I try to hide my stress from myself, but it piles up around me. Literally. Papers, sunglasses and bracelets, paid invoices, bagel coupons, and a horseshoe are all within my field of vision as I type this. You're probably not surprised to learn that I don't need the horseshoe for my work today. Nonetheless, it's there, and it's evidence that I'm stressing about something.

Does this pattern sound familiar to you? There is a low hum of anxiety -- not necessarily the kind that keeps you up at night, but just the feeling that something is off. I'm stressed out, but I don't know why.

Many of us have constant, relatively low-level stress that is mostly over things that are out of our control. This is very different from "I have too many big projects" kind of stress. The accumulation of these things creates this ongoing, low-level of stress and anxiety. A normally responsive client doesn't return an email for more than a week. A prospective new client opts to go with someone else. An invoice from last month goes unpaid. And on and on.

When big catastrophic problems causing our stress, we at least know what the problem is- a critical prerequisite to formulating a response. But it's harder to pinpoint the cause of stress and formulate a response when that stress is coming from lots of small, seemingly insignificant issues that have piled up.

My rational brain acknowledges each of these little things as they happen and files them into an imagined "it'll all work out" folder in my head that's supposed to help me not stress about those things. I can't see all of the items in the folder, but I know they're piling up when I see the physical clutter around me start to pile up. All of that physical clutter are real (mostly minuscule) decisions that I'm delaying. It's feeling stressed but not knowing why because nothing is catastrophically wrong but a lot of tasks, commitments, and expectations are swirling.

So, what do you do in these scenarios? I've typically struggled with how best to manage my low-level, ongoing stress and its physical manifestations. Do I dig into the root causes or do I stop and clean up my office?

I've found what works for me is to do both, because both things help alleviate that stress. The difficult part of finding the causes is that the things stressing me out are little things -- so little that I can't easily put my finger on them. Meanwhile, I can't even really think about them because I'm distracted by the reminders of all of these little decisions that need to be made and the physical clutter around me. Here's what I typically do -- and what I need to do today.

  1. Clean up the physical stuff. Embedded in this are actually two important actions. The first it to block off time and give myself "permission" to step away from my business for an hour or two (or more, if needed) to deal with all of the little administrative and annoying life maintenance decisions and actions that I've been putting off and that have been radiating low-grade stress in the back of my head. Typically, these little things fall low on the priority list--things that end up getting postponed endlessly, but that do require action at some point. Once I block that time off on my calendar, I stand up because if I continue to sit in front of my computer, I'll be knee-deep in political videos posted on Facebook and Google searching for symptoms of obscure diseases within seconds. Next, I create three piles of all of my accumulated clutter -- trash, file, and act. (This idea came from my dear friend and professional organizer, Evan Zislis. He's really smart and offers practical solutions to all kinds of clutter and life problems.)
  2. List the mental stuff. After physically clearing the clutter I start a list that tries to exhaustively answer the question: what am I worried about? I sit down and open a blank Word document and just start typing. I usually run out of stuff around 20-25 things. I know that I'm just digging for random extras when I start enumerating natural disasters that don't commonly occur in my part of the country. From this list of mental "clutter," I go through the same sorting process: trash, file or act. "Trash," of course, is stuff that isn't worth worrying about and I just need to will myself to forget it. "File" is stuff that is important and maybe requires some passive monitoring, but there really isn't anything I can do about it. "Act" is just that. I create a "to do" list that ties to whatever is making me feel stuck and stressed. It's asking myself the question, "when I can't do anything, what can I do?"

My indecision and worry become obvious to me when I notice the accumulation of clutter around me. Of course, I show other signs of stress that I think a lot of us do as well--overeat, snap at family members, drive too fast or drink too much. There are an array of subtle symptoms to be on the lookout for when you have this accumulation of low-level stress.

If not addressed, a vicious cycle can form: you don't sleep well, which makes you irritable and distracted, which further stressed you out. The benefit of dealing with it is that everything just works better afterwards. You can focus, be more productive, and make better decisions on the big stuff that matters. All of that comes from this feeling of control that you gain when you put stuff in its right place--both mentally and physically.