5 Stress-Busters to Beat a Deadline

I totally thrive under the pressure of a deadline. I use deadlines to make myself just start on the work, much less finish it, because I realize that old axiom that “work expands to fill the available time” is true. I’m famous for trying to squeeze in “just one more thing” before even starting the thing I’m supposed to be working on. Here’s where the stress-busters come into picture.

In the past when a deadline approached I would have gone and grabbed myself a snack, taken out my contacts and put on my glasses, gone and gotten my third Americano of the day, and settled in for the marathon session.

I would say to myself, “OK, you can do this. We’re just gonna power through until it’s done.

But that eventually stopped working for me.

My body eventually became unable to sustain those marathon working sessions, so I had to find a better way.

We’re not Wired For This

Prolonged periods of stress are murder on the body. Back in our cave-dwelling days, stressors came in short bursts – such as a saber-tooth tiger who thinks we look like a good lunch option. It’s where our fight, flight, or freeze reflex comes from – because back then stress was all about dealing with the immediate danger.

But stress in the modern western society doesn’t work like that. Instead, modern stressors – such as a looming deliverable – tend to be of a much longer duration. But our body still responds like the saber-tooth tiger is there – so it gets our heart racing, amps our senses, and sends blood flow to the muscles. It also reduces blood flow to the brain, interferes with digestion, and reduces our ability to burn fat (among other things).

And that blood flow to the brain thing is important when you are trying to get stuff done.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Five Stress-Busters to “Sleep” Your Way to Deadlines

Below are five simple brain science tricks you can use to knock out that deliverable in record time and corral your stress response.

1. Go for a Walk

A natural for stress-relief, movement is one of THE best things we can do to both reduce stress and make us smarter – talk about a win-win. By getting up and going for a 10-minute walk you will be giving your body a way to release some of that fight/flight/freeze response. That will begin to signal the body that the stressor has passed so it can “stand down,” so to speak.

Not only does it temper the fight/flight/freeze response, but walking stimulates the parts of the brain that involves memory and it primes us to learn new things. So, you’ll sit back down at your desk energized, with more information stored away, and ready to bestow your brilliance upon the world.

If you’ve always known that you are one of those people who gets their best ideas away from your desk – this is part of the reason why!

2. Take a Power Nap

I know what you are thinking, “How can you possibly make headway on anything while sleeping?” Well, Mom was right when she said to sleep on a big decision. We’re just shortcutting that process a bit!

Sleep is required for us to form memories. While we sleep we put multiple parts of our brain to work – one part simply stores new information as is, and another part stays busy synthesizing the information in the context of everything else we already know. So, all of those new good ideas we have?  Well, they happen because the brain has the time to work on them while we sleep!

To take advantage of this phenomenon get started with whatever you are working on so it’s fresh in your brain, and then when you are ready, go take a quick 20-minute power nap. When you get up you will have some new insights into your problem. And no, you can’t cheat the process by just “resting your eyes” – the science shows that that doesn’t work. You have to sleep to let the REM cycles (and other sleep magic) kick in.

3. Change Your Working Space

Tired of sitting in your uncomfortable desk chair under the fluorescent lights? Your brain probably is too.

Finding a new place to temporarily work is a fantastic way to stimulate your creative juices. A coffee shop, empty conference room, or even an unused desk in a different part of the building can work. Or try standing instead of sitting. The change in seating, lighting, colors, sights, sounds, temperature, and smells will stimulate your brain differently – resulting in new and different ideas.

Pro Tip: Avoid shiny-object syndrome by sitting in a low-traffic area. We want new and different – not distracted.

4. Breathe

Short, fast, shallow breaths are a classic sign of someone that is stressed out. It’s another holdover from our cave-dwelling days that is no longer helpful in the 21st Century.

When you adopt stressed-out breathing patters your body undergoes physiologic changes that result in symptoms including anxiety, dizziness, tiredness, frequent sighing and yawning, blurry vision, and poor memory and concentration. Seriously not what you need when you are under deadline!

So stop, take some deep breaths.

Sit up straight, close your eyes, put one hand on your belly, and take some long, slow breaths – focusing on making the hand on your belly move while keeping your shoulders relaxed. Just 10 breaths will calm you down and help you focus.

5. Shake it Out

You’re on the verge of a great idea, but you can’t quite get it out. It’s. Just. Right. There.

Going for a walk feels like too much of a commitment, but staring at the screen isn’t going to help. Instead, stand up at you desk and bounce on your toes. Thirty seconds of bouncing, eyes open or closed, will shake the tension out of your muscles, wake up your nerve endings, and inject some much needed energy into your entire body.

You can think of it as “walking lite.” It offers the relaxation benefits of walking, but you aren’t going to get the same brain-boosting power. It’s a great technique to throw in when you are starting to drag and just need a quick pick-me-up.


Whether it’s one of these brain-based tricks or all five, you’ll be getting more done in less time before you know it. As you begin to incorporate them into your schedule, you’ll quickly figure out which ones your body needs when.

Give these stress-busters a try and let me know in the comments below how they are working for you.

Photo by AIM Neutron (On a break) via Flickr.

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Jen Waak is a health and fitness writer and wellness coach who writes specifically for office athletes on her blog keyboardathletes.com. The author of the Keyboard Athletes Guide to Pain Relief & Prevention, she also recently released the free course How to Have the Body You Want (Without Giving Up Your Life). You can sign up for the free course here.


  1. Killer on the 9th September

    Turn on some upbeat music. Take 1/2 hour to watch Dane Cook or lzzy Izzard, Play with the dog a while, pet the cat. Go out in the yard and pull weeds for a while. These all work for me.

  2. Josh Jones on the 9th September

    One thing I do to reduce stress for deadlines is plan ahead as much as possible. Knowing what’s coming will help you spread out your time properly.

  3. Jen Waak on the 9th September

    I’m a big fan of the dancing and pulling weeds as well. Getting away for a few just works so well.

  4. Liz on the 9th September

    While I’ve read a lot of stress- relieving techniques, these are great because they are backed up by the science of each action. great article!

  5. Pierre B on the 10th September

    Great ideas! I’ve been doing some of these things for years. But, I always thought of them as procrastination habits. Now I can do these and know I am not procrastinating!!

  6. Ian Bert Tusil on the 11th September

    Having a complete 8 hours sleep every night works for me and it helps losing weight. IMHO, if you don’t love your job, better quit and find a new one coz it’s a stressor too.

  7. Ricardo Bueno on the 12th September

    Going for a walk and/or a change of atmosphere usually works for me. Oh, and some Pandora to help the creative juices come out (usually listening to techno).

  8. Peach on the 12th September

    I can assure you, power nap really works. 🙂 A great way to shock yourself into a great productive day. Just make sure you don’t sleep instead of a nap. 🙂

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