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Stress Self-Awareness

Identifying your stress levels and personal stressors.

Richard Hawkey




Scholarly debate rages on the exact definition of ‘stress’, however, what is important to understand is that it is a stimulus : response transaction; in other words: how our bodies and minds respond to stimuli (events, situations, items), either perceived or real.

Therefore, what causes one person stress does not necessarily do so for another. And not all stress is bad – ‘eustress’ is that positive, motivating stress that keeps us moving forward as a species; we feel it at the start of a new project, or when asking someone out on a date. Unfortunately our modern lifestyles are all too often characterised by distress, hyper-stress (over stimulation) and occasionally hypo-stress (under stimulation).

The first step on the path to managing stress and building resilience is to be aware that you are (negatively) stressed in the first place. “Although it may be difficult initially to recognise that you are stressed, once you are familiar with the signs you will be able to recognise them early on and can manage and reduce your stress sooner,” says Dr Monica Mercer, homeopath and general practitioner, “Research shows that an individual’s responses to stress remain the same irrespective of the cause for their stress.”

Once you acknowledge that you are stressed (ie. having a response) you can then work on identifying the causes (ie. the stimuli). Let’s look at both of these in turn.

The physiology of stress

Stress affects every system in the body. Forgive me for brutally summarising  hundreds of years of medical research:

As a species we are programmed to survive. We have an inbuilt survival mechanism known as the ‘fight or flight response’ which, when we detect danger, readies all major systems in our bodies to either fight the situation or to run away.

Our bodies are flooded with powerful hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenaline and cortisol which have fundamental and significant effects on bodily functions:

  • Our heart rate increases (all the better to pump more blood to our large muscle groups so that we can fight more ferociously or run away faster)
  • Our pupils dilate and our field of vision narrows (to focus more acutely on the (perceived) threat)
  • The bronchi in our lungs expand to absorb more oxygen (…which travels through our blood to the large muscle groups….)
  • Our digestive and reproductive systems go offline and our immune system suppresses its functioning, as our bodies direct resources away from ‘non-critical’ systems and functions.

The problem occurs when we experience the ‘fight or flight response’ for situations that are not life-threatening. As much as we like to believe we are sophisticated creatures, in this one area, our survival mechanism supersedes our intellectual or cognitive abilities.

We react instinctively before we analyse. And the real problem comes in when we are totally unaware of this reaction – getting angry sitting in traffic, getting upset because your dinner guests are ten minutes late, or feeling nervous prior to a performance review.

Imagine your ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in 20, 50, 200 times every day and it’s easy to understand why the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that two-thirds of all visits to a General Practitioner are stress related.

Clinical psychologist and Scientific Chair of the South African Depression & Anxiety Group, Dr Colinda Linde,  paints this powerful picture:  “If we drove our cars like we drive our bodies –  24/7, over-revving, in the wrong gears, without regular services –  there would be very few left on the road! We need to remember that our bodies and brains are vehicles, which will signal wear and tear and become less efficient if we do not actually rest and refuel them when they need it.”

Stress symptoms are our bodies and minds way of trying to tell us something is wrong, and we need to learn to listen. Symptoms can be broadly categorised as being either physical, cognitive (of the ‘thinking brain’), emotional or behavioural.

Identifying your stressors

Armed with a better understanding of the physiology of excess negative stress, let me now share with you a simple technique for helping you identify some of the main things that cause you stress. Remember, only you can control your stress; don’t outsource responsibility to someone or something else.

Take control and act. Over the next few weeks take some time to think about the three statements below and start building your own list:

  • I don’t like doing….

eg. grocery shopping,

eg. housework,


  • These things make me sad…

eg. being taken for granted at work,

eg. cruelty to animals,


  • These things make me angry…

eg. rude drivers,

eg. my boss,


FREE Personal Stress Test

As a reader of, you can take a confidential stress self-awareness survey that was compiled by several doctors. Go to and enter ‘entrepreneur’ as the employer code, and follow the simple on-screen instructions. Towards the end of this series of columns we will bring you the aggregated results; but don’t worry, your confidentiality is assured – your answers will be known only to yourself.

In the next column we will introduce four key strategies for dealing with the stressors – you will be able to apply these to the personal stressors you identify over the next few weeks

Richard Hawkey is an anti-stress evangelist, author, speaker and productivity consultant. Having suffered from a stress-related breakdown himself, he has since combined this general management and leadership experience with the profound lessons he learnt from mismanaging stress and subsequently burning out. He is the author of Life Less Lived and the founder of equilibriumsolutions – which has developed the first online stress management tool aimed at both employees an employers. Richard can be contacted at


Work Life Balance

How To Optimise Your Productivity After Quitting Your Job

You’ve done it. You’re your own boss. All the time in the world. Now the problem is – you’re used to 10 hours of your day being allocated elsewhere – there’s almost too much time now. So much time… and so many ways to waste it.

