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Red Socks and Tattoos
2 New Ways to Think About Stress

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Do you ever stress about decisions? Are you prone to “analysis paralysis”? You’re in good company. Creative, curious, and conscientious people are great at coming up with options and opportunities in abundance. But this strength can become a weakness when we don’t have a way to reduce stress and simplify choices.

Drumroll, please. I introduce you to red socks and tattoos — two powerful metaphors I use to reduce stress and simplify choices in life and work.

Red Socks

Let’s start with the socks. If you’ve adulted even a little while, you probably know that even one red sock in the laundry can stain all your clothes pink. Just like red socks, there are certain people, situations, and activities that can “stain” your day (or week or life), no matter how small your interactions are with them.

“Red socks” are those things with whom spending any amount of time leaves you feeling distracted, depleted, or downright disgruntled. The effect of these interactions can last for a few hours or even a few days. Activities can also be “Red socks”. Bookkeeping, learning new software, and arguing with my husband or son, for example, drain my energy and “stain” my day no matter how little time I spend on them.

It’s tempting to believe that red socks are a “necessary evil” of life and work, but many can be outsourced. I can’t hire someone to argue with my husband for me (though AI’s coming close), however I can hire someone to do my bookkeeping, clean my house, or even shop for my groceries for me.

You might hesitate to outsource these things because of the additional “spend”, however you might be losing dollars to save pennies. Doing your taxes, for example, is a common “red sock.” If you stress about it for months and aren’t even sure if you’re doing it correctly, investing a few hundred dollars to pay your accountant to take it off your hands will save you stress, free up time that would be better spent on other tasks, and possibly even net you a bigger tax refund than if you did it yourself.

The first step is to identify the people, events and activities that “stain” your day or drain your energy. Who are those people in your life that can ruin your entire weekend in a two-minute phone call? What are those events or activities that you spend hours dreading — even if they only take a short time to do?

The second step is to remind yourself that the way these people, events and activities show up in your life is not written in stone. You can make different choices. Whether you choose to remove the red socks completely, or simply sort your “life laundry” differently, you have options and opportunities to take back your time and energy and put it to better use.

The third step is to get creative about how to minimize, outsource or offload exposure to those people, events, or activities. Come up with scripts to gracefully decline attending events you don’t want to attend. Combine interactions with multiple family members or friends so that you can still stay connected, but not fill up your calendar so much that you don’t have any space for “me time.” If you enjoy cleaning but hate bookkeeping, find a friend who is the opposite and offer to wash their floors if they will do your taxes. With a bit of awareness, a strong intention, and a dose of creativity, you can keep your metaphorical laundry stain-free and have less stress and a lot more energy in all areas of your life and work.


What about the tattoos? Tattoos are permanent (or require considerable pain to remove). Since they’re hard to take back, it’s a good idea to think hard before you get one. Some decisions in life are “tattoos” — having a child or donating a kidney come to mind — but most of our other decisions are not. They’re just socks.

Most choices we make in life are temporary, but based on the anxiety brought on by making even basic decisions, you would think that every decision is a tattoo (or a baby). Whether you’re asking someone out for a date, applying to do a master’s, moving to a new country, starting a blog or changing the copy on your website, none of these choices are permanent. You can always change your mind, with relatively little consequence in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it might cost a bit of time and possibly money, but these are often not worth the anxiety and lost opportunity of not trying at all.

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