The Stress-Reducing Magic of Punctuating Your Life

Do you ever feel like your life is one big run-on sentence like your days just blend together in a blur of tasks and responsibilities and to dos Like theres never any time to simply pause catch your breath and be still for a second I know it feels this way to me sometimes When my life gets especially stressful and overwhelming its hard to find time to relax and calm my mind I know I should but calm and rest seem to just fall down the priority list when life gets challenging But ironically its during times of stress that we need to prioritize rest and relaxation more than ever

It really is true that we don’t appreciate the little things in life—like punctuation—until they’re gone!

Let’s try that opening again, this time with some light punctuation and spacing:

Do you ever feel like your life is one big run-on sentence? Like your days just blend together in a blur of tasks and responsibilities and to-dos? Like there’s never any time to simply pause, catch your breath, and be still for a second?

I know it feel this way to me sometimes.

When my life gets especially stressful and overwhelming, it’s hard to find time to relax and calm my mind. I know I should, but calm and rest seem to just fall down the priority list when life gets challenging.

But ironically, it’s during times of stress that we need to prioritize rest and relaxation more than ever.

Ah, much nicer thanks to a handful of commas, periods, and question marks.

Punctuation matters—in writing and in life.

Reading can be surprisingly hard work.

Think about all the skills that are required for effective reading: Attention and focus, freedom from distraction, vocabulary and knowledge of word meanings, memory for facts and referenced ideas, the ability to compare and evaluate concepts, holding on to one idea in working memory as the author slowly meanders their way to the next point, etc.

Whenever I pick up a book in a topic or area that I’m not familiar with, I remember how much work reading can be and how exhausting it is to slog through even 30 pages of dense, difficult material.

Thankfully, good writers have a few tricks they can use to help their readers navigate difficult material. One of the best of those tools is good punctuation. By artfully placing commas, periods, and question marks in just the right places, writers can make our job as readers much easier, as my opening paragraph hopefully illustrated.

Just like good punctuation in writing helps us to read difficult material more easily, good punctuation throughout our days in the form of intentional rest and relaxation can make tough stretches of life far less stressful.

Here are three stress-producing ‘punctuation mistakes’ we all tend to make in our lives, along with a few thoughts on how to fix them.

1. Sentences on the Run

“I’m clear enough in the head, he thought. Too clear. I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers.”

—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

If life is a book and years are the chapters, then our days must be paragraphs and the parts of our day sentences.

I think of my early morning routine as a sentence, made up of a few phrases and clauses: Alarm goes off, hit snooze; get up and shower; get dressed and drive to Starbucks; drink coffee and drive to work. That’s the first sentence of my day.

The next sentence involves my pre-work activities at the office. I meditate for about 30 minutes, work on a new article for an hour or so, then read online or from a new book for another half hour.

The rest of my day is composed of a few more sentences: I see clients in the middle of the day; I hang out with my family and eat dinner in the evening; then I relax with my wife at night before bed.

That’s a pretty typical day/paragraph for me. And over the years I’ve noticed something striking about ‘good days’ vs ‘stressful days:’

  • Good days have clean, crisp transitions between parts of my day. I finish work and it’s completely behind me until tomorrow, which means I walk through the front door of my house at 5:30 pm fully present and ready to play trains with my daughters or make dinner and chat with my wife.
  • But on stressful days, the boundaries between sentences become blurred. I’m sitting on the living room floor with my daughter and her train set in front of me, but I’m still thinking about that dumb comment I made at the end of my last session with a client. My work sentence has run-on into my evening sentence. I feel unsettled, wound up, confused, and a little stressed.

In short, good boundaries between parts of our day are like good punctuation between sentences of a paragraph: They keep things organized, fluid, and calm.

To get better at leaving work at work, end your workday with The 4:55 Drill

One way I’ve found to keep a good boundary between my work life and my home life is a little punctuating ritual I call the 4:55 Drill.

After my last session of the day, but before I leave the office (usually at about 4:55), I sit down at my desk, pull out a sticky note, and jot down the three most important things I want to accomplish the following day. For example:

  • Compose email introducing Joanne P and Dr. D.
  • Finish draft of Sleep Anxiety article.
  • Call plumber and get a quote for the sewer line scope.

Then I draw a line underneath them and write down one intention I have for my evening. For example:

  • Be intentional and empathetic in asking C (my wife) how her day was.

This simple routine—which only takes a minute or two—helps me leave my work at work, be present and relaxed at home, and then re-charged and rested for work the following day.

For a more detailed walkthrough of how to implement The 4:55 Drill, check out this article:

The 4:55 Drill: A Simple Routine to Stay Productive at Work and Relaxed at Home

2. Commit to Some Commas

“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”

—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

As an ambitious young therapist fresh out of grad school, I used to pack my schedule with clients, one after the other, like sardines in a can. Lunch was for the lazy. If I could see one client after another from 9:00 till 3:00, that was a full day’s work in six hours instead of 8.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t last.

I found myself more than a little stressed out and harried as I bounced from one client to the next, never quite catching my breath. It didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t sustainable—not for me, but also not for my clients. Who wants to work with a harried therapist?