Jordan Stephanou




The idea of having control of our own time is bliss. In many ways, nothing could be better than the idea of “freedom”, of having “full control” of one’s life. The reality is that it can be incredible, however it can also be life’s biggest trap. If there is no strategy to optimize this available time, it will turn into one major procrastination session.

If your time is not carefully managed, your entrepreneurial journey could become months of regret and self-loathing because of wasted opportunity. On the flip side, Peter Thiel has been paraphrased in saying that one of the beauties of an entrepreneurial life, is that if someone were to put a gun to your head and demand that you achieve 10 years worth of goals in 6 months, it would be possible. If time is used extremely effectively, anything is possible. That, in my view, is something to get excited about, and is reason enough to want to put tangible methods in place.

Note that many of these methods were inspired by Tim Ferriss and the many world class performers he has interviewed on his podcast. I have since experimented with recommendations and have found that the below have worked best for me.

1. Organise meetings

This may sound counterintuitive, because meetings are commonly considered (at least in the corporate world) to be the ultimate waste of time. The reason for that perception is that there is usually so much work to be done, and corporate meetings classically aren’t necessary for all the attendees, and do not result in a definitive next step.

Related: 10 Things You Must Do Before Quitting Your Job To Start Your Company

My argument for organising meetings is to conjure momentum when none exists early on in the process. If you are sitting with a blank calendar and a blank agenda, by arranging meetings with potential clients, partners, employees or investors, this will create a sense of scarcity; a simulated “due date” that will force you to do the appropriate work to be ready for said meeting, and could put you on an exciting unforeseen path post-meeting.

These meetings also get people on the same page as you; to buy into your vision and to get them excited by what excites you in your entrepreneurial journey – you never know what doors can open from connecting with the right people at the right time.

I read a quote recently that said “great opportunities never have ‘Great Opportunity’ in the subject line”.

2. Say No

You may receive a deluge of exciting propositions and projects out of nowhere that others less committed than you would like you to work on. These can be extremely tempting, but as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, “The single most important distinction in life is to distinguish between an opportunity to be seized and a temptation to be resisted”.

Derek Sivers makes this distinction by removing any middle ground – if he doesn’t feel that the opportunity is a “HELL YEAH!”, it’s simply a “no”. Another tool you could use is to rate opportunities out of 10 – but you’re not allowed to use the number 7. When in doubt, you have to either rate the opportunity as a 6 or an 8. If it’s a 6, it’s a definite “no”.

Saying no can be infinitely more difficult than saying yes. That’s why, it can be argued that nurturing the ability to decline mediocre opportunities is one the most important skills on the path to success.

organising-day3. Don’t let others set your agenda for you

You will wake up to several emails, whatsapp messages and a missed call. You are then faced with a difficult decision – to reactively respond to all before pursuing your agenda for the day; or proactively completing your agenda first and then addressing the needs of others.

The risk of the reactive approach, is that there is a high probability of getting derailed entirely by requests from other people. A seemingly short request could end up cascading into several hours of back and forth. It is quite possible that by the time this has reached completion, you have no energy left to allocate to the most important tasks for the day. You will leave feeling unfulfilled, as if the day was wasted – a routine you desperately need to avoid.

You should set your own agenda, and when the key tasks are completed, you attend to the emails and requests of others.

Related: How To Start A Side Hustle Without Quitting Your Day Job

4. Set your most important 3 tasks each day

On any given day, you may have 32 important things you want to achieve. Where does one even begin to prioritise these? Typically, we may start with the easiest of the 32 to get that “small win” feeling. The downside is that the easiest may not be the most important or urgent, and could leave you feeling in a similar position to where you started. That’s why I set the most important 3 each day.

They may take 5 minutes each or 5 hours each, but if you can consistently overcome the most important 3 tasks on a daily basis, you will not only make tangible progress in your work, but develop an unrivalled (and somewhat addictive) sense of productivity.

In addition, I recommend setting these 3 tasks at the end of each working day, so that you can get straight into them the next morning. I find that setting the next day’s objectives is a nice way to wind down the day, and reduce chances of morning procrastination the next day because your agenda will already be pre-constructed, leaving no room for excuses.

