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  • Writer's pictureSJ Baublitz

Productive vs. Ambient Stress

Proposal people make stress work for them. If you couldn't handle a healthy dose of stress and use it to push you and your team over the finish line, you wouldn't be in this line of work. I'm familiar with (and identify with!) the attitude that deadlines are what makes you productive. Anyone who has worked on a call for proposals with a rolling deadline and found it impossible to get it finalized can attest to the truth of that - a measured dose of stress and the grind of an impending deadline can really keep priorities humming.

And whether it's that business development attracts a certain personality type, or whether the needs of the job force you to adapt or drop out, BD folks tend to have some common traits. Do you use spreadsheets to organize not just your work life, but also your personal life? Do you have opinions on the best app for list making and productivity tracking? Do you know the best line of communication to get in touch with everyone on your proposal team and what style of cajolery gets the most effective results? You might be a proposal manager.

Unfortunately, that kind of mindset doesn't come with a ready off switch. When you're always juggling multiple priorities with team members' work styles and varying donor guidelines, it starts to orient your brain a certain way, and it can be easy to get carried away to the extent where your whole life is a project that needs to be managed.


The other day, I was driving to meet a friend and realized that I was going to be there a few minutes late. Instantly, my stress mode engaged - and not an amount commensurate to the realization that I was going to be five minutes late (which in reality, should have been zero). Instead, it flipped on my stress mode, and I was hit with the full weight of every small deadline I should have been paying attention to, every little thing on my personal life to-do list that I had allowed to languish.

It flipped on my receptors for ambient stress: the stress that's always out there surrounding you in because there is always something to be stressed about if you're up for it. And unlike productive stress, which can be a positive force channeled for dedicated amounts of time towards a certain goal, ambient stress just bogs you down. It tends to hit most when you're coming down off a run of productive stress. Your body thinks it still needs to be keyed up about something -- anything. The ambient stress builds up in big clouds around motivated, results oriented people and gets amplified by our culture that tells us implicitly and explicitly that we always need to be producing, never resting.

Ambient stress might build up around us passively, but it takes intentionality to clear it away. For one, just recognizing and naming that underlying anxiety is a good start. Stop and ask yourself - why do I feel the way I feel now?

  • Did I start off by taking care of my own physical needs? (I see you out there, all you over-achievers! Did you send 27 e-mails this morning but forget to eat a real breakfast?)

  • Do I have an actual deliverable that I personally need to act on? (Great - make that productive stress work for you. Set aside time to work on that thing, and only that thing for the next 1-2 hours, with no multi-tasking. When is the last time you did one thing only for 90 minutes straight?)

  • Am I stressed about things that are outside my control? (Think it through - name anything you can be doing to further that goal, whether it's encouraging/supporting a team member or prepping for when the ball is back in your court. Make a plan, make a list, make a calendar reminder to follow up in 48 hours when it's appropriate. And then let it go.)

  • Am I just keyed up on ambient stress for no particular reason other than we live in an environment that's constantly amplifying every little stressor?

So if you've named it - you know you're bogged down by that cloud of existential dread - what gets you back out? For me, learning breathing control through yoga and mediation has been a practice I can always depend on. Journaling has been another effective way to get a name on whatever is pulling at the corners of my consciousness. And a friend who deals with anxiety told me a practice her therapist told her to help her go to sleep: as things bounce around in your head calling for your attention, name them one by one, picture each one as you name it, and then dismiss it - like picture yourself in your head physically waving goodbye or pointing it out of the room, and then dismiss them one by one until every stressor has been sent out to work on later. It sounds a little corny, but I have used this one to power down my stress engines on multiple occasions.

How about you? Share your favorite ways to name the stress and put it aside for another day in the comments.

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