“Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victors being severely tested.” – Paulo Coelho in the Alchemist
Jan 29th, 2018: Finally, the professional speaker’s training that I’ve worked on for years is live and ready for students. Unfortunately, the rollout has been more turbulent than I could have imagined.
Over the past two weeks:
- A partner quit the project because he’s starting a business that will compete directly with mine.
- The designer I hired left the project because her husband is suffering from serious health issues.
- Sales are way below where I want them to be.
- I’ve been hit with a cease and desist because the title of the training uses language owned by a competitor. Meeting the demands of the cease and desist (which my lawyer tells me I need to do quickly) will require reworking the marketing and technology behind the training.
- And the cherry on top? Things in my personal life that I have no control over (like the health of loved ones) are going haywire too.
I should be completely broken, but I’m not. I’m driving to a friend’s house to grab dinner and chill for a bit. I feel playful and happy. Stressed too, of course, but not nearly as much as anyone – myself included – would expect.
I’m tempted to tell you that I was able to remain calm during the darkest hours of the storm, because I’m the modern day Fonzie, but obviously, I’m not. I knew that the beginning of 2018 was going to be extremely stressful and demanding, so I decided to try a lot of new stress management techniques. My goal was not merely to keep my head above water, but to enjoy the process. To my delight (and surprise), I succeeded.
There were eight strategies that worked remarkably well.
1) Set reasonable expectations for everyone – yourself included. In the past, when life got chaotic, I responded by increasing my workload while maintaining all of my other commitments.
This, though common, is a near perfect formula for burnout.
With this most recent whirlwind, I did something different. I told everyone in my life that I’m going to be temporarily less available than normal as I deal with an increased workload. (This is one of the reasons I didn’t publish a single article in January.)
Of the dozens of people I spoke to, only one struggled with this decision. Me.
I still wanted to hold on to the idea that I can maintain my normal life regardless of the increased demands on my attention. Unfortunately, I have a long history of burning myself out, so I knew that unless I changed my behavior and attitude, I would burn out again.
By adjusting people’s expectations of my availability, I was able to avoid the burnout that typically plagues me. Now that my life has settled down again, I’ve spent the past week reconnecting with friends and clients and all of them understood – and supported – my decision.
2) Fortify the foundations. Usually when life gets chaotic, the first behaviors to change are the very ones that keep us sane. We tell ourselves that it’s ok to skip the gym if we need to squeeze in a few more hours of work, or that if we’re too tired to cook, we can grab takeout on the way home.
I get it. I’ve done that a million times. The problem is that sacrificing self-care only exacerbates stress.
This time, I went in the exact opposite direction. Since I knew the demands on my time and attention were going to spike, I scheduled time for meditation, exercise, sleep, and social events into my calendar. This forced me to schedule work around the stuff that keeps me happy and grounded, not vice versa.
To further fortify the foundations, I temporarily quit caffeine (it makes me anxious) and stocked up on healthy food.
3) Stop pushing through walls and learn to respect your limits. For most of my life, I kept working until I was exhausted. I learned to push through walls, a skill prized by many self-described “top performers” and “Type A’s.” The problem with pushing through walls is that it’s almost never worth it. Even if you accomplish a bit more than you would have, your future productivity will suffer. More importantly, your present and future happiness, stability, and vitality will suffer too.
Choosing to push beyond your limits is a form of neglect. Learning to rest before you’re tired is a form of self-respect.
Now, when I feel myself starting to approach the wall, I rest. Instead of opening my email, I catch up on Game of Thrones. Instead of working for one more sale, I go for a walk without my phone. Instead of taking a meeting that’s unlikely to produce anything of value, I call a friend.
At first, respecting my limits felt wrong. It made me feel guilty and like I was a slacker. Today, resting before I’m tired is one of my most cherished habits. It’s left me with a steady reserve of energy, calm, happiness, and focus. It’s also armed with me a far greater work capacity, though that’s not really the point.
