How to Make Stress Work to Your Advantage
Learn how to transform pressure into productivity.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James
In the early days of building my company, the pressure from every direction felt suffocating, and unrelenting. I struggled to stay calm while getting all my work done, and making myself available to my team.
It was a juggling act, and I was perpetually on the verge of dropping the ball. Everything seemed to require my immediate attention, and there just weren't enough hours in the day. I worried constantly, asking myself, Was I present enough for my staff today? Were last week’s decisions the right ones? Should I be doing even more?
Unsurprisingly, this endless loop of anxiety gave way to moments of panic that hurt my daily performance. Feeling like I wasn’t capable of managing it all became a self-fulfilling prophecy — the more I fretted, the less I accomplished, and so on.
You might assume it's just tough at the beginning, when you're starting out. But I can tell you that throughout the years — as we’ve grown from a small startup to a business with over 140 employees and millions of global users —the pressure hasn't eased up. What has changed is how I react to these demands. I’ve learned that pressure will always be a part of our daily lives, but it doesn’t have to paralyze us. And by harnessing it for good, we can make it work to our advantage.
Pressure is not stress
"To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions." — Stephen R. Covey
We often use stress and pressure interchangeably. But as Nicholas Petrie illustrates perfectly in a story for Harvard Business Review, it’s our perception of stress that matters. “Pressure is not stress," Petrie writes. "But the former is converted to the latter when you add one ingredient: rumination, the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts.”In other words, our tendency to overthink is a habit that can easily lead to feelings of overwhelm. When we feel we have too much on our plate, it affects our cognitive abilities because our stress response is always dialed up. It also makes us more prone to getting sick.
But if we can demote our stress to productive pressure, we can find more opportunities to come up with creative ideas, improve our performance, and to adjust our plans in innovative ways. To harness its potential, however, we need to train ourselves to view challenges from a new angle.
Here are some techniques I’ve used over the years to stop the worry cycle.
Adjust your perspective
Many leaders often catastrophize minor setbacks, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the problems you face today may not matter in three years time, or even next week. When you feel yourself spiraling into negativity, remind yourself of all the ways you’ve resolved difficulties in the past. Even better: Write them down. Listing out your track record of how you’ve overcome challenges can give you the confidence to take action.
Stop living on autopilot
According to Petrie: “Since all rumination happens during this state, the first step is to break out of it.” Taking time to clear out the mental chatter by engaging your senses can help redirect your attention back to "now"and make you feel more in control. Move your body by taking a brisk walk, clap your hands, or concentrate on what you can hear, touch, and smell in the present. The point is to stay mindful of your surroundings.
Decide what’s most important
If you make mountains out of molehills, as the saying goes, you’re classifying small inconveniences as super-important and depleting your emotional resources. Clarity can help us be more productive, and when we can focus our attention on a single task, our mind isn’t racing and can conserve more energy for coming up with solutions.
Give yourself permission to disconnect
American author Anne Lamott wisely noted, "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes... Including you." Any kind of pressure can quickly snowball into stress when you’re bombarded by interruptions. Whether you take time off to go olive-picking in Turkey, as I have — or just switch off all your devices for a few hours each day — taking time to disconnect is vital for your mental wellbeing and overall productivity.
Related: How a Digital Detox Saved My Career
Peace of mind should be your highest goal
Indiegogo founder, Slava Rubin, told The Observer, "To me, my equivalent of meditation is freeing your mind from the overthinking of everyday.”
“If I get turned down by a VC, I shouldn’t let that bother me. It wasn’t a big deal. None of that really matters. You just keep moving forward and look to be a good person and try to improve the world.”
Like Rubin, over two decades of entrepreneurship have taught me many lessons, but one of the most important ones is this: Riding the rollercoaster of worries and demands won’t lead to success. All it will lead to is burnout.
Instead, build your life and your business around doing good, spending time with loved ones, and living free of fear. Let the rest take care of itself. Or as Sonia Ricotte puts it: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."
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