Friday, 25 April 2014

There's always something you can do about stress (1) Stress Prevention

The most depressing thought or assumption you can have is: "Nothing I can do will make any difference". It's often associated with a lack of a sense of control and a feeling of hopelessness.

But with stress management, there's always something you can do (certainly if you include thinking in doing). There are three broad kinds of approach you could try and in this post I'll focus on number 1, prevention.

Before I get onto that though, there's a kind of pre- (stress management) stage that's often missed.

You need first to be clear exactly what it is that's causing the stress (and when it occurs). I recommend writing this down in some structured way. (I've developed a tool for this called the Pressurised Situation Profiling Tool.)  This writing it down is helpful in itself. It clarifies what you're dealing with. Dealing with what you can see is always less stressful than the vague dread of what's lurking in the shadows.

Once you're clear about what's causing the stress, the first thing to try or think about is prevention. This is about being proactive and dealing with what's causing the stress, the 'source', directly. This source might for example be a stressful situation at work.

I've found over the years, especially with work-related stress, that much more can be done around prevention than first appears to be the case. It does require however that you take some time for this and it usually involves talking face-to-face with colleagues to explore issues and generate solutions (team meetings and one-to-ones are great for this). That's because most work scenarios are inter-dependent. The level of your stress may well be partly dependent on what other people do and when they do it, and vice versa. Often then, some planning and communication 'now' can save a lot of grief and stress later on.

I want to be crystal clear about this. To prevent stress, you have to stop what you're doing, think, plan and communicate. If you're always reacting to things, it's far more likely that you'll become stressed! And because of the lack of control, the stress is also far more likely to affect your health.

I've found a preventive approach works particularly well with teams. Given the chance, teams will come up with genuinely innovative and pragmatic solutions to what seem, at first glance, to be intractable problems. Teams of people doing a job are the internal experts on what happens in their area. They quickly therefore get to the nub of the problem and identify solutions that often cost nothing to implement.

If you're a leader or manager, this requires that you acknowledge the specialist expertise within your teams. You're in the perfect position to facilitate discussions and actively engage your teams in generating solutions to prevent stress. I've found the return-on-investment (or savings) from this type of  team working to be enormous!

PS 1: Don't forget to implement any action plans and solutions generated (it's no good just talking about it) and make sure you take a bit of time later on to evaluate and review what you've done.

PS 2: One thing you need to be careful about if you're facilitating discussions is not to allow them to get too bogged down around the problems. Yes, you do need to identify what they are and when they occur, and it's also helpful to prioritize them in order of importance (which issues are having the greatest impact on people?). But you need fairly quickly to get onto discussing solutions and developing plans. This makes sure the focus is mainly positive, on 'what we can do' rather than descending into a moaning shop. It's worth considering therefore whether it could help to have someone with independent expertise facilitate such discussions.

How to prevent computer changeover stress

It's been a while since I blogged. The main reason has been a complete changeover of the computer systems (hardware and software) in my home office.

My computers were ancient but still running, which is a tribute to Bob Jones, the computer expert who built them for me. One of my computers must have been at least 12, which in computer years is nearing the time you get a telegram from the Queen! They also ran on windows XP, which is of course no longer being supported by Microsoft.

I am not a techy person, but running a business from home forces you to go through a tech learning curve and I've long since done upgrades and pretty much everything else tech-related myself. I don't get too stressed normally, but a total changeover definitely had the potential to cause a lot of angst. It included: a installing a new hub, installing 2 new Windows 7 desktop computers with (windows 8 would have caused way too much stress!), a new monitor, a new printer (because the new computers wouldn't speak to the old printer), and a new HD webcam.

This list misses out networking the computers and my laptop, and all the software installations and renewals you have to do. Also, there's the work before and after making sure you can access all your old files and folders. I imagine the XP issue means many people must be going through the same trials. It must be a bonanza time for computer services people! (But you don't need them.)

Mostly the changeover went very smoothly, but there were odd times when the stress levels increased and my language became a touch more.. well I'm sure you can imagine. Based on this experience, I have the following (stress management) tips if you're thinking about changing your computer systems...

Don't assume you can't do it. Negative assumptions like "I'll never be able to do this" need to be challenged. You definitely can do it and you don't have to be a nerd. There is almost certainly a YouTube video for everything you need to do and I've done my best to give you some step-by-step advice below. It just takes a bit of time and most computer stuff is easy these days. It's more a matter of plug and play than anything involving coding or programming. Also, doing stuff yourself breeds confidence, that "I can do it" attitude known in psychology as self-efficacy. Not only that, it gives you a sense of control, which reduces stress and promotes resilience.

Preparation is everything. You need to think through exactly what you'll need to do before the actual changeover. For example, you'll need to organize all your files and put them somewhere where you can easily access them after the changeover. I used two approaches for this. Firstly, I made sure all my files were organized and saved in dropbox. I've used dropbox for a few years after being tipped off about by an academic colleague. It's a virtual ('cloud') home for all your files and free to use unless you store lots of larger files like videos. Even then it's very cheap. Secondly, I saved all my files, including those in dropbox to an external hard drive. Well you can't be too careful with your own stuff can you?!

Give yourself plenty of time and plan the changeover. My advice is to plan it for a quiet time, especially if you're in business (Easter was great for this). Make lists of what you think you'll need to do and get everything ready. You'll need to let people know that you're not available and that people might not be able to get hold of you by email for a while. I allowed a few days to do everything and make sure all was working as it should. And that's what it took.

