“On the morning of April 7, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep.” Those are the opening words of Thrive, the 2014 New York Times Bestseller written by Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.
That fall was her wakeup call. It caused her to re-think her definition of success and to seriously consider the impact of stress on her life.
Stress. It’s become such a prevalent part of our workdays that we’ve come to accept it as an occupational necessity. Yet, the long-term effects of stress can be lethal. Stress is a factor in 75% to 90% of all medical visits, and a factor in the six leading causes of death.
If you consider yourself a leader who thrives under pressure – if you work best under a deadline – you may be addicted to stress. According to Heidi Hanna, author of Stressaholic, “stress is a drug.” When we’re under the gun, stress releases dopamine and feeds endorphins to our brains which temporarily boosts performance.
As a leader, you have a responsibility to create a culture of performance. Over time, your time-crunched lifestyle can not only have serious health implications for you, but can have a debilitating impact on your organization.
Here are two practices that will help you navigate the path between stress and success:
Be Mindful. Our response to stress is something we inherited from our ancestors. It was a fight or flight response that triggered an ‘all systems go’ reaction in the body. When faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, that reaction was designed to improve our chances for survival by releasing a burst of cortisol to mobilize the body for action.
Although the sabre-tooth is extinct, our flight or flight mechanism is alive and well. Any time we face a threat – a deadline, a conflict with a colleague, a financial struggle – our body goes into stress mode. It releases cortisol causing our blood pressure to rise and our heart to beat faster. But, without a physical release of fighting or fleeing, the cortisol builds up in our system. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can train our brains to recognize these sensations in the moment, and learn to react calmly instead of letting out our inner caveman. It’s a practice known as mindfulness.
As defined by Dr. Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” The next time you’re in a stressful meeting, try the ABC method of mindfulness. Become Aware of the stress rising in your body. Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then Choose thoughtfully.
Build Margins. Today’s leaders are incredibly busy. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of you. And no one seems to appreciate the fact that you are a finite resource. Perhaps you don’t even realize this yourself. You can’t be an effective leader if your calendar is crammed with back-to-back meetings and your inbox is full of unread messages.
“To be truly effective,” says leadership expert Dr. Tony Baron, “you need to make time for margins your life.” You need to create white space, or times of reflection so that information can be turned into knowledge, and that knowledge into insight. Sometimes, you just have to stop and let the information catch up with you.
Building margins in our lives helps us get over our feeling of scarcity that leads to stress. We start by stressing that we never have enough time, that we cannot make time to truly connect with our employees, that there is only so much to go around.
Margin is not something that just happens. You have to fight for it. You can start by creating a time budget like this one from Michael Hyatt to help you focus on what matters most.
Stress is not going away, but you don’t have to be addicted to it. Make the choice today to be mindful and build margins in your life to build the resilience you need to manage it effectively.
Question: How does stress impact your ability to lead effectively?