So I decided to take a lunch break. I stopped scheduling clients at noon and forced myself to take the hour off. I used the time to eat lunch a little more leisurely, browse around online a bit, send a text or two to my wife, and maybe go for a short walk.

While this was difficult initially, I found that not only did I feel less stressed throughout the day, but I was able to be more focused and attentive in my sessions, and generally, to do better work.

Just like a well-placed comma can give a complex sentence just enough of a pause to sustain its own weight, deliberately adding time to relax within our daily routines can relieve the pressure of a challenging part of our day and give us the energy we need to do our best work.

To control stress during the day, schedule restorative breaks.

A lunch break in the middle of your day should be entered into your calendar and respected every bit as much as a meeting with your CEO. This will be difficult at first since it seems like “lost” time. But the boost in performance you get from maintaining good energy levels via relaxation will pay dividends in the long run.

It’s essential that intentional breaks like a lunch hour throughout the day be scheduled ahead of time and not decided on an ad hoc basis. Put them in your calendar!

Also, be sure that these scheduled breaks are actually breaks. In no way does reading about terrifying and outrageous news on social media qualify as relaxing and restorative. Try this instead: Pop in some headphones, cue up some of your favorite music, and go outside for a walk. Or find a nice bench to sit down on and browse through old photos of your friends or family.

Remember: A fifteen-minute “relaxation” appointment in your calendar is an easy thing to knock down the priority list when a major crisis develops. And yet, isn’t it during times of high stress and crisis that we most need the energy and clarity of relaxation?

3. All Periods and No Parentheses Make Jack a Dull Boy

“In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”

— C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

If your writing teachers were anything like mine, they probably discouraged you from using parentheses in your writing, since they’re often seen as a sign of “flabby” writing and undisciplined thinking.

You may have also learned from a young age (If you’re American, anyway) that there are few virtues higher than hard work and perseverance. It’s been several hundred years since our Puritan ancestors landed in the new world, but our national and cultural motto remains the same in spirit: Work hard. And then work a little more.

Now I’m all for hard work and being productive, just as I’m all for concise and punchy prose. But in life (like writing) we need some time for fun, leisure, and adventure, right?

  • Who wants to read a writer who never once takes a slight tangent to tell a quick anecdote or entertain a passing whim?
  • Who wants to read a story with an utterly reliable narrator who plays it straight for 450 pages?
  • Who wants to keep marching through sentences made up of nothing but commas and periods?

Personally, I like a few parentheses in my life. I relish the unexpected em-dash that violently pulls the sentence into a u-turn or off the road entirely. And I love a good ellipsis at the end of a sentence that leaves me hanging, desperately wanting more.

You know what else I love?

  • Vacations (but not too long—I like my work, too)
  • Road trips with no particular destination in mind…
  • Hiking with my family (Cat, Elena, Gabriela, and Charlie (that’s short for Charles Augustus Wignall (he’s our German Shepard)))
  • Playing board games—you’ve played Settlers of Catan, right?—and drinking cocktails—try a Hemingway Special sometime—with my wife on Thursday nights.

You see, parenthetical punctuation makes the written word interesting, quirky, and fun. And we all want a little of that when we read, right?

Similarly, despite our work ethic, commitments, and ambitions, we all want—and I would argue, need—to have some fun sometimes. But it’s shocking how often we sacrifice genuine leisure and adventure at the altar of hard work.

To get serious about work-life balance, get serious about your leisure.

One of the most productive and seriously hard-working people I know of is Cal Newport. He’s the author of the popular recent book Deep Work which is all about how to train ourselves to work at our peak cognitive potential for significant chunks of time—and as a result—produce truly great work.

One of the unexpectedly wonderful moments in the book is when—after describing the ruthless intensity with which he works—he goes on to tell how he loves to sit on his back porch on a balmy summer evening, “listening to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio.”

I love that contrast of a guy who is a self-described “deep work machine” but is simultaneously capable of the most languid, slow-paced pleasures like listening to a baseball game play out over the course of hours on the radio.

As Cal himself points out in the book, this correlation isn’t pure coincidence. A big part of the reason he is able to be insanely productive and effective in his work is because he is insanely committed to relaxation and leisure at home.

Because he seriously commits to leisure, he is able to seriously commit to his work. And having seriously committed to his work, he is better able to relax and enjoy his time at home.

It’s a virtuous cycle.

The difficulty for many of us is that we’ve spent so much time and energy on our work that we don’t really know what kind of leisure and fun we really enjoy.

One of the subtle downsides to working like a crazy person all the time is that we lose touch with and forget what it is we genuinely enjoy doing outside of work.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s worth carving out a little bit of time into your schedule and sitting down to think about the following:

  • What would I really enjoy doing outside of work?
  • What fills my tank?
  • What sorts of activities generate genuine excitement and enthusiasm, not just the cheap pleasure of distraction and reprieve from stress?
  • What would I do if I didn’t need to work?

Parting Thoughts

Just like good punctuation makes for easier reading and more effective writing, deliberate habits of relaxation make for less stress and higher quality work. But like punctuation, relaxation is something we have to work on and do intentionally; it doesn’t just happen.

If your life feels overwhelming and consistently stressful, take a step back and try to look for where it could use some good punctuation—clearer boundaries between parts of your day, scheduled breaks at work, and genuine leisure activities at home.

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