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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Poise in Panic: How to Seem Calm When You’re Super-Stressed

Stress itself is stressful, particularly on the job.

You know the cycle: It starts with a looming deadline on a project you’re not so sure you’ve got a hold on. That leads to working late, which means takeout food and skipped workouts, which means tight muscles and a no-sleep-induced breakout, which means—you guessed it—more stress. Pretty soon, you can feel that OMG-the-sky-is-falling stress seeping from your pores.

And you know who else can sense it?

Your bosses.

It’s not that they’ve never been there. But, let’s face it: Appearances matter. And when you’re angling for a raise, in the running for a promotion, or just flat-out trying to impress, there's no doubt your superiors will look at how you handle your workload (translation: stress).

So, when you’re crashing on a deadline or tackling a new assignment, it’s important to handle stress in style, with the appearance of an unshakeable, “I got this” attitude. The ol’ fake-it-til-you-feel-it trick. And in the meantime, your calm and collected demeanor will impress the big guys as much as your stellar performance does.

Here’s how to master the illusion of calm and unflappable.

1. Maintain a Clean Desk (Even if the Junk is Thrown in a Drawer)

Remember in college, when you hadn’t started that paper that was due the next day, but were overcome with an urge to clean every square foot of your dorm room? Yeah. Always a mistake.

Similarly, you probably can't—or shouldn't—spend several hours making your cubicle spotless when you've got a big assignment on your hands. But those instincts are good: A clean desk looks better than a messy one. And a clean desk spells "organized" and "calm under pressure" to your superiors.

So here’s your temporary solution: Take all the stuff you don’t need and put it in an orderly stack. Sort it later. Then put that stack to the side, under your desk, or in a drawer. Corral all pens in a cup. Throw away your trash from lunch (or dinner or breakfast), and create a workspace where only the materials you need are in front of you. Add a few paper clips, if you’re feeling extra fancy and tidy. Bosses like that.

2. Maintain a Short To-Do List (Even if the One With 10 Million Tasks is Underneath)

This is for all the nosy bosses who go so far as to look at the content of what’s on your desk. It’s terribly invasive, we know, but here’s how to handle it: Give them something organized and aesthetically pleasing to look at. And what does the job better than a polished to-do list?

Keep it simple. No more than five tasks. Put the rest on a hidden list. (You can re-write the visible multiple times a day, if necessary.) You can even add a couple that you’ve already done, and put a big check in the little box you drew beside the item. Not only is it satisfying, but the next time those wandering eyes happen upon your desk, they’ll register “Ah, productivity under pressure!”


3. Take a Lunch Break (Even if it’s a 10-Minute Fake-Out)

This is going to be hard for some of you workaholics. But here’s why it’s important beyond the obvious keep-yourself-sane reason: People who have everything under control take breaks. And nothing says stressed to the max like someone shoveling a PB&J in her mouth while glued to her seat and staring zombie-like at an Excel spreadsheet. Even if your lunch break is just a 10-minute reprieve in the lunch room, where you scarf down the aforementioned PB&J (though I do advocate for a full 30 minutes to an hour), the act of standing up, grabbing your bag, and walking slowly out the door for a short lunch break says “Business as usual.”

4. Don’t Stay at the Office Later Than Your Boss (Even if You Have to Log on Again From Home)

This may be counterintuitive, but many bosses don’t register “Wow, hard worker,” when they see an employee settled in at his or her desk way after hours. More than likely, they’re probably wondering why you aren’t efficient during the day or whether you’re unhappy at home—neither of which work to your benefit.

Now, I’m not saying scoot out at 5:01 with a smile. And the time you should exit will vary depending on your office culture, but aim to leave a little bit before your boss does. If you’re worried about looking slack, stop by your boss’ office on your way out to offer a status update. A simple, “I’m heading home, but wanted to let you know I’m on track to finish [x, y, and z] by [day and time], just as we discussed. See you in the morning.” That’ll impress more than the lasting impression of you steely-faced with bags under your eyes, putting on a fresh pot of coffee at 8 PM. Promise.

Remember, a lot of this “Look at me; I’m not stressed!” game is subliminal. Your bosses might not immediately respond with praise for your poise, but rest assured, they’ll notice. And who wouldn’t want to be the employee who’s known for consistently doing a fabulous job without breaking a sweat? (It’s OK if those pit stains are hidden under a blazer.) Let your work speak for itself, but let your actions do the rest of the talking.

Photo of stressed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.