swimming stress

If you work for an entrepreneur, you don't need me to tell you that stress management is the single most important skill you need for the long term. Yes, other skills are exceedingly important -- like effective communication, proactivity, resourcefulness, tact and organization -- but without a solid stress management system, it's just a matter of time before you burn out.

Stress management isn't a one-size-fits-all skill you can develop overnight. But thinking about the 80-20 rule, here are the best first actions you can take to improve your capability to thrive under continued extreme pressure.

Step 1: Start with Sleep.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id="2e79PcqVY3sNPL6Qf4kBig5NEiaA1zK6"]If you do nothing else, find a way to get the right amount of sleep for you. Some naturally pop out of bed after 4 hours of rest and are completely refreshed. Others need much more.

I'm best when I get 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep a night. I can do okay with less -- and, let's face it, some nights I'm lucky to get 5 hours of sleep -- but we're talking long-term success here. If I'm going to play my "A" game day after day, and have enough gas in the tank to have a fun weekend, I need a full night of rest.

When your body doesn't get enough sleep, you are less efficient. The National Institutes of Health reports that sleep loss has negative effects on attention, reaction time, decision-making, learning, divergent thinking ability (brainstorming many possible solutions to one problem), and short-term working memory recall.

Even your immune system suffers, which can leave you susceptible to getting sick (another productivity loss in itself).

If you're sleep-deprived now and currently operating just fine, you're still not safe. A 2005 study on sleep loss found that even if you can perform work capably, as tasks get longer in duration, your performance will suffer.

Step 2: Recognize Your Resets.

We all have positive triggers that can help us reset.

For example, is there one movie you love that, no matter how many times you've seen it, still makes you laugh? Or a song that always puts you in a great mood when you hear it?

Begin to build awareness of these triggers, and channel them when needed. You won't always be able to leave work to watch a movie, but you can invest a few minutes in watching your favorite scene on YouTube or playing with an online soundboard of best quotes.

Here are a few of my go-to resets:

  • The Pacific Ocean: I can sit and stare at the ocean for hours. Just being near it and hearing the waves calms me down. If I've had a stressful week, I make time for a beach walk at Mission Beach, or I explore the tidepools at Sunset Cliffs, or I just walk from the Mission Beach jetty to the Pacific Beach pier and back. Sometimes I just sit on a rock and watch the waves. No matter what I do there, I always return refreshed.
  • A phone call with friends: Lately, I've had some great heart-to-hearts with colleagues. We share the day's stresses with each other and almost always share a few hearty laughs. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, we both leave these conversations with smiles on our faces.
  • Pilates: I have never felt a better connection with exercise than I have with Pilates -- and this is coming from someone with a heavy athletic background. After an hour of challenging Pilates exercises, my muscles are tired but harmonious, and my brain is alive and electric.
  • A good meal: It's not ideal to compensate with food, as it's easy to go overboard, but one really delicious meal can sure go a long way in recharging my spirit.
  • Music: I love, love, love listening to music when I'm stressed. The genre varies based on my mood, but the result is always the same.

When finding yours, do your best to include exercise. Whether your favorite form of exercise is yoga, Crossfit or kayaking, get moving on a regular basis. Consistent exercise, especially aerobic exercise, helps your body fight stress and depression. And any exercise is better than no exercise.

Step 3: Identify Your "Non-Negotiables."

There's another subtle spin on the "reset" concept to consider: freedom to spend time in ways you find important and meaningful.

In an excellent piece on defining and fighting burnout, Kent Nguyen writes, "Burning out is a result of not being able to do what you love or what is important to you regularly."

What are the things that, if you could not do them, would cause you to feel frustrated, disappointed, angry or resentful about the obstacles that prevent you from doing those things?

The easy next step after identifying those things is to make time to do them frequently. Here are my non-negotiables, and how I've prioritized them:

  • Exercise: I must exercise, but there's no telling when my workday will start or end. So I've started taking early morning Pilates -- sometimes as early as 6 a.m. And you know what? Shaking up my schedule in this way has actually improved my overall energy, rather than diminishing it.
  • Free Nights: One benefit of starting my day early is that I build in even more reasons to end it earlier.
  • Weekends: I really work to reset expectations here. My goal is to be so effective during the week that my colleagues hope I take the weekend off, so that I can keep killing it. More often than not, I end up working at least a half-day every weekend, but in exchange for that, I'm completely unplugged the next day -- a treat that's well worth it.
  • Creative time: Guess what? Writing posts like this is a tremendously freeing activity. I get to be creative, help others and learn about ways to manage my own stress. Everyone wins.

Step 4: Mood Management

It is so easy to get caught up in a bad mood when things go wrong, and I'm just as susceptible to this as anyone. But this step of catching yourself before you can let your bad mood fester in your brain is absolutely essential.

Some of this is a sales job. We can "sell" ourselves into nearly anything -- it's part of coping. When we get caught up into bad moods, we've lost focus of the bigger picture. In sports terms, we start to play defense rather than offense -- meaning that we are reactive when we should be proactive.

I like the three-step method Tony Robbins shared in this TED talk.

  • What are we going to focus on? By choosing what to focus on in any given scenario, we can spin even negative experiences into positive ones.
  • What does this mean? After choosing what to focus on, we then give that focus an emotion by assigning it meaning.
  • What are we going to do? This final step unveils the next actions and steps to take based on your focus and meaning for any interaction.

How I do this is essentially the same, just with a different angle.

  1. I separate the situation from my emotions about it. I disassociate and pretend I'm looking at something that's happening to someone else.
  2. I look at what's actually going on. I distill the succinct message and action steps, irrespective of the tone or manner of delivery.
  3. I then look at the fastest and easiest steps to act on and resolve the steps in #2.
  4. Finally, I try to identify a few ways to avoid or mitigate the situation if it recurs.

This clinical approach is surprisingly useful for me, because I gain intrinsic motivation out of improving a situation or helping someone else. So the act of trying to optimize an activity helps me calm down and regain control.

In an interview with Fast Company, Sebastian Bailey, the author of "Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently," recommends that we minimize not just a stressful event's importance, but also its outcome. "People often over-exaggerate how important the outcome of a situation is," he explained. If you're stressing out about a presentation or meeting, ask yourself this: will you remember it in 6 months or a year?


Some stress is good: it gives us a strong sense of urgency and even a little euphoria. But too much stress induces overwhelm and accelerates burnout.

Figuring out your optimal combination of activities and lifestyle habits to fight stress is essential to your long-term productivity and effectiveness.

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