How to Manage the Stress of Early Success and Task-Overload
Stress is nothing new to me: I was diagnosed with stress-induced asthma in grade school. How much of a nerd do you have to be to get stressed out over getting an A on your second-grade math homework?
It didn’t end there. I regularly got sick during final exams in high school, and don’t get me started on what a wreck I was in graduate school. Yes, some might call me a bit of a “Type A.”
Recently, I had a visit with my doctor to talk about my stress levels. I was convinced I was going to have a heart attack (despite the fact that I’m barely 30), because I have too much going on in my life. Do you know what he told me after laughing at my neuroses? He said I need to learn to manage my stress, because it doesn’t get easier with bigger promotions, more money, or landing more clients, grants and contracts: it gets harder. (Someone should tell him not to do commercials for the Trevor Project.)
So in a quest to learn from those who are similarly afflicted with having incredibly stressful jobs at an early age, I’ve asked some people who have been there and done that to share tips for coping with the ever-increasing responsibilities and even more stress as they climb the career ladder. Here’s what they told me:
Take time for yourself, whether in wine, exercise or reading
“If I have any advice (besides that wine is good for you!) it’s to try really hard to take every day one day at a time and not to worry too far ahead in the future,” says Theresa Hitchens, director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland. Theresa is not a stranger to stressful jobs. She’s been an inside-the-Beltway reporter since her early 20s, and advanced to bureau chief for Defense News in Brussels before she was 30. Now as the director of a UN agency, she manages dozens of full-time researchers and is responsible for the strategic and tactical direction of the center as well as raising money to support it.
“Above all, don’t panic before panic is due! Otherwise, you risk falling into the trap of the thousand-legged bug that was paralyzed because he couldn’t decide which leg to move first,” she advises.
“Take some downtime every day for you. I wish I could say I exercised, but I don’t much: I read. Not for work. Scifi or fiction or poetry or whatever is far far away from what I do for a living. Even if it’s only a half hour a night, it helps me get out of my stressed out head.”
Do your most important task at the start of the day
Time management is also important, my former high school classmate Jeremy DeLuca tells me. “I make sure I work on the most important tasks first each morning — what is going to make the most impact. I think way too many people come in and get right on emails and then half way through the day they really haven’t completed much on the larger tasks and start getting stressed. Just make sure and manage your time and know when you leave you did everything you could.”
Jeremy and his brother Ryan DeLuca launched BodyBuilding.com right after we graduated high school in Boise, Idaho. The company how has an annual revenue in the hundreds of millions and more than 200 employees, but Jeremy said the stress of starting a company hit him right away.
Like my former boss Theresa, Jeremy says he makes time for his family and personal life every day: “I always make time to go to the gym (before work or at lunch) and have time with my kids each night I can. Remember: Life is way too short so make sure and live every moment! With work and outside of work. That is what I live by!”
Ask for help
Young CEOs have some special challenges. Chris Hertz, CEO of New Signature, an IT and creative company based in Washington, D.C., says you have to know when you need support. “My philosophy has always been to know when to ask for help, trust the people I work with, treat everyone (clients, colleagues, vendors, partners and the community) the way I would want to be treated, and act honestly and ethically. I believe this approach can greatly reduce the amount of stress that one experiences at work.”
“Additionally, I frequently remind myself to have perspective on my work. For example, the decisions I make in business are not life and death decisions and therefore I remind myself not to act as if they are. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take my work seriously and work hard to do the best job possible, but I do believe it is all to easy to create a heightened level of stress simply by not placing the source of stress in perspective.”
Asking for help may come in many forms, such as hiring interns and assistants, delegating some of your responsibility, finding a professional to talk to about your life, or finding a mentor who can give you advice on the next steps for your career.
Stay fit: where the body goes, the mind follows
Melissa Harris, business columnist for the Chicago Tribune, also knows what it’s like to work around the clock. “I have a piece due every Wednesday and every Friday come hell or high water. There’s close to zero flexibility,” she says. Each article can involve dozens of interviews and a great deal of research, so time-management is key.
“During the most stressful periods in my life, I gain weight,” she adds. “So I’ve adopted a few rules: First, eat a low-sugar, low-carb diet. Second, one glass of wine or one mug of beer is enough. And third, a personal trainer is worth going broke over. I look at it this way: If your body’s in good shape, that’s one less thing your mind needs to worry about. I also use all of my vacation days; taking time off is important to re-energizing yourself.”
Be all you can be: observe, orient, decide and act
Matthew Mullins, a former special operations intelligence officer with the United States Air Force, gave me some advice from his military life. If you think about it, what job could be more stressful than one that forces you to face life and death situations? It’s kind of crazy to consider that the majority of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — the ones dealing with those situations — are under 30. And there’s no delegating those tough decisions to a subordinate.
“Heavy resistance and overwhelming ‘fire power’ in both urban combat and the office space can really render all sense of up and down ineffective,” Matt told me. “My key to handling a situation where I’m upside-down is to first apply what the Air Force coined as the OODA loop: observe, orientate, decide, and act.”
Following that advice, Matt says you should observe and analyze what is causing the feeling of stress. Orient yourself in the direction of taking action, and consider the outcomes of various action steps. Then, decide when and how to move forward. “Last but not least, always act.” On a battlefield, that means “once you commit, it’s cover your teammates and return fire with all efforts. Don’t stop in the middle of an open field under fire!” In the office, however, that means you have to support and resource your chosen plan of action. Don’t half-ass it.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Stress in the workplace is something that comes with the territory for many jobs and professions. How we deal with it can make or break our careers. How do you handle a stressful career, a stressful life transition, or stressful situation, and come out on top? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!
Whitney Parker is Brazen Careerist’s vice president of user experience/design. She specializes in helping nonprofits, small businesses, individuals and start-up organizations achieve greater recognition for their causes and products in the digital world. Follow her on Twitter.
Brazen Life is a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. Hosted by Brazen Careerist, we offer edgy and fun ideas for navigating the changing world of work. Be Brazen!