The ability to manage stress is what sets apart successful entrepreneurs from not-so-successful ones. Just ask Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
I’ve been known to skip a few meals, dump four shots of espresso into one cup and even drink a few of those five-hour energy bottles. I thrive on these adrenaline rushes, but no one can live like that for long periods of time.
So, every so often I retreat to my home in South Dakota for a respite from the fast pace of business (or New York City). If you’re like me and thrive on adrenaline, I’ll be the first to tell you it’s okay to hit the pause button: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a small business owner, an entrepreneur or a c-suite executive.
Life is just simply going to be stressful. The competition, the long work hours, the slashed budgets, deadlines and expectations for employees, customers and shareholders: These things, plus the high-risk decisions associated with them, take a toll.
This is hardly news, of course: According to a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 40 percent of workers surveyed reported that their jobs were very or extremely stressful; 25 percent viewed their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
But what people should stay attuned to are the ways in which stress can manifest itself — mentally, physically and emotionally, — and the negative pesults, like edginess, impatience, anxiety and moodiness. The main sources for the problem? As measured by the American Institute of Stress, they’re : workload (46 percent), people issues (28 percent), the demands of juggling personal and professional life (20 percent) and lack of job security (6 percent).
For inspiration on managing all this stress, we can turn to the business greats — people who run multi-billion dollar corporations. If they can manage their stress levels, the rest of us can, too. Here are five lessons these icons have to teach:
- Keep it simple.
When you have a couple of hundred emails in your inbox, a day full of meetings and calls and everyone asking you for your opinion, keeping it simple seems like the most complicated goal — or the last thing on your mind. But it’s something that must be done, to gain a little perspective on what’s most important at that moment.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has said, “The ability to boil things down, to just work on things that really count, to think through the basics . . . It’s a special form of genius.” At this point, we can all agree that the method to Gates’s madness has worked.
One of my own mottos that I try to impart to my team is, “Work smarter, not harder.” By working smarter, I keep things simple. I don’t need to be copied in every single email chain, or be a part of every conversation or decision; that’s why I have a team — to take care of the process. My team feels empowered to make decisions in my absence, so I can focus on what matters most — growing the business.
- Focus on what matters.
One of the easiest things to do is become overwhelmed by all that needs to be done or isn’t getting done. When we’re overwhelmed, our tempers flare, and we take things out on those closest to us; things spiral downward.
But ask yourself, What’s really important? I have 20 things on my “to-do” list, but what will happen if, instead of taking care of all 20, I take care of only the top five? Will the world stop spinning?
No, Nothing will happen. Those worries are all in your head.
Richard Branson is synonymous with the Virgin brand, but he is someone who has his priorities straight. Said Branson: “If I lose the whole Virgin empire tomorrow, then I’d just go and live somewhere, like Bali. Now, if there was a problem with my family, healthwise . . . that’s a problem.”
It sounds trite sometimes, but prioritizing things that really matter can reduce stress levels considerably. If the big things are taken care of, or are going well, the business side of things will be okay, too. I’ve bought and sold over 250 businesses over the years, I’ve had my fair share of failures (one of them involved a failed pheasant farm).
But these failures are nothing compared to my family’s welfare.
- Take control.
When we have looming deadlines, meetings with clients or investors, lists a mile long: Our brains can short-circuit. Being overwhelmed breeds inaction and confusion. How can we break the cycle? By taking control of the situation.
If you’re stressing about the million things that need to be done, the only number you need to focus on is the number “1.” What’s first on your list? Tackle that specific task, and only that task — forget the others. Being that laser-focused allows you to take control of the situation, which propels you into the next task and gives you a sense of accomplishment, thereby, lowering stress.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have control over . . . I find that as soon as I identify it and make the first phone call, or send off the first email . . . it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it.”
- Take a break.
This sounds like an oxymoron at times, especially when you feel that the fate of the world is resting on your shoulders. But, if you’re saying, “Can’t take a break right now,” stop! After all, I’m saying it, and I’m the guy who flew from New York to Hawaii for a business meeting. I was in Hawaii for less than 48 hours.
Some entrepreneurs and executives have a higher tolerance for adrenaline rushes and a reputation for being workaholics — that comes with the territory. But what good are you to your family or your team if you burn out? Working nonstop leads to burnout and slows productivity. Recognizing the signs can save you and your business headaches. In fact, 90 percent of leaders in a survey by the Center for Creative Leadership reported that they managed stress by temporarily removing themselves, physically and mentally, from their source of stress.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki believes in stopping and smelling the roses. Wojcicki said, “I think it’s really important to take time off, and I’ve also found that sometimes you get really good insights by taking time off.” I agree; I find not just inspiration, but perspective, when I’m home at the ranch or going on vacation to Italy with my wife.
- Plan ahead.
We all know what we’re doing every single day of the week, so planning ahead is key in managing stress levels. Every Sunday night, I look at my calendar for the week and prioritize meetings, phone calls, events and the duties around those tasks. Then, I print my daily calendar, streamlining my workload even more to stay on track at a granular level.
Organizing, planning and streamlining tasks are effective management strategies; having a good system in place helps things run smoothly, reducing everyone’s stress levels.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, said, “The more you can set a cadence around what you do, and the more ritual and the more consistency you can build into your schedule, the less stress you’re going to have.”
So, it’s not just grit, hard work and determination that separate the successful from the unsuccessful: It’s also how people manage their stress levels as they run their operations. We’re all stressed, after all; it’s a natural side effect of pushing to achieve our dreams. But how we manage it sets us apart. Don’t let stress be your downfall.