5. Find the environment that speaks to your working soul

Some people thrive in 8am-5pm busy office environments, while others can only work from night time when it feels like the world around them is asleep. Some people love absolute silence while others need the madness of boisterous conversation and loud music. There is no perfect way to work.

Related: Feel Like Quitting? These 9 Women Prove Grit Can Lead You To Massive Success

I have found that the ambience of coffee shops is conducive to a productive environment – being surrounded by people of different backgrounds and occupations leads to a complementary sense of both community and urgency, and removes any sense of loneliness. Furthermore, don’t underestimate the power of the right music to aid productivity.

Certain melodic lyric-less music could help create a rhythm conducive to productivity (Tim Ferriss highly recommends Gramatik as an aid to his book writing). Some people prefer music they are extremely familiar with, and even play the same song or album on repeat for hours; the familiarity could create a sense of comfort, and you won’t get distracted by the lyrics.

There is no perfect formula for productivity. There is no script, as much as others may try enforce theirs onto you. That’s why this journey is so exciting – you can use any of the methods above and do what works for you. Be productive by using your mind, not your time.

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Work Life Balance

Immerse Yourself In Purposeful Reading This Holiday Season

As the festive season draws close, and we have a bit more time on our hands, I thought I’d share details about a few of my favourite books which I encourage everyone to read.

Brian Eagar



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I am an avid reader. Maybe not as avid as Nelson Mandela was or self-made billionaires Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and many others are, but still very avid. Buffett, in fact, estimates that he spends as much as 80% of his time reading. He puts his success down to the amount of literature that he consumes, saying that reading is what makes him a more nimble and astute businessman.

Reading broadens the mind and allows for learning through others’ experiences. Through learning, we build up knowledge. By putting that knowledge into practice over time, we build wisdom. Wisdom in turn builds trust, builds relationships and attracts followers.

As the festive season draws close, and we have a bit more time on our hands, I thought I’d share details about four of my favourite books which I encourage everyone to read.

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Is There A Link Between Physical And Financial Wellness?

To reduce stress and find your feet, get going down the road to better financial and physical health. Here are some ideas:





Many of us have goals connected to both physical or financial health, but would you have expected them to be linked? According to some new studies, they are. In one study by Momentum (UK), a survey “show[ed] a clear and significant relationship between overall wellbeing and Financial Wellness”. They looked at established areas of economic wellbeing, and asked respondents about their feelings towards their physical health.

The survey found that “39% of people in ‘excellent health’ reported feeling confident about their finances in the long-term. Of those who reported being in ‘poor health’, just 18% were confident about their long-term finances.”

Stress is at the root of many health complications and diseases. It stands to reason that one of life’s biggest stressors, money, would be linked to health. This goes both ways though, so if you are less stressed about money, you are likely to have better health. To reduce stress and find your feet, get going down the road to better financial and physical health.

Related: Fedhealth Brings Healthy Benefits to your Staff

Here are some ideas:

Take stock

Just as you’d make a food diary to figure out where you’re eating badly, you should also keep a spending diary. Log every cent you spend, both fixed and variable, and after just a few weeks you’ll notice where the pitfalls of your spending habits lie.

Work on healthier eating habits and healthier spending habits: Try grocery shopping with a list when you’re not hungry, to avoid buying all the things that expand your waistline and shrink your bank balance.

Do some exercise(s)

Exercise is key when it comes to physical health, but you can do some spending exercises too. Once you’ve tracked your spending, allocate all of it to named expenses. Then play with the numbers and aim to reduce your spending to increase savings.

Figure out the sweet spot between what you get in and what goes out, to figure out spending and savings goals. Then at the end of each month, do a reconciliation to see if you reached your goals. Just as you may aim for a personal best when running, so you can aim for a PB in your spending habits too.

Eat at home

Think this one isn’t financial? Think again. Eating at home is better for your health, but it’s also better for your wallet. Aim to eat at home 70-80% of the time, and take a packed lunch to work (leftovers work a treat, as long as you plan for them). If you buy lunch every day at R40/day, you can save R200 a week or nearly R10 000 a year. That’s a quite a lump of cash you could be saving for retirement.

Related: Is Sitting the New Smoking?

Save to splurge later

Several new studies link good savings habits in early life, to better health later in life. A life you’ll actually be around to see, if you’re healthy that is. According to this article, a new study in the Psychological Science journal found that “people who value their future selves enough to regularly put money aside in a nest egg, are more likely to also make healthier choices in the present to improve their health in the future”.

So there you have it. A few steps you can take now to improve your financial wellbeing and your physical health, to ensure you’re healthy, well and cared for when you retire.

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