• Michelle Johnson

Life on a deadline: what journalism has taught me about managing stress

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

I like to pretend I'm not a natural procrastinator, but like many of us in the media I've always worked best on a deadline. I think that's part of why journalism appealed to me so much when I first started. But the flip side of inviting – even thriving on – that seat-of-your-pants environment is the natural stress that comes with it.

Stress isn't always a bad thing. Our bodies experience the same physical symptoms for nervousness as excitement, and good stress – 'eustress' – can get the heart pounding for all the right reasons. Going on a rollercoaster, starting a new relationship or job, meeting your hero or taking on a challenge, gives your body that perfect shot of fear and excitement that motivates us.

But when the deadlines and big changes start piling up – at work and at home – and you don't know where to even start, well. That kind of stress can eat at you, and it's all too easy to avoid the issue rather than tackle it head on, and then get caught in a fog of all the things you haven't done.

I've lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember, but a few years ago I hit a peak that finally convinced me to sign up for a course of cognitive analytic therapy (CAT). Through my therapist, Julia, I was taught a set of practical tools that have changed my approach to many parts of my life, and although anxiety is a mental health issue I will always live with, it's now more manageable than I ever hoped it would be.

In retrospect, I can now understand why I was always drawn to what seemed like high-stress experiences. A clear deadline gives me a clear narrative – I will do this thing by this date, because I have to. Taking away that one choice means I can't second guess myself, or procrastinate, or worry about all the things that could go wrong. I can be in the moment, simply because I don't have time to be anything else.

Journalism is incredible for providing those experiences, especially working on a fast-paced weekly like HELLO! or an inaugural event like Tempus' Earth Conservation Gala. But every industry has those moments when the stresses – and the deadlines – are piling up along with your inbox. There are ways to manage stress – experts recommend breathing techniques, exercise, meditation and more – but when the main tools aren't working, how do you break through the fog?

I can now understand why I was always drawn to what seemed like high-stress experiences... I can be in the moment, simply because I can't be anything else

To Do Lists

Who doesn't love a list? When I'm under a lot of pressure at work the first thing I do is make a list of everything I need to do. I then rewrite it in a way that makes more sense for where my head is at, and is also much neater and colourful on the page. Prettier, so I can trick myself into thinking I'm not furious at every item that gets added. Usually I organise my list in terms of what I think will be most time-consuming to least, putting the scary stuff on top. Yours might differ – maybe it's by deadline, or buy least-fun to most-fun.

I always include a couple of things that I've already done, whether that was finishing off a pitch the night before or sending off a few emails that morning. For me, knowing that I've already started striking items off is a huge motivation to start working my way through the rest – but never, ever in order.

Simple wins

Crossing something off my To Do List before I've even started is one of the ways I try to 'get a win' when I'm under a lot of stress. Sometimes I find it really hard to know when I'm making progress when the mental fog sets in – this is when I try to reprioritise. Instead of filing the six-page feature that's due on Friday, I instead focus on clearing my inbox (I know!) or my desk to create a clear space for me to write tomorrow.

Sometimes, the small goal can be physical – 10 minutes at the gym (and every minute more is another win) – or social, or as mundane as getting the washing done. When things are overwhelming, completing the smaller, underwhelming tasks can help create the space you need to move forward.

Disrupting the narrative

My colleague was once given a brilliant flow chart for handling stress called 'The Worry Tree'. Like most stress charts the crux of it is that if you can do something about the source of your stress, use your stressful energy to resolve the issue. This is exactly what we do with good stresses. The problem is that when we can't do anything about it, you can sing "Let it Go" as many times as you like, but that energy has nowhere to go.

Even when you can't do anything about the problem, there are still ways to manage the symptoms. Councillors and life coaches talk about reframing or restructuring our negative emotional or cognitive responses to something more positive. But if we don't know where to start, we can still disrupt the impact of those stressors through our behaviour.

For some people it's as simple as adding meditation or breathing exercises before bed, or putting aside a specific time each day to do something they love, that's just for them. There's a café near our office where we had a really great brainstorming session, and that's fast becoming my go-to place to capture that productive feeling. My flatmate and I have commandeered a pub garden table that’s far from our local, for when we want a take-over-the-world style pep talk.

And, of course, talking

We're always going to experience stress, and sometimes we absorb and deflect so much in our day to day that the smallest event can become the straw that broke the camel's back. But I believe we're much better equipped to handle stress than we perhaps think, and that sometimes it just takes opening up about it to find much-needed perspective.

Too often, we're caught in the grip of small talk – talking a lot but saying very little. If journalism taught me how to listen better to others, it's also taught me how powerful opening up can be, and how much perspective you can gain from just acknowledging what you're going through. For every person you open up to about stress, you'll find even more ingenious methods to get yourself through the mental fog and maybe a solution you'd never considered. And then it's back to throwing yourself into the fun stress instead!