long of time means either a lot of Work (which you don’t have any energy to do) or Letting Go of almost every commitment in your life. Life halts. A period of recovery and regrowth ensues.

Avoiding burnout is no complicated matter. The Work approach needs to be balanced with the right amount of the Energize approach. Not too much, lest you fall into Distraction. Not too little, lest you burn out.

Let me leave you with the second equation of sorts, where C refers to commitment:

Cs made — Cs dropped → Work → Cs met (gains) — Cs unmet (stress)

If you feel stressed, you can do two things. One, stop making commitments that aren’t important and drop the unimportant ones you already made. Two, Work to meet your important commitments.

Thanks for reading.


This post was originally published on Medium as "The Best Way to Reduce Stress Is . . . Work"

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