During my freshman year of high school, I made the varsity basketball team. I wasn’t any kind of prodigy, but having height, some athletic ability and passion for the game helped. I still remember feeling extremely nervous right before the first game that year, packed into a crowded gym, surrounded by all these guys who were older and more experienced.
I recall, too, how being a little anxious – the butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms – gave our entire team an edge. We always worried more and played better when we knew our opponent was good enough to beat us. We weren’t nearly as nervous or sharp for those games against teams we thought were inferior. Not surprisingly, we sometimes lost to them!
It was an early introduction to a notion that is increasingly backed by scientific research: We need a certain amount of stress to perform our best. A popular TED talk by Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal and an article in a recent issue of The Intelligent Optimist credit stress with aiding our creativity, fitness, immune systems and problem-solving skills – as long as we approach it the right way.
Please know that this column is not intended to address major stressors such as serious illness, divorce or the deaths of loved ones. These challenges can cause anxiety, depression and other serious stress-related disorders that require professional help. Instead, we’re focused here on the pervasive everyday stress that is common to leaders and triggered by the endless juggle of work and life.
In those everyday situations, studies show that in many instances it’s not so much the actual stress itself that causes trouble. It’s how we frame that stress in our minds that matters. If we believe it’s bad for us and that we’re unable to cope with it, unfortunate consequences like burnout and illness often follow. If we are able to take a positive attitude toward everyday stress, to view project deadlines or hectic family schedules or difficult relationships as worthwhile challenges that we’re capable of handling, we can transform that stress itself into something positive.
This notion makes sense. Countless times throughout my career it’s been obvious that stress, managed correctly, has made women and men better pilots, teachers, parents, executives or athletes. Instead of fixating on trying to eliminate everyday stress from our lives – something that is virtually impossible to do anyway – we’re better off embracing it and benefiting from the energy and focus it can provide.
Here are three steps that are particularly effective for handling day-to-day stress.
First, create some “white space” or open time that helps you take control of your schedule. In a prior role as the leader of a large public university system, I’d arrive in the office at 7 a.m. to find my e-mail inbox already inundated with messages. Since so many of them seemed urgent, I did what most of us do – sat down and started responding to them as fast as possible. It wasn’t even 7:15 yet, and the day was already out of control.
Eventually, I reinvented my routine into one that’s worked well for years now. Instead of jumping straight into e-mail in the morning, I first re-check my schedule for the day, then get a cup of coffee and read a brief passage from a favorite book on leadership and management by the late Peter Drucker. Then I review a short list of strategic initiatives that need attention. After reflection, I’ll consider the actions required for each item – and either take those actions right away or set aside time on the schedule later that day for them. Inevitably, the day’s meetings start and the emails multiply. But that’s ok because I’ve already enjoyed the white space needed to feel focused and in charge.
Second, dial way back on multi-tasking. We’re all guilty of trying to do too many things at once. Neuroscience research, however, has repeatedly shown that our brains are simply not wired to do several things simultaneously. Trying to join a conference call while checking e-mail and planning a family reunion not only makes us less efficient at all three tasks. Over time, it also creates a kind of chronic stress that might not be consciously apparent. We experience it, though, through decreased creativity, heightened anxiety and an inability to concentrate.
One way to make progress here is to stop checking e-mail so frequently. This is easier said than done because, as experts have found, responding to the ping of new e-mails and texts is literally addictive. I make a real effort now to check e-mail just a few times a day rather than continuously, which requires a ritual of setting aside the smart phone and working in physical spaces where there’s no temptation to check messages. That ritual has helped. Because my focus is broken less often now, my productivity is increasing.
Finally, we need to renew ourselves through exercise and hobbies that relax us. It’s tempting to give these areas short shrift because they seem like a luxury with so many other pressing demands on our schedules. But, as I explored in a previous column, physical fitness correlates with leadership success. And hobbies, whether we’re gardening or cooking or watching a favorite TV show with a spouse, partner or friend, can reward us with real joy – and give our addled brains the downtime needed to regroup.
Everyday stress is simply a fact of life for leaders, and our mindset toward it matters. And it can be a loyal friend when we take the right steps to use it productively.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a Linkedin Influencer. Click to view all his columns and sign up to receive future posts.