Controlling the Stress Machine

Many years ago I had a client that I just loved.  Well, I didn’t always love them in the moment, but when I was consulting with that organization, I knew I would definitely learn new things. Their tools and technologies were pretty close to the cutting edge if not always on it.  I liked the products, and I enjoyed working with the people.  I also knew I would be working loooong hours under stress. The deadlines would slip. And, there would inevitably be that point when we wondered whether we were managing the project or the project was managing us.

After a while, I began to notice a pattern:  The week would begin hopefully after a respite on the weekend.  Then as I climbed the hill to “humpday” (Wednesday) I could almost hear myself—and the organizational machine as a whole—winding up like an engine that was beginning to be pushed to its limit.  By Thursday the number of challenges and stressors had mounted to the usual fever pitch. And, by Friday, we were all running around a bit wild eyed.  The pattern was so predictable it seemed ridiculous.

I started experimenting.

My most successful experiment was taking Wednesdays off to break the pattern.  By taking Wednesdays off, I found that I had two Mondays and two Tuesdays with no Thursdays or Fridays.  Somehow, this prevented the winding up of that engine each week.  And, amazingly, I got as much or more done working this way as I would have working all five days every week.  And, I was still working at least 40 hours per week.  Hmm.

I’ve used that trick a few times since.  But, really, it’s important to have many ways of preventing getting sucked into a “stressor system” and being driven by it.  It’s bad for our mental and physical health.  It doesn’t support high quality productivity.  And, it’s a killer for home and community life.

I was really pleased to see Travis Bradberry’s handy summary in Forbes this month.  How Successful People Stay Calm provides context and a “checklist” of tools to use to break the stress cycle and get control over your own mind—and actions.  Pervasive Leaders must model calm under pressure, both for the sake of their own thinking and for those in the organization who look for them for good models of behavior.

Here’s what Travis says in a nutshell.  Successful people:

  • Appreciate what they have.
  • Avoid asking “what if?” in a way that generates useless worry.
  • Stay positive.
  • Disconnect and ensure they have offline time.
  • Limit their caffeine intake.
  • Sleep!
  • Squash negative self-talk.
  • Re-frame their perspective.
  • Breathe.
  • Use their support system.

I recommend you take a few minutes to read his article.  A summary of a summary can only get you so far.

Simple as it sounds, stress is just a response.  But, since we are mutually co-arising and need to stay open to each other in order to do our best work, it’s easy to let other people’s stress generate our own.  We have to break that cycle and put stress in its place if we’re all going to get better together and lead ourselves to a better tomorrow.

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