Conquering the Stress of Uncertainty: Keeping Yourself Sane in an Uncertain World

A reader writes: I could use some helpful tips in overcoming stress from not seeing success right away.

For many of us, the economic slowdown has meant less business. We can no longer count on steady growth and reliable money. It’s easy to become stressed when we aren’t seeing the results we expect.

In Western culture, we are rarely taught coping skills for uncertainty. It can be especially hard having patience and a clear mind when things aren’t going the way we want them to (witness our country’s difficulty with two weeks of uncertainty around our Y2K Presidential election!).

If you haven’t been seeing success right away, start by asking yourself “what constitutes success?” If you’re attached to an outcome—say, doing $10 million of sales in your first year—you’ll find that success is all-or-nothing; you’ve either reached the outcome or you haven’t. It may help you feel process to subdivide your goal into smaller pieces. Shoot for at least one milestone a week, so your progress is continuous. Your first week’s goal could be to get a face-to-face appointment with three prospects and land one sale. Each goal you meet will help you feel progress.

The key is that you’re not choosing your milestones just to manage the projects. This is about managing your emotions; choose milestones that will cause you to feel progress in your gut, even if the outside results aren’t there, yet.

You can also succeed with process goals. Process goals measure what you’re doing, not where you are. You’re shooting for three prospect appointments? You might set a process goal of calling 10 Widget Retailers from the phonebook daily. That’s a process goal. If you find you’re missing your process goals, asking yourself why can lead to you choosing a better way to reach your outcome. For example, if you miss your ten daily calls because there are only three Widget Retailers in the phone book, it’s a signal that you’ll need another way to find prospects. Process goals give you the chance for daily "wins" on your way to your bigger goals.

If you find yourself stressed even when you reach smaller progress goals, you might want to tackle the stress directly. Meditate for a half hour a day, get some exercise, and set aside time for yourself to relax and unwind. Choose a time for the day to be over and when it is, go home and do something completely unrelated to work. It can be a challenge, but separating work and home life can save your sanity. At least three times a week, leave your office by 6 p.m. and go play. Clear your mind. Get a massage. Indulge yourself in a bubble bath. Treat yourself well! (My personal touchstone is yoga.)

Of course, it’s possible your business might not be truly sustainable. The market may not be there, the distribution can’t be worked out, or competition makes it impossible to build a business that makes money. Set boundaries for yourself to keep yourself healthy. Decide now how much time/money/effort you are willing to put into the business, so you don’t someday wake up having overspent yourself. Also, think hard on how you’ll know if the business really won’t work. Just setting those limits can help. If you decide three months of consecutive losses is the signal that your specialty Pokeman Roller Skate Shop has outlived its usefulness, then you’ll know when it’s time to quit. And knowing there’s a defined exit point can really be calming.

But meanwhile, give it your all! With well-thought-out process and outcome goals, you may never have to worry about your exit conditions. You’ll know early on if what you’re doing isn’t working, and you can take action to insure your success. With hard work, skill, and a little luck, you main worries will be plotting your multibillion dollar expansion …as you relax in your mansion’s new whirlpool bubble bath.

So take a deep breath. Calm your mind. And Go For It!

Living Your Life with Quality

A story by Mark Albion of Making a Life, Making a Living.

An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house-building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife enjoying his extended family. He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire. They could get by.

The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said "yes", but in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.

When the carpenter finished his work and the builder came to inspect the house, the contractor handed the front-door key to the carpenter. "This is your house," he said, "my gift to you." What a shock! What a shame! If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently. Now he had to live in the home he had built none too well.

So it is with us. We build our lives in a distracted way, reacting rather than acting, willing to put up less than the best. At important points we do not give the job our best effort. Then with a shock, we look at the situation we have created and find that we are now living in the house we have built. If we had realized, we would have done it differently.

Think of yourself as the carpenter. Think about your house. Each day you hammer a nail, place a board, or erect a wall. Build wisely. It is the only life you will ever build. Even if you live it for only one day more, that day deserves to be lived graciously and with dignity.

