Living under an ever-growing mountain of projects and responsibilities seems to have been the name of the game for leaders since time immemorial. The result? We all know it, that familiar friend: stress, and lots of it. It’s something that most leaders simply accept as part of the deal. It’s true that stress is a normal part of leadership and really a normal part of life in general. But when that stress remains fixed or continually increases over time, things start to deteriorate. Your decision making suffers, your communication becomes reactive, and your employees take notice. Unaddressed stress is the ultimate morale killer and destroyer of productivity.
Fortunately, you can implement new practices that allow you to take back control of your headspace, that actually increase your focus and inspire new levels of creativity and productivity. We’re going to warn you here and now, though, that for some of you, these practices might feel strange; they might even seem like they’ll slow you down. But think of this as a worthy investment. Your ROI includes accomplishing more with less effort and time. That’s hard to beat.
Without further ado, here are the three practices you can implement today to help you knock out some of that killer stress.
1. STOP. Yep, you read that right. You need to take a timeout. We know what you’re thinking. You’ve got too much on your plate, so taking a moment to stop sounds like the worst thing you could do right now. Your schedule and workload will just back up even more, which will only intensify your stress. You know you need a break, but you feel that giving yourself the mental reprieve you need will only backfire down the line. Your fear is understandable, but you also already know that doing more of the same is making matters worse. There’s only one alternative: do something different. It may well be that the counterintuitive thing to do is exactly what you need.
Ask yourself what might happen if you don’t give yourself a break. Whatever you do, you can’t expect things to stay the same. Why? Because while your daily routine might not be changing that much, your mind is. The more time you spend in a state of distress, the greater the negative impact will be on your mental health. So even if the daily grind makes you feel like a frazzled hampster stuck in a wheel, if you don’t find your way off the wheel to rest, you’ll just end up driving yourself toward exhaustion.
Now consider what might happen if you do give yourself a break. The worst case scenario is that you fall behind, at least initially. But what you gain as a result of pumping the brakes will eventually propel you forward. This works because rest helps clear the fog, allowing you to work more efficiently and make more prudent and timely decisions. In the end, you’ll spend less time doing the same amount of work, which means it’ll take even longer for you to reach those heightened levels of stress.
2. Do the things you love, even if you don’t want to. This point is also counterintuitive. Often when we become overwhelmed with stress, it’s those things that would help us feel better that we avoid. We think to ourselves, “I just don’t have the energy to go on a hike or pursue this hobby right now.” It’s a strange truth, but it’s these very things that help us get out of our heads, to stop overthinking, and to temporarily disengage from the causes of our stress.
Imagine that you’re overburdened with ongoing projects in the office. Possible failure is ALL you can think about. It’s on your mind at breakfast, at work, during family time, at night before bed, and you even dream about it. You feel like you’ve got nothing left to invest in a hobby. But, the best thing you can do is make the conscious choice to go against your natural tendency, which might be to withdraw or shut down. If you exert that last shred of mental energy on the things you used to do that made you feel good, you’re actually forcing your brain to go in a new direction, to actively and intentionally focus on anything other than your stressors. And guess what? There’s a tremendous amount of relief to be found in that, and with relief and rest come clarity and calm.
3. Move your body. Maybe you’re still saying, “I just don’t think I can take a timeout or muster the energy to do the things I love right now.” That’s okay. You can make those things your goals. In the meantime, there’s still something you can do, virtually anywhere and anytime: move! According to The Mayo Clinic, physical exercise increases the production of “your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins.” As a result, it cuts down on the negative effects of stress and gives you a much needed mood boost.
There you have it; regular exercise does a body good. If you’ve got the time for that, take it. But remember, you don’t have to hit the gym to get many of these benefits. You can take action right where you are. For example, using a standing desk allows you the option to get on your feet while working. Or going for a ten minute stroll around your office building between meetings might be exactly what you need to get out of your head and into your body. Seriously, anything that gets you moving is a plus. If you’re new to exercise, be sure to consult your physician about any health concerns before giving it a try.
Doing the counterintuitive thing and pushing pause to direct your attention to your mental health does take away some of your precious time. But consider what you gain in return: relief, mental clarity, better focus and greater efficiency. Did you catch that last part? Self-care helps you make the best use of your time. It reduces your energy output required to complete projects and increases the positive outcomes for your effort. As a leader, you’ll also increase your odds of making more clear-headed, reasonable decisions. And at the end of the day, you feel better.