Embracing Alarms: How To Form a Healthy Relationship with Stress

You see it everywhere. On social media, influencers tout “self-care” methods and products designed to help you live a stress-free existence. In my college career, I learned, quickly, that this is an extremely damaging way to live. Stress kills, but endless leisure will make you slowly waste away. You know that feeling you get in early August or late December when you’re about to tear your hair out from being home all the time and you’re tired of having nothing to do? That’s what I’m seeking to combat.


When I was about 13, my mom got me a book called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” In it, I learned concepts that have changed my life, such as “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” among others. However, one visual that has stuck with me through the years is one I now know as The Eisenhower Matrix or the important/urgent matrix. On the X-axis, we find the degree to which a project or activity is “urgent.” On the Y-axis, we have the degree to which an activity or project should be considered “important.”


                                                                                             (Image credit: JP Kantor Consulting)


Allow me to break it down for you:


Sector 1: Daily Firefighting

These are the things that we need to be done, right now. This can be as simple as your daily routine like brushing your teeth and picking out an outfit before you leave the house or things like printing out an essay before class. This is where your necessities live, but it's also where your projects move to when you procrastinate on them. It's technically the most stressful of the sectors, and the key is to manage it properly and to not let too much of your activities migrate here. Basically, it reminds us to take care of our immediate needs before we can begin to branch out. Think of the lowest couple of rungs on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: air, food, water, health, etc.


Sector 2: Opportunity and Planning

This is the "ideal" sector. This is where your projects live when you work on them in advance, and plan well, and budget your time successfully. In a perfect world, everyone would live their life in this sector as much as possible. Here, deadlines are days, weeks, or months away, but you haven't let that stop you from making progress towards the goal. But this is where the "healthy relationship" with stress comes in: you can't operate well in this sector if you don't have a small but constant alarm telling you to complete your task(s). Just because you're slightly stressed doesn't mean you're anxious, it just means you know you have to care about it. The flip side of this coin is that when you procrastinate on important projects by doing smaller tasks, you're also technically in this sector.


Sector 3: Interruptions and Busywork

This the one you should avoid, or at least manage properly. You live here when you let other people's problems and deadlines take priority over your own, with little-to-no return on the investment. I'm not saying this sector means you should live selfishly; rather, it reminds us we shouldn't be doormats or enable our friends' bad behavior. Maybe you've got a big assignment worth 30% of your grade due in the next week, but your friend wants to go to lunch just so she can cry and vent to you for an hour about the on-again/off-again boyfriend you've been telling her to leave in the past for months now. Maybe you offer to tutor another classmate in a subject you're great at, but they require so much help and time that your own grades suffer. This one requires your own subjective judgment, but if you feel like you're spending too much time in this sector, it may be time to be honest with your friends and say that they've got to handle their own problems for a little while, or seek (preferably dedicated and possibly professional) help elsewhere. Procrastination also thrives here, just as it potentially can in Sector 2, if you're the kind of person who uses busywork to distract yourself from what's actually important.


Sector 4: The Trivial and Wasteful

This is where you are when you take breaks, go on vacation, spend money on things you don't need, or waste time instead of being productive. We all spend time here, and sometimes we need to. But it's tempting to spend time here more than we need to. Vacations and relaxing are required, ("All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,") but don't fall into the trap this sector provides. This is what I was talking about earlier when I said too much self-care can make you slowly waste away. Rejuvenation lives in Sector 4, but so does laziness.


Using this system has helped me get a better grasp on how I'm spending my time. Looking at a situation and being able to mentally say, "This is a Sector 3 task, and it's not what I need to be doing right now," or "I'm in Sector 4, but damn it, I deserve it, that paper was hard," is wonderful. Compartmentalizing and delegating is a great way to really get it all together (I'm looking at you, Virgos,) and that's a skill we should be able to walk away from college with. Learning how to manage your stress and let it know you're the one in control will take a load off, believe me.