In the last three articles I have discussed creating an environment that supports self-control and strategies such as pacing yourself, managing energy, adequate sleep, regular exercise, and balanced work scheduling.
But if you want to develop self-control and maintain willpower, you should also avoid excessive stress, and when impossible to avoid it, you must manage it. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex – an emotional learning center that helps regulate the “executive skills,” including self-control.  Prolonged exposure to cortisol has been shown to shrink the hippocampus by up to 14%.
In stressful situations, your weakest executive skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. So avoiding, releasing or being able to manage stress is important.
An article in the September, 2014 issue of the Reader’s Digest (A new way of thinking by Philip Preille) reported that a few years ago a major U.S. study confirmed previous findings that high levels of cortisol, when produced for too long, impair mental retention. The alleviating factor is face-to-face contact with others and both building relationships and volunteering has been shown to relieve stress.
All evidence reports to social activities – anything from bridge clubs to evening classes, particularly volunteerism – to relieving stress. Individuals who double up on their volunteering activities, for example, live on average up to 44% longer than non-volunteers.
Activities such as meditation, yoga and relaxation, all commonly used to relieve stress, can change brain structure so that brain processes are more efficient. Meditation has been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system and cardiovascular function as well as the brain. In one study, those who meditated showed less activity in the brain area associated with negative emotions such as anger and anxiety and more activity those areas associated with optimism and confidence – and these emotions have an impact on energy.
A popular stress-reducing activity that has gained momentum is coloring books for adults. Psychologists claim it can be as effective as meditation in lowering stress levels. Discover what works best for you, and develop a daily or weekly routine that incorporates stress-reducing activities.
To avoid stress, don’t multitask. Dr. Amir Allen Towfigh, a neurologist with Weill Cornell Medical Center claims that multitasking can jam up your brain processing. He says our frontal lobes are the main engines directing our attention, and they have a limited amount of processing power. Multitasking puts further strain on your executive skills since it requires you to bring back important pieces of information for each task as you switch back and forth between them.
You might also re-examine your workload. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. And of course, pace yourself as mentioned in the last blog article. European experiments have shown that short, three-minute breaks every hour helps rejuvenate people more than two fifteen-minute breaks.
I also suggest that you stop making or accepting phone calls, checking email or initiating new work 15 or 20 minutes before you normally leave work. Use that time to organize the unfinished work, your working area, prepare for the next day, and make the transition from work to home. Kenneth Ziegler, author of Getting organized at work, claims that taking work home in your head doesn’t help your job performance as much as it hurts your personal life.