How Successful People Manage Stress
I’m not a big fan of infographics. When you boil things down to sound bites, you lose all the nuance and context. Not only that, but learning comes from real-world experience and mentorship, not statistics and inspirational quotes.
Imagine my surprise to find an infographic that’s actually somewhat useful on how famous CEOs deal with stress. Not that I stress over that sort of thing, at least not anymore. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve either found what works for you or find yourself locked up in a padded room somewhere.
Besides, the pressures of being a senior executive in the high-tech industry are enormous. You either learn to control it or it will control you. The same goes for running a small business. It’s always feast or famine and each extreme produces its own unique form of psychological torture.
You have to learn to manage whatever life throws at you. And while the Infographic does offer some solid advice, I wanted to provide some context to sort of round it out and make it even more helpful.
First, let me dispel a common misconception about stress. It’s not necessarily bad for you. Not to get technical here, but physical and mental stress from competition and adversity can actually drive you to perform your best work. We often come up with our most inspired ideas and innovative solutions under stress. Some people thrive on it. Others, not so much.
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Granted, chronic stress can lead to burnout and depression. There’s healthy stress and unhealthy stress. But these days I see a lot of people who should be working way harder than they are using stress as an excuse to become unproductive slackers. That’s BS.
Second, one person’s way of managing stress might appear to contradict another’s. That’s what happens when you try to reduce complex concepts down to pithy bullet points.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, says taking action reduces stress. Meanwhile Steve Jobs practiced a type of meditation that involves sitting quietly and observing. Those two methods might seem at odds but they’re really not. I actually use both, depending on the circumstance.
When I’m feeling the pressure of having too much to do, I prioritize and then start knocking them off, one by one. In that situation, action does reduce stress. But mindfulness is probably more effective in dealing with complex or emotional dilemmas. After all, it’s sort of hard to access your feelings and intuition when you’re focused on getting things done.
Come to think of it, let me offer a type of stress buster that the Infographic missed: Strenuous exercise. When stress builds up to a sort of boiling point, that’s the only thing that works for a hyper-neurotic control freak like me.
Don’t forget that stress triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response. I don’t know about you, but I can barely keep from jumping out of my skin – let alone think or feel – with all that adrenaline and cortisol flooding my system. A 30-minute run returns my body to normal and calms me down so the other methods can do their magic.
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Speaking of combining approaches, Elon Musk’s method of going for it if the risk is worth it assumes you’ve already listened closely to your inner self and your gut tells you to ignore your fear and take the plunge. But you might want to get some quality alone time first. Snubbing your fear only works if you make the right call more often than not.
Which brings us to the only advice I flat out disagree with, although I have no idea if it was taken out of context or perhaps meant differently than quoted. Square CEO and Twitter co-founder (and interim CEO) Jack Dorsey says you should build “rituals” and “consistency” in your schedule to minimize the “unexpected.”
I do agree that discipline, focus, and organization will keep you from being your own worst enemy and adding chaos to your life. That said, all the habits and planning in the world will not make life more predictable. On the contrary, being flexible and adaptable will help you react more effectively when the $#*! unexpectedly hits the fan, as it so often does.
One thing’s for sure. Don’t stress over how you deal with stress. Just do whatever works and, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As the great John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night; it’s alright, it’s alright.”
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.