Good stress vs. bad stress

A person holding a barbell in preparation for a deadlift.

Chronic stress can result in anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, impaired memory and concentration… that’s a serious list.

But there are good types of stress too. When you lift weights or play a sport, you’re stressing your muscles, and they grow back stronger. Similarly, when you challenge yourself mentally (like learning to do improv), it might be stressful initially, but you’ll become more resilient over time.

If you frequently experience stress, particularly of the mental kind, ask yourself whether it’s positive or negative stress. Do you suffer from any of the symptoms I mentioned above? That’s a sign that your stress might be a negative. Or are you, instead, growing your comfort zone and developing skills by pushing your limits? Then it’s positive stress.

It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two, but it’s important that you know which is which. Ask a friend whether you seem overly stressed if you’re not sure.

But for Pete’s sake, make sure you’re not suffering from chronic stress—the bad variety. I’ve been there and it’s not a fun place to be.


— Peter

Meeting a famous climber

Yosemite Valley on a sunny day

Last night I saw the movie Free Solo, which tells the story of Alex Honnold climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes. What an impressive feat.

And a few months ago, I actually met Alex. He was in Amsterdam to promote his movie and he wanted to get some climbing in, so he showed up at my local climbing gym. Very cool. Naturally I wanted to say hi.

At first, when I walked up to him, I introduced myself and my girlfriend and I mentioned that, just that morning, I had read an article describing a protein shake he likes to drink. But these things weren’t very interesting to him—we took no offense, because we’re sure he meets tons of people every day and gets asked the same questions.

So I took a different tack: I asked him how his climbing session was going today. This he found interesting and he went on a rant about how this climbing gym’s Moon Board was the dirtiest he had ever seen. (That did not surprise me.) We had a brief conversation about how the gym should be cleaner; it wasn’t super exciting, but at least at that point Alex didn’t come across as if he’d rather be left alone.

Soon after, I wished him a happy rest of his climbing session and I went back to doing my thing.

There’s a lesson in here: when you want to get people’s attention, talk about them. Ask them about their problems. Even if you want something from them (like a selfie with a famous climber) or if you want to make an exchange (like selling a service to a client).

People might very well be up for helping you, or for buying something from you, but first you have to get their attention by talking about them.


— Peter

Big rocks first

Some big rocks on grassland.

Having trouble with focus? Put the big rocks on your calendar first.

Before you allow yourself or anyone else to schedule meetings on your calendar, block off chunks of time that you’ll spend doing deep work. For example, you’ll spend Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. improving your resume/CV.

If you let others dictate your agenda, or if you plan short meetings, calls, etc. all throughout your day, you’re not likely to have a few hours straight to really dig into a tough task, to focus.

After you put the big rocks in your time “jar”, you can add the pebbles: meetings, calls, coffee chats, administrative tasks, office birthday celebrations, grocery trips…

It’s not trivial to start using this approach. When I see a long to-do list I’m tempted to do lots of little tasks just to shrink the list.

But in the end, scheduling the big rocks first (i.e. making sure you do the deep work) is more productive and less stressful.


— Peter

Instant replay

A screenshot of one of a Command and Conquer: Rivals match that I played.

In my mid-teens, I played a lot of video games.

Well, to be more accurate, I played certain video games a lot. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend eight hours gaming on a single day!

I became rather good at some video games. At one time, the team (“clan”) that I led ranked #1 in Europe in the game Call of Duty: United Offensive.

How did we become so good? We practiced. Just like a sports team, we’d get together and practice individual parts of a game (“war”). Where do you run when the match starts? How many seconds does it take to get from here to there? If you cover that area, and I cover this area, is there any way they can still get through without us noticing? Why did we lose last week?

It was fun, but eventually I decided I wanted to spend less of my life at a computer. Or at least, less time playing games on my computer.

These days, I do still play video games now and then. Lately I’ve been enjoying Command and Conquer: Rivals. Games are just a few minutes long, on average, but there’s a lot of tactics and strategy in those minutes.

My favorite Rivals feature is the replay functionality. When I lose a match (“battle”), the game immediately offers to show me a replay. That way I can go over my choices and see where I screwed up.

Did I not know this map well enough? Was I too slow? Did I make a tactical error, such as trying to counter rocket infantry with a vehicle? I’ll know immediately when I watch the replay, so I learn and do better in the next match.

If only such instant replay existed for non-gaming life too. We’d all learn so much more quickly. Sadly, for now, we’ll have to make do with analysis from memory.


— Peter