The plaque on the wall says, "Life is a do-it-yourself project,"

Who would say it more clearly? Your life today is the result of your attitudes and choices in the past. Your life tomorrow will be the result of your attitudes and the choices you make today.

Dealing with Overwhelm

The overwhelm can be worse than the backlog!

From my March 2001 newsletter

A client of mine discovered that the feelings of overwhelm can be more harmful than the fact of overwhelm itself. The feelings lead to stress, which makes one less productive. The less productive, the more work piles up. Bigger piles lead to more feelings of overwhelm, and the cycle repeats.

But what if the work really is manageable? How can one address the feeling of overcommitment and go ahead to get things done?

Getting a lot done is really a matter of doing one thing at a time, whether or not you stress. When the stress is from volume of work, locally reducing the volume can help the stress…

This article is continued in “It Takes a Lot More than Attitude … to Lead a Stellar Organization!" Click here to purchase.

Take Time to Recharge (Pushing Yourself, You'll Get Less Done Than You Think)

Taken from February 2001 newsletter and private correspondence

One of my clients was feeling under the weather last. Motivation was down, stress was up. Instead of an attitude of optimism and cheerfulness, the world was melancholy gloom. Overall, a bad scene, and not one to set a good tone within the business–a CEO‘s mood can infect the entire company. The problem? He wasn’t getting enough sleep, was working through his normal exercise time, and was making up the energy deficit with coffee during the day.

This is an all-too-common spiral…

This article is continued in “It Takes a Lot More than Attitude … to Lead a Stellar Organization!" Click here to purchase.

Get a Life While You Still Have the Chance (it's easier than you think)

From my newsletter of December 2000

I’ve spent the last four days bedridden, recovering from oral surgery, unable to eat, and barely able to think. It’s been wonderful. It really underscores the value of time away from work. And life balance is possible without major surgery. You just have to know how…

Most importantly, you must decide that having a life is a priority. Many claim they value balance—they just have to work late this once… Make the decision and commit to it. Don’t wait for a brush with death to decide. My friend John needed a mid-30s heart attack to slow him down. For me, it was caring for a dying parent. Be good to yourself. Decide on your own to have a life!

Time is precious; no amount of money can buy back time. Set firm boundaries on the time you spend at work and home. Within those boundaries, only take on as much as you can do in that time. If you decide you will work eight hours each day, turn down work that will require a ten hours a day.

Use the 80/20 rule: you get 80% of your results from 20% of your time. Track how you spend your time, identify the tasks that produce the most results, and orient your work around those high-leverage activities. Use the extra productivity to pay someone else to do the low leverage activities.

Respect your boundaries. When you’re playing, really play. When you’re at work, really work. Your unconscious mind will know if you’re cheating—if you truly honor your commitment to yourself, you’ll be surprised how much more you’ll get done in both places.

If you find yourself having business thoughts during free time, buy an 89-cent notepad & pen and carry it with you. Jot down those thoughts when they happen, and go back to playing. When you get to work, start by reviewing your notepad for critical ideas.

Read a (fun!) book, go on a trip with your family, or see a movie for pleasure at least once a month.

Assignment: identify one high-leverage activity you do that produces lots of results. Identify one low-leverage activity that takes time but doesn’t do much for you. Arrange to have the low-leverage activity taken care of some other way, and use the time you save to do more of the high leverage activity.

Making Space for Success: Controlling Clutter

Clutter kills our dreams. It fogs our vision. Cleverly disguised as temporary convenience ("I’ll just put this here … for now"), clutter undermines more progress than TV, soft-money campaign contributions, and badly designed web sites put together. Who can be a visionary leader, when vision is obscured by a stack of magazines waiting to be read, twenty signature pages to forgotten contracts, a file folder of "time-critical stuff" dated 4-17-1998, and an e-mail inbox the size of Texas?

For many of us, getting a handle on clutter is remarkably freeing…

This article is continued in “It Takes a Lot More than Attitude … to Lead a Stellar Organization!" Click here to purchase.