Man relaxing on a bench

Stop Pushing: What Cornflour Can Teach You About Managing Stress

When I was at school, my physics teacher showed us this cool experiment; You get a bowl and pour some cornflour (corn starch) into it. Then, you add a little water until you have paste that is thick and gloopy.

This is when it starts getting weird! The cornflour paste has this strange property: if you gently push your finger into the paste, it will ooze slowly into the bowl as deep as you like. However, if you push your finger in with a reasonable amount of force (say, by jabbing it) the cornflour will resist and you won’t be able to get your finger in.

When I was younger I thought this was mind-blowing, though I couldn’t explain the physics of it. Twenty years later, the experiment resonates with me for different reasons.

Push too hard, get nowhere

Doesn’t it sometimes feel as though the whole world is against you? I know that I experience those moments where it just seems harder to get anything done, a scenario often described as “wading through treacle.”

For me, the natural response when I meet resistance is to push harder. When something’s difficult, the obvious solution is to apply more effort or force. But the cornflour experiment reminds me that sometimes that additional force or pressure is part of the problem; what I really need to do is stop pushing.

An effortless approach

I found myself back in London last week, reminded of how I felt the last time I was there. This week, I decided, would be different. I made a conscious decision not to push. I’m not just talking about the queue for the turnstiles at the Tube; this was to be my overarching philosophy for the entire week.

The first thing I considered as part of my new approach was my travel plan. For reasons that are too long and complicated to explain here, I would be staying in three different hotels for three consecutive nights. This would mean traipsing across London with my suitcase in tow; something that is both fatiguing and stressful. To mitigate this, I decided that I would leave my case at my hotel each day instead of dragging it to each of the offices I would be visiting. The downside to this was that I would need to return to that hotel each day to collect my case before journeying on to the new hotel. Intuitively, this felt like wasted time and effort. In practice, it was a stroke of genius.

A journey less burdened

If you’ve ever dragged a suitcase of any size (think airplane hand luggage size for mine), you’ll know that it’s a stressful affair in itself. Liberating myself of burden for the majority of my stay proved to be an inspired decision. Each morning I checked out of my hotel and left my case behind, carrying a significantly lighter load of just my laptop bag. Squeezing into the Tube trains was easier, as was navigating the escalators, kerbs and other obstacles you tend to encounter on a hike through the city. I was less tired and less sweaty upon arrival at my destination, and I even swung into a coffee shop to take advantage of the fact that I had a hand free to carry it.

My epiphany didn’t stop there though. Typically when I’m in London I wake early, gobble breakfast and head to the office early to beat the crowds. This time I took my time at breakfast (coffee, cereal plus Kindle) and spent 45 minutes writing at my laptop before packing up. The result: I felt less of the sense of urgency that I usually experience on these trips. I can’t explain it, but slowing down my routine had a calming effect on me; in a way I was self-sedating. It was a strange experience.

Psychology was very important this week too, and I had a clear intent to stop pushing and let things flow more freely. This meant yielding, rather than resisting, as people shoved past me in the street and on the Tube. It meant not running for a train at the platform and a strict “after you” mentality on stairs, at doors and in lunch queues. My blackberry stayed in my pocket on the journey, and my iPhone was used for music only, not for checking messages and social media.

Stop; look up

I visited Canary Wharf for the first time on my trip, and though it may not impress the Big City folk or those accustomed to places with tall buildings, I found the architecture to be much more imposing than anywhere else in London I’ve visited. It seemed to have this sense of proximity. I was reminded distinctly of my two visits to New York, and it made me feel very nostalgic. I stopped often, and looked up. I felt very philosophical. I reflected, I watched and I savoured.

Embracing distractions

What I consider to be the pinnacle of my resistance-free week was a phone call I took from my brother in the early evening of the mid-week. I was a few metres from my hotel, about to check in after a long (but mostly rewarding) day. Normally in these circumastance I’d tell him I was busy and that I’d call him back. Often in those situations I’d then get distracted and forget.

This time, I did neither. I sat in the foyer of the hotel and talked to him for 45 minutes about nothing in particular. We hadn’t spoken in a few weeks, and it felt brilliant. I wasn’t checking my watch; I wasn’t thinking about getting to my room; I simply enjoyed a conversation with my brother. (Somewhat bizarrely, after I finished the 45-minute call the hotel staff informed me that my room wasn’t ready, so I accepted their offer of a free drink in the bar and read my book for 15 minutes while they got it sorted. Hanging up on my brother would not have got me to the room any quicker, and chances are I wouldn’t have called him back from the hotel bar.)

The conclusion of a resistance-free week

My 4-day stint in London should have been a stinking ball of stress. Time away from my family, lots of travelling within the city, late meetings and commutes – you name it, the trip had it. But I found that by not pushing against any of the things that put up resistance in that time, the stress dissipated enormously and the week became much more tolerable, if not enjoyable.

If you have the opportunity to engineer a stressful situation in such a way that you have the time and the opportunity to push less, I highly recommend it. You’ll flow much more freely through the tasks at hand, and you may even enjoy an unexpected moment with a friend or family member that might have otherwise passed you by.