Strength during Stress

Most executives have some periods of intense, unrelenting stress.  This can happen for example during a time the team is rapidly growing in numbers; during a mission-critical project where the stakes are very high; or during a time of crisis such as a major HR or legal issue.

At such times it’s a good idea to get back to basics, and remember that your body and brain are the only real tools you have for success.  These simple rules will help you to function at your best when times get tough:

1. Exercise, even if it’s just “walking meetings.”  Frequent, sustained aerobic exercise will help in several ways. It will help your sleep (which is huge for brain function), and it will lower your stress level by reducing the stress chemicals accumulated in you body. If your workload is so severe that you can’t find time for “proper” exercise, there are still ways you can build it in. Take the stairs.  And try to have at least one meeting per day as a walking meeting—you and the person you’re meeting with go for a walk and talk and conduct your meeting on the move. Many people in Silicon Valley do this, and in addition to providing exercise and sunlight, it’s a great way to be more innovative by leaving your usual context.

2. Eat healthy, even if someone else has to get your food. Have your admin arrange for a healthy lunch for you every day during your most extreme periods.  Have a family member help with breakfast and / or dinner if possible.  This way you won’t have to think about it.  For most people, their diet suffers just at the moment they need good nourishment the most.  Instead, make sure you are getting what you need.

3. Buy a water bottle you really like. Make sure that you’re drinking enough water. One easy way to do this is to buy a water bottle that you really like and keep it with you all the time. It becomes one of your productivity tools, just like your laptop or your cellphone. It just goes with you wherever you go, and you refill it as often as you can. If it’s in front of you, you’ll drink more. I just bought a great Camelbak, leakproof water bottle at REI that now lives in my briefcase (  I’m drinking more as a result.  Some sources recommend six glasses of water a day. Being well-hydrated is crucial for body and brain function, and it also gets missed too easily under stress.

4. Improve your sleep and break-taking hygiene. Often, sleep is sacrificed to stress. Here are a few quick tips to help improve your sleep. During the last hour before you go to bed, do soothing, calming activities like reading a novel or watching a favorite TV show.  Avoid activities (like checking email) that might increase your mental or emotional level of stimulation or stress. Second, get up at the same time every morning. While it may be hard to control your bedtime, most people can control when they get up. Third, if you have real trouble sleeping, try sleep restriction. Sleep restriction means confining the number of hours that you are in bed every night, whether you sleep or not. If you restrict your time in bed to, say, six hours every night for a period of time, your body will get tired enough that your quality of sleep will improve during those hours.  If you have a real issue with sleep, see a sleep doctor—there is a lot of new research.  And during the day, take short breaks, even for a few minutes, where your mind has downtime. Research shows that taking breaks every 90 minutes to 2 hours will help you optimize your performance. Plus, you’ll feel better and enjoy your day more.