by Art Piccio . June 20th, 2013
How is it that some people seem better suited to handle stress than others? There is no easy answer to that question. Recent advances in our understanding of genetics and neuroscience seem to indicate that nature trumps nurture when it comes to what decides who is better at certain things – stress management included. Others insist that anything can be learned if you have a good system.
What is clear though is that the longer anyone is mentally stressed, the more difficult it is to make calculated decisions. Constant stress can severely tax anyone’s willpower and cause anyone to be careless over time.
Here are some popular coping strategies many managers and entrepreneurs use, as well as the upsides and downsides of each.
In the simplest of terms, our willpower is finite. It runs out over the course of any given period of time if you use it too much. Using your willpower too often or at the wrong times can cause even more stress as you struggle to figure out why it becomes harder to make choices in a phenomenon called “decision fatigue“. When this sets in, your brain burns up more glucose than its decision -making faculties can handle.
This all ties into “Ego depletion“, an experimental psychology concept that posits that our “active” selves are finite, and are less able to exercise self-control the more we use it.
Another thing to consider is that people can also be night owls or early birds, making different people energetic or groggy at differing times of the day, making it impossible to expect everyone to feel their best at the same hours of the day.
(Here’s a questionnaire to find out if you’re a morning or night person)
Going back to the main point, The idea of this strategy is to find out what time of the day you feel your best for cognitively-demanding activities and make sure you try to do as much decision-making as is practical ONLY AT THAT TIME. The rest of the day should be for routine tasks.
And when is the perfect time? Studies and anecdotal evidence on sleep patterns suggest that morning may be the best time for older adults for making decisions and undertake challenging cognitive tasks, and that late afternoon or evening may be best for younger people. Age is not the only factor however. Genetics and personal habits also play their role in determining who is most active at certain times of the day, which makes scheduling decision making a very personal activity.
It’s dead simple. And an age-old classic. Some forms of this strategy have been done even before the ideas of decision fatigue and night owls was ever studied in earnest.
The often paraphrased attitudes “Never _____ on an empty stomach” and “Never _____ before breakfast” seem oddly prescient, having been thought of even before the importance of the sleep cycle or glucose for sustained brain activity had been discovered.
The world generally doesn’t work on our individual terms. What is *is* an optimal time, really? Managers will always be expected to decide on things even at times that might not be best for it. Plus, a recent study strongly suggests that the idea of ego depletion only works when you believe in it. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to believe.
You can feel it in your gut. Probably literally. This is probably something you should be doing anyway. But don’t take our word (or your gut) for it. Here are just a few of the many independent studies that conclusively show exercise, even in modest amounts, help relieve stress- which in turn can help you make better, clearer decisions.
Exercise WORKS. If you’re stressed, getting enough exercise should ideally be your first option. This would be the one strategy I’d personally feel comfortable endorsing to anyone. Being sick less often and being able to plow through a busy day or the odd crisis without undue fatigue are more than enough reason to do this.
Exercising regularly requires a significant level of commitment. It’s not a surprise that most of us have resolved and failed to exercise regularly at least once in our lives. It requires time that many entrepreneurs simply do not have. It’s hard to get your reps in if you’ve been working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for months on end.
Socialization is not only a stress reliever, it is a pretty basic part of what makes us human. Being isolated from others is generally a bad thing. Even the most introverted of us need other people to relate to, at least occasionally. Entrepreneurs, especially those in a single proprietorship, will often find themselves stressed out simply because there are few people who could relate to your problems.
Entreps working with other people will likewise find conversations around the water cooler beneficial.
In an interview on the Gallup Business Journal, Alex Pentland, Ph.D., Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts, and Sciences at MIT and author of Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World says
“[based on his research]…we are not perfectly rational, completely independent individuals. We are part of a social fabric, and our basic human nature is to pay attention to other people and to share mood and attitudes. That’s really the core of who humans are. Unfortunately, the way the psychology and management literature has evolved, their model of a human is a completely isolated, completely rational person. But you know what? That person doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing.”
As if you needed any more of a reason to be with your friends and family. Socializing outside your circle of family and friends can also have its benefits. As every entrepreneur knows, it pays to know people. On the other end of the spectrum, being part of a club that bears no relation at all to work can often help keep your mind off whatever’s stressing you out.
Not everyone likes socializing. While some people seem to draw energy from being around people, others (like myself for instance) find it difficult to sustain this sort of activity for too long or too often.
There are hundreds of other ways to handle stress. Some people have a few beers after work (or at work!), and others go hunting, or go on working vacations . Not all stress management techniques and strategies are safe, nor will they work for everyone.
But remember that stress by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s merely our mind and body responding to situations that it judges to be uncomfortable or dangerous. In small doses, stress can be just the thing that helps you get stuff done,
Stress releases a primal rush of hormones that increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and time perception (which is why stressful moments seem to take longer) and retards digestion so all of your body is primed to deal with whatever that danger is, be it a saber-toothed tiger, or a critical sales pitch.
And it’s just that- nothing more than a flood of chemicals that allowed us humans to survive in our kill-or-be-killed distant past. But in the present, there are plenty of stressful situations that often result in these otherwise helpful hormones accumulating in the body. The result? Headaches, hypertension, irritability, ulcers, digestion problems and a bunch of other things we’re ALL already familiar with.
Whatever your strategy for controlling stress, our attitude towards it should always be realistic and reflective.
There’s nothing mysterious or magical about stress. Nor is it anything to brag about. If anything, you should be bragging about how little you get stressed out by the otherwise difficult job of leading and creating.
Corporate Animals: The Pros And Cons of Workplace Pets – Learn how pets can keep you sane!
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Nature vs Nurture Are Leaders Born or Developed? – Fierceinc.com
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N. Renaud via commons.wikimedia.org– Bath Melancholy,
Jynto via commons.wikimedia.org – Cortisol Molecule
Mr. Physics via photopin cc – Brain & Pills
enric archivell via photopin cc – Dance Floor
Mr. T in DC via photopin cc – Treadmill
gonzalo_ar via photopin cc – Schedule
Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.