We all go through stretches when stress rises and clobbers us for days, even weeks on end. But in the world of project development, there are times when things can go terribly wrong in a heartbeat, and the stress hits us like a ton of bricks.
You’ve been there: A parallel test reveals a hidden flaw that will cost hundreds of person-hours to fix. Or a critical component from a third-party vendor doesn’t perform as advertised. Or a maintenance contract loophole puts a sudden burden on your team’s resources. Or a key employee walks out and isn’t coming back. Or senior management takes back a hundred thousand dollars you desperately need to finish the project.
Any one of these can send your blood pressure through the roof. To get through such stressful situations, here are some creative coping suggestions.
Getting through the moment
Long-term stress is often a medical issue. See your doctor, change your diet, take up knitting, whatever. These will get you through a lengthy period of adversity with your health and mental focus preserved.
But the sudden impact of stress brought on by an unforeseen crisis is a different matter, and it can have terrible effects. First, such moments are no better for your health than the long-term crisis. Second, your mental focus can go out the window when you need it most. Third, it’s no good for your team when a bad turn hits your project. They’re already reeling from the impact of bad news, and they don’t need to see stress in your face or hear it in your voice, even if you’re pretty good at holding yourself together under pressure.
When such moments of crisis hit, you have to resolve to give yourself a bit of time to respond. You already know that you can’t react impulsively when things go wrong, but you can minimize the negative physical effects and, better still, give yourself a real boost to see you through the day as you handle the crisis.
The walking meeting
I once had a co-worker named Steve, back in the mainframe epoch. We were able to send messages terminal-to-terminal, and I could count on one such message in the morning and one in the afternoon. Steve didn’t take coffee breaks; instead, he enjoyed a brisk 10-minute walk—what he called a “constitutional.” I’d get the message “Constitutional!” on my terminal, his invitation to join him if I could, and I often did.
These walks were always high points in the day. We would bump into people as we marched through the corridors of our company with purpose, sometimes enjoying a laugh, but more often than not bouncing ideas off each other concerning whatever we were working on. Our break time became productive, our contact with others in the company was enhanced, and we always felt great, both morning and afternoon.
In later years, I’ve applied this practice in times of sudden stress. I’ve grabbed a lieutenant or a team member and had a “walking meeting,” discussing something—anything—while taking a 15-minute stroll toward any justifiable destination. It’s invigorating, it takes my mind off the immediate crisis long enough for my body to burn up some anxiety, and by the time I’m ready to return to the problem, I feel much better.
Why not give this a try? When trouble strikes, and you feel stressed out, find someone you need to speak with anyway (on some topic unrelated to your immediate crisis) and speak with them on your way to wherever there is to go (if all else fails, think of some item you need from the most remote supply room in the company). Or, if no one is available, just walk by yourself. The point is, get up and move, and move quite a bit. You’ll be much better for it.
Pour out all your coffee
My apologies to Juan Valdez for this piece of advice, but coffee has no redeeming value whatsoever in moments of stress. You don’t need the caffeine and you don’t need the sugar. Coffee and stress are a combination for test-cramming undergrads and newspaper editors. Let them be the ones to shake themselves apart at the seams; you’ve got a team depending on you and looking to you for leadership.
Get your electrolytes rebalanced. You’re already a few steps out of sync if you’ve been drinking coffee or soft drinks during your workday, so step back toward center by drinking some water. If you don’t think this works, there’s a simple way to test it: Try it anyway, stress or no stress, during the afternoon hours, when we all tend to get a little draggy. In fact, put it to the supreme test: Take some bottled water to your next interminably dull meeting. You’ll be less miserable by the time it’s over than you would otherwise have been.
Listen to the music
Listening to music seems like a cliche, but it’s still a good suggestion.
Our lives are so filled with music that we take it for granted. We have music on all the time—in our cars, our homes, our offices, our elevators. And we don’t really listen to it.
But the physical act of concentrating on music, with the intensity we muster for reading or listening to something important being said to us, consumes as much or more of our intellectual energy as those other activities. The point is, you can give your mind some meaningful and constructive diversion, and your body some much-needed relaxation, by actively listening to something that will both soothe and challenge you.
What music qualifies here? Well, if the Rolling Stones does it for you, that’s great. Or Celine Dion or Charlie Parker or Willie Nelson. Choose your poison. But why not try something that will really fully occupy your attention? The idea is not to sing along, or to dance your troubles away (although this may work for you, and if so, go for it!); the idea is to pull your brain and body into a time-out space for a brief period.
When bad news hits, I close the office door for 15 minutes and put on some truly great music. During a recent high-stress crisis, the piece that saw me through was the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. I also reap great stress-reduction rewards from the soundtrack from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close to the Edge by Yes. Why? Because these pieces are different, very emotionally stirring, and require active participation. I can’t listen to this music and stay focused on my troubles. By the time I’m done, my blood pressure is down, I’m calmer, I have enjoyed myself, and my brain’s been goosed a bit, even inspired.
Find something that works for you, and keep a copy on hand.
When it’s really bad, try all three
I often do all three of these things whenever project issues go sour. In my day-to-day work, my group must respond very quickly and we have little room for screw-ups. And I must work very closely with those who report to me. If I’m losing it, they’ll all be right there to see me losing it, and I don’t want that. It’s worth a few minutes for me to get the stress out of my system before I hand down bad news or start coping.
Give these suggestions a try, or come up with something that will be effective in your situation. But don’t let the sudden jolt of a crisis knock you off track. Fight back, and present your team (and your superiors) with your best response.
Do you have a creative solution for stress?
Have you found a particularly good way to relieve stress brought on my workplace woes? If so, tell us about it. Send us some mail or join the discussion.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.