When I was a bright-eyed 17-year old, I took a tour of MIT's engineering school and heard something that changed my life. When a parent asked about the stressful workload for engineering students, my tour guide answered with a quote by a recent MIT student who had graduated early:
“Most students spent a lot of time talking about how much work they have. I just did the work instead.”
I’m not even sure if this story is true. I’ve never been able to find that quote online, and I didn’t get the name of the person who said it. But it doesn’t matter. When I started college (not at MIT, incidentally), I was determined to be the person who “just did the work instead”.
It’s very easy to get sucked into the vortex of complaining about “busyness”. As noted by this HBR article from a few years ago, a common response to “how are you doing?” is some version of “slammed”, “buried”, or “trying to keep our heads above water.” Even worse, this has become a form of bragging – “I can’t get coffee because I’m so busy with important work”. Even high school students are impacted by this. My wife teaches 10-12th graders, and if you listen to her students, you'll learn that they all have 27 hours of work or activities each day (yet squeeze in time for Snapchat and Netflix).
This behavior comes at a cost – when you complain, your body reacts much in the same way it does to stress – releasing cortisol. This means complaining actually increases your stress level and makes it harder for you to get through your existing workload. While venting occasionally is a great way to clear your head and move on, doing so constantly can lead to a downward spiral of stress.
Biology aside, we also have the more simple problem illustrated by the MIT student's quote.
If you spend too much time stressing (or bragging) about your pile of work, you’ll never complete it.
The solution is simple (I didn’t say easy). First, acknowledge the problem. For me personally, part of my inspiration for this article is that I’ve felt particularly stressed (and whiney) recently, and I realized that I needed to make a change.
Second, change your attitude. Every time I’m tempted to complain, I think about which type of MIT student I want to be. That motivates me to keep it positive and stay focused. It also prompts me to change the subject when a conversation is too focused on work stress.
Finally, just do the work instead. It could be that simple, but it probably requires something more substantial like trying a new time management technique, getting up earlier to knock out your most important task, or admitting to yourself that the work you’ve already done is probably good enough.