A key part of this is thinking through your software requirements. One thing I did was look at my old computers and made a list of the software I really needed (and used a lot) to install on the new computers. Once you've done that you can use a web service like to search for the latest versions of your preferred progams (.exe or setup files) and download these to a folder on an external drive. You'll need these when you're setting up your new computer.

To save financial stress, think very carefully whether you need expensive software like Microsoft Office. These days there are almost always free, open source alternatives like LibreOffice, that will happily work with Office files and cost you nothing at all. I find 'open source' programs are often much better anyway and they don't have the incredibly annoying quirks that for instance Word has in abundance. (Open source programs are free programs developed by a worldwide community of programmers - yes, believe it, nerds doing good and not hacking your computer. There's an open source program for most things you're ever likely to do, including more advanced stuff like graphic design and making/editing audios.)

Think about the hardware you'll need and do your research. To prevent stress, I recommend going for a higher spec desktop PC than you think you need right now (e.g. a faster chip, more RAM). I bought two Zoostorm computers with Windows 7 installed that I'm very impressed with. This will future-proof your systems. It's a very good idea to make sure all your computers have the same operating system, like Windows 7, as it makes it much easier to network them (for example, get them talking to each other and sharing a printer).

If you do a lot of computer work, go for a higher spec monitor too. It's worth it and your eyes will thank you. I bought a BenQ 24 inch HD monitor, which cost a bit more than a standard monitor. It's excellent in every way (to get best results, you'll also need to buy separately a DVI-D cable).  It's a good idea to keep your old monitor so you can use it with your old computer if you need to. Overall, I've found you're better off spending a bit more on hardware and less (or nothing) on software. Allow plenty of time for deliveries, so you can have everything ready.

It's worth checking that you have the latest hub for your broadband service. If you don't, you may experience ongoing connection problems and much lower broadband speeds than are possible for your area. Your internet service provider may well provide a new hub free of charge. Don't expect them to to tell you though! You need to check yourself and phone them up. Likewise, don't be surprised if you're paying more than you should - so when you phone your broadband provider about your hub, check too that you're on the right tariff.

Keep a note of any usernames and passwords you'll need. Put them all into one document, save it on dropbox (or an external drive). Also, I'd recommend printing a few hard copies of this document and put them in places where you know you can find it if you need it.

When it comes the day of the changeover, think about what you need to do in what order and don't rush any of it. Make a last check that you have everything saved that you need (files, programs etc) and make sure you are absolutely sure where you've stored things. Make sure too that you won't be disturbed, unless of course it's being brought the occasional cup of tea and biscuits! What I did first was to change the hub and made sure that worked before I changed the computers over. If you're not changing your hub, this isn't an issue obviously.

Do the changeover one computer at a time, making sure first that you have all the hardware and cables you need close by before you start. Disconnect all the cables from the back of your old computer keeping a note of where everything went. You could also take a picture with a digital camera if you feel you need to. Bear in mind that you might need to access your old computer again so set aside any cables you might need for setting up your old computer somewhere else.

Make sure you've got plenty of light. A bright sunny day is best to do the fiddly stuff and a little torch is handy too in case you find yourself grovelling around under desks (as I did!). Connect everything up including the monitor to the computer, switch on and keep everything crossed. Take your time with the installation, following the instructions on the screen.

Once the computer is up and running, install the programs you need on your new computer. What I did was copy the exe (setup) files across to my new desktop (screen) from a folder I had already set up on an external hard drive. Then all you have to do is double-click each the setup files to put the programs onto your new computer.

Hopefully all will work first time, but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't. Take breaks and make sure you have enough food and drinks. The temptation is to keep trying to sort things if something isn't working right. You can easily end up getting tired and emotional! Taking a break and coming back to it afresh is almost always a good idea. It gives your brain a chance to 'incubate' problems and it's amazing how often you can come up with a solution.

If you have more than one computer to change, repeat what you've already done for the next computer. It should go smoothly this time as you'll have learned lessons from the first changeover.

Then you might need to think about getting the new computers to speak to each other. For me, that was two desktops and a laptop. The easiest way is through wireless networking and setting up a 'Homegroup'. (Bear in mind that for desktop PCs you might need to purchase wireless adaptors - your laptop is likely to have one built in.) Windows 7 makes this very easy if all the computers use Windows 7.

First, you need to make sure all your computers are on. Next, you need to click on the Windows Start button in the bottom left corner of your screen. The 'Start' window appears. Then click on 'Computer' on the right hand side of the 'Start' window. Then click on 'Homegroup' and follow the instructions to add that computer to your Homegroup. You can do the same for your other computers. Windows help is genuinely easy to follow if you need it. Once this is done, you'll 'see' your other computers (as long as they're on) via your Homegroup link from the Start window.

Setting up a Homegroup means you can access 'libraries' (the equivalent of My Documents on Windows XP) on your other computers. But the major benefit I've found is that you can connect one printer to your main computer and have other computers access that printer (because they belong to the same Homegroup). That saves a lot of hassle.

It's almost inevitable that you'll come across the odd problem you didn't envisage. Expect the unexpected. Because of the pace of change and development, old peripherals like printers may not work with your new computers. (Mainly this is because you can't get up-to-date drivers that work). So you might need a new printer even though you're old one is still working fine. Also, it's worth updating old wireless adapters. Fortunately, new hardware like this is cheap so it's worth updating.

We're planning to keep our old computers for the foreseeable future in case there's something we need to access, like old Outlook Express emails and folders. So my advice is to keep your old computers and hardware and, if you've space, set them up so you can access them when you need them. You can always connect your old printer to your old computer to still get some use out of it!

Finally, once everything is set up and working as it should (actually, way better and faster than before), give yourself a bloody good pat on the back. You did it!!