by David Hassell, an EO At Large – US member and founder of 15five
When people hear the word stress, they usually think of it negatively, as in “distress.” In a culture where overworking without breaks and always being “on” and connected is the norm, people viscerally know what stress feels like. A toxic force overwhelms the body creating stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol; the many side effects continuously drain us. But did you know that stress can be the gateway to doing our best work?
When my son was born last year, I learned that stress can be a positive force too. The necessary and beneficial stress that accompanies birth allows all kinds of biological and neurological processes to come on-line. Without it, we would not be able to survive in the world for more than a few days. As adults, we also cannot grow without stress. It is the natural outcome of stepping outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself.
I like to think of stress in the context of weightlifting. To gain strength you have to push yourself physically which actually means regularly tearing your muscles. There is a bit of soreness or pain, but the muscles will regenerate and get stronger. We might be tempted to overexert ourselves in order to grow stronger and faster but that only causes muscles to tear beyond normal repair. The recovery periods between workouts are just as important as the exercise.
And hence, striving for the magic middle, the fine balance.
The same principles hold true for mental and emotional stress. Avoiding stress altogether doesn’t serve us because that deprives us of challenge that leads to personal and professional growth. Don’t be too quick to label stress as a negative, but consider how much stress you encounter, and most importantly how you recover from it. Anyone who studies the science of human performance will tell you we need to balance periods of productivity with downtime.
These tips will show you how to repurpose stress for your benefit:
1) Challenge and support. I am always weighing a massive amount of work against a finite number of hours each day, and the same is true for my dedicated team.
So I check-in with the entire team once each week and ask questions like, “What challenges are you facing? Where are you stuck?” I assess if employees have too much challenge or not enough. Without challenge, employees feel bored, lacking in purpose, and that their talents are being wasted. Too much challenge overwhelms us, causing anxiety and frustration. I am looking for the sweet spot — just enough stress to inspire their best work.
2) Relax into flow. Flow is the hyper-alert state that performance athletes are lucky enough to experience almost all the time. They are moving beyond their capabilities, and time and self seem to dissolve as they become one with the moment.
Challenge and healthy stress are required to enter this lusted-after flow state. If we understand the elements behind it, we can use stress to enter those states at will.
The secret is to schedule solid blocks of time to dedicate to uninterrupted work and protect yourself from that barrage of distraction that assail us every day, every hour. Always follow periods of work and stress with periods of release and relaxation. Then return to work and repeat this cycle throughout your day. Find that healthy oscillation between stress and periods of rejuvenation. The body will flush out the stress chemicals and we can stop worrying and enter a place of calm when we can do our best, most inspired work.
3) Get enough sleep. The final step is to get (ideally) 7-8 hours of healthy sleep every night. Don’t eat or overstimulate yourself within 2-3 hours of going to bed.
Have you ever wondered why we sleep? Why do we turn our bodies off every day? It seems inefficient to sleep 1/3 of our lives. Our body rests and recovers during sleep, but our mind remains active. We mentally relive and re-incorporate what occurred during our waking time.
I discovered this phenomenon years ago, while I was teaching kite-surfing. One student was at it for several hours until they were mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. They could not make any more improvement. I was shocked the next morning at lesson #2, to see incredible progress. Later I learned that his mind had fully integrated the previous day’s lesson while he slept.
Every member of my team works hard and is encouraged to get enough rest, eat well, and to follow focused tasks with intermittent breaks. We challenge ourselves, try to live healthy balanced lives, and allow stress to expand us into the experience of flow.
David Hassell is an EO member and the founder and CEO of 15Five, the leading web-based employee feedback and alignment solution that is transforming the way employees and managers communicate.