4) Transition before resting. This is a trick that I learned from a CrossFit coach. She emphasized transitioning between movements before resting. In other words if you have to do several rounds of pull-ups and squats she suggests finishing the pull-ups and immediately switching to squats – even just one – before taking a break. This works, because, while the upper body is exhausted from the pull-ups, the lower body can still get a few squats in before coming anywhere near needing to stop.
Not only is this a brilliant move in CrossFit, it also works well outside the gym.
Today, before I take a break, I try to create a little bit of inertia on whatever I’ll be focusing on when I return. This way I’m both refreshed and focused when I get back, making work less stressful.
5) Lean on your people like your life depends on it. The most chaotic moment in the last two weeks came shortly after receiving a cease and desist about a trademark violation. Sales were already below where I wanted them to be, and fixing the violation was complicated.
It’s easy in moments like this to collapse under the pressure of it all, but in retrospect, it was one of the best parts of the entire process. It led to my feeling extremely loved and cared for by my friends.
Over the past year, I’ve gotten in the habit of reaching out to loved ones when I need help or comfort from other people.1 Before that, I used to hide away from the world until I felt better, not allowing anyone to see me when I was feeling distressed. I feared that asking for help was both needy and a sign of inadequacy.
So, when the shit hit the fan, I called, texted, and emailed my friends. I told them what was happening and that I could really use their support. Wow, did they come through.
One loaned me his car. Another offered to fix the technology so it was in compliance; someone else connected me with a specialized lawyer who could help navigate the situation. Yet another brought me dinner, and a bunch of friends checked in to see how I was doing.
The end result? During the most demanding moment of the whirlwind, I felt light, playful, safe, and capable. More than that, everything ended up being fine. I fixed the copyright violation and sales ended up exceeding industry averages. But here’s the important part: the success was only possible because of the people supporting me. Without them, I would have collapsed.
6) When possible, just bypass the stress. Stress is amplified by anticipation and overanalysis. There are two tricks to avoiding these tendencies which will allow you to bypass huge amounts of stress.
First, figure out what issue is causing the most stress. Once that’s clear, start working on that problem now. If you continuously put it off (which most of us do), you’re forcing yourself to live with much more stress than necessary.
Ignoring problems tends to make them worse. They command mental and emotional resources and will continue to plague you until you address them. By acting on the stressors in real time, you eliminate their ability to linger and fester.
Second, only spend time analyzing the stuff that needs it (and most things don’t). In many cases, analysis is just a hidden form of procrastination. All you need to do is ask yourself, “If I make the wrong decision here, will it be hard to undo it?” and “Will there be serious repercussions if I get this decision wrong?” If the answer to these questions is no, then there’s no need to spend much time contemplating. Just take action.
7) Indulge in Do Nothing Days. This is a tip that two of my friends have advocated for years. A Do Nothing Day is exactly what you think it is. You spend the entire day lounging around and intentionally avoiding stress. You binge watch Netflix, order delivery, read magazines, play video games, and take naps. If something has the potential to spike your stress levels, avoid it.
Waking up the next morning after a Do Nothing Day feels like getting back from a beach vacation. It’s revitalizing.
Knowing that I was going to be under more pressure than normal, I scheduled several Do Nothing Days. They were bright lights at the end of the tunnel and ensured that I rested before burning out.
8) Ask, “What is the kindest decision I make for myself right now?” I learned this from a meditation teacher. It’s simple. When you find yourself facing a difficult decision, ask, “What is the kindest decision that I can make for myself right now?”
Keep in mind that the kindest thing is not always the easiest and is often a moving target. Sometimes it’s getting up early to get work done before your first meeting. Other times it’s cancelling the meeting, telling your boss your work will be late, and sleeping in.
By asking, “What’s the kindest thing I can do for me?” you’ll start to make decisions that gracefully walk the line of being efficient and compassionate.