Jane Scudder

How many times have you learned about a new project starting at work or a new business opportunity forming and no matter how satisfied or not you are in your work, personal life, and/or a combo of those things, think to yourself, “Man! I’d like to be doing that!”

As a society we have have never had as many options as we do — in work and beyond — as we do today. And in turn, choosing how to allocate our time has never been more difficult.

But it doesn't have to be.

A cornerstone of my work as a certified leadership and personal development coach is value establishment. An individual client or organization might think it’s something that should be bypassed or moved through quickly, but the truth of the matter is all roads lead to values. Especially when we’re talking about making choices and whether a new opportunity is a good or bad use of our time and energy.

With clear values established we can determine what matters to us and why, and then can ensure we’re doing our best to live a life honoring our values (provided we want to be living a life aligned with our values — which, in my experience typically is the case).

So why am I bringing up values in this article you’re reading that is supposedly about taking on good vs. bad challenges? Again, all roads lead to values. Which means that understanding your values is the key first step.

There are countless different establishment techniques, as a coach I’m biased and believe it’s often best to do this with someone else. This is because it’s such a personal thing — I’m often inspired to ask a certain question inspired by the specific client or group with whom I’m working. Also because it’s a never-ending process — you think you may have identified all of your values but in the middle of a conversation with someone else you realize one (or two!) more.

That said there are some ways you can explore this on your own. Feel out the vibe of the situation and the people around you and stick to your beliefs. Here's how to tell the difference between good challenges and bad ones and three simple things you can do to work on your own values:

  1. Journal. Journaling may seem like it’s the answer to everything in the self-help and leadership development community but there’s a reason why it’s such a staple — it works. There’s a difference between what we say in our heads and what we express.
  2. Say it out loud… preferably in a conversation with someone who’s committed to your value discovery. Giving our interests and desires voice helps us hear them better. Remember how I said there's a difference between saying something in our heads and writing it down? It changes again when we give it voice. Get in the habit of doing this.
  3. Ask yourself, “What matters to me?” This is an intentionally very opened ended question and is a good place to begin that journaling and conversation if you’re unsure where to start. The first step in doing something meaningful and aligned with your values is to figure out what those are.

After you begin to get clear on your values, actively use them as a guide. When you’re faced with a new opportunity or a choice but can’t decide if it’ll be a “good” or a “bad” move, go back to your values. Are they aligned? Are they being stepped on? Will this work for your against what matters to you?

At the end of the day, the only person who can say for sure whether something will be “good” or “bad” for you is you. But this can be one of the most difficult things to determine. So next time you’re faced with a decision and you’re stuck on whether it may be a forward step or not, go back to your values and assess from there. All decisions we make that honor our values are decisions that will take us in the direction of living our happiest, most fulfilled, and productive lives.

Also, remember that, on the surface, we tend to use the words "stress’" and "pressure" interchangeably — but they are not the same. You might have stress from a new challenge, wihich isn't always good (but isn't always necessarily bad, either), but pressure from a new challenge is different. There are some significant performance implications that clearly differentiate the two words.

"We experience stress when the demands of our environment outweigh our ability or perceived ability to respond to them. Pressure is different," writes Michael Bell for HRM. "It’s not just that we are challenged to meet demands — it is that there is something significant at stake if we don’t deliver. One way of looking at the difference between the two is to think of pressure moments as stressful moments that matter. What we have found is that in pressure situations performance drops. While many people believe that some perform better under pressure, the research is clear: No one performs better under pressure. Regardless of the task, pressure ruthlessly diminishes the key faculties we need to perform at our best: judgment, decision-making, attention and emotional management."

Bell also delves into how stress can be good. 

"Stress is often given a bad rap, but it can be extremely positive because it helps us get stuff done," he says. "It galvanises our resourcefulness, helps us focus on a task and meet deadlines. Being challenged mentally and emotionally helps us learn and grow, and develop new skills and capabilities. Where stress can negatively impact us is when it is prolonged and unrelenting."

According to experts across the board, stress is really a burst of energy that basically advises you on what to do and when to do it. Of course it's better in small doses, when it can help you meet daily challenges, motivate you to reach your goals and accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory and it acts as a vital warning system, which is why humans use the fight-or-flight response to stressful situations.

Stress is key for survival, but too much of it can be unhealthy and have long-lasting or permanent emotional and physical impacts. Emotional stress can linger around for weeks or months or years, and it can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and heart disease because too much epinephrine can be harmful to your heart and can change the arteries and how their cells are able to regenerate. It also contributes to a host of other health complications.

Bell adds that pressure, however, isn't necessarily good or bad. It's just pressure and, all people feel it at some point or another. Whether you're pressured to meet a deadline, pressured to hit a financial goal, pressured to hit a quota, pressured to lead a team in a collaborative effort, pressured to improve after a yearly examine, pressured to move up in your career or pressured to do something else entirely, all people are pressured.

"There really isn’t ‘good pressure’ and ‘bad pressure’; it’s just pressure," he says. "'Because important things matter to us, we can’t insulate or protect ourselves from pressure. We can easily over-emphasise or exaggerate the importance of a moment and create unnecessary pressure for ourselves."

When you can differeniate stress and pressure, you can perform at your best, instead of succumbing to crisis thinking — it's what is known as the “crisis vs. challenge” phenomenon.

"When we view our pressure moments as a crisis, there is actually a negative impact on our physiology: oxygen to the brain becomes limited, so we can’t think clearly," Bell explains. "Conversely, when we view a pressure moment as a challenge or even an opportunity, more oxygen gets to our body and brain, giving us more energy and maximising our cognitive capabilities."

Remember your values/morals and recognize stress versus pressure, and you should be able to discern a good challenge from a bad one.

Now you know how to tell the difference between good challenges and bad ones. People will always challenge you and you should always challenge yourself, too.