Lots of entrepreneurs start out motivated. Then stress hits them like a wall.
They just started out their company. They wear many hats.
Then they start to feel the cash crunch. Doubt begins, and blame gets passed.
This is entrepreneurship. It’s a ticket to a marathon of constant stress.
How would you manage this?
Good news: Psychologists have studied how people can best adjust to stressors time and time again. As a result, there’s a wide range of heuristics one can use to battle stress.
Let’s inspect these.
Stress Can be Good… For the Right Type of Task
First, we’ll need to make a clear distinction on what types of activities can be done during duress and what can’t.
If it is for simple or well-learned tasks, it follows an S curve. Even if you increase stress, performance will not be harmed.
However, if it’s for challenging or creative tasks, it follows an inverted U curve. There’s an optimal stress level. If you apply too much, performance dips.
In other words, if you’re doing data entry or if you’re running some twitter follow scripts, then applying more pressure or stress is fine. The hyper-focused attention associated with negative conditioning can work for easy and well-defined tasks. However, if the task is creative in nature, like if it’s in the field of growth modelling or content marketing, stress will hurt your performance.
In this article, we’ll focus on managing stress in the context of creative tasks.
Stress and Creative Work is a Dangerous Mix
It hit me the first week of May. After running through some different growth tests, I started to hit my stride for both my traffic & conversion levels on April 2016. The rate almost doubled. However, the system I’ve developed required a lot out of me. Then I felt overwhelmed.
There’s just not enough time to get it all done.
I was overloaded. Fatigue at night became the norm. I became short-tempered.
Here’s the problem of getting stressed with creative work:
1) It’s work that difficult to systematize, so when you get stressed, you fall into a Creative Block.
2) When you do creative work, outcomes tend to be uncertain: “Will the client like my web app? Will my Facebook Ads deliver?”
3) Given the uncertainty of outcomes, you tend to make yourself feel better by adding more features and tests. “If the initial tests don’t work, maybe these will!”
4) But when stuff hits the fan, you don’t know when do insert your recovery plans.
It’s a vicious cycle… what are the pragmatic ways that we can deal with stress?
Manage the Problem or Manage Yourself… Pick One
Two psychologists, Lazarus and Folkman, have identified these coping strategies to help you manage stress: problem-focused coping strategy and emotion-focused coping.
Insights from Psychological Studies on How to Cope with Problems
Problem-focused coping is aimed at the stressor itself. This coping strategy can take form in 3 ways:
- Remove the stressor
- Evade the arrival of the stressor; or
- Reduce the impact of the stressor
This technique is used for externalities that you deem to be changeable. These are usually low priority tasks.
Let’s look through an example.
Let’s say you hired a freelancer. Then this freelancer started to underperform. The person has not been fulfilling the listed work plan that you’ve laid out. This lack of performance has went on for 2 months. And despite a 1:1 conversation with this person, results have not yet come.
Let’s put the three said forms into action:
- Remove the stressor: fire the freelancer
- Evade the arrival of the stressor: re-focus your attention on the more important tasks that you need to get done
- Reduce the impact of the stressor: limit or reduce the scope of work the freelancer has to less essential duties
Naturally, by doing this, you have offloaded part or all of the work to your hands. Now, let’s apply the framework to this newfound stressor:
- Remove the stressor: eliminate this new body of work entirely
- Evade the arrival of the stressor: delegate this off to another person
- Reduce the impact: limit the scope of the task
While this strategy works for non-essential work, how do you deal with essential work that just needs to get done?
This is where emotion-focused coping comes into play.
Insights from Psychological Studies on How to Cope with Emotions
Unlike problem-focused coping which acts on the problem itself, the emotion-focused coping strategy adds a new task that allows you to reframe your perception of the situation.
To apply the strategy of problem-focused coping properly, it’s best to think that your current emotion is a function of internal and external factors in your daily life. Consider the chart below. Let’s use the binary states of calm and frustration as outputs. Let’s use external factors (kids, partnerships) and internal factors (time management) as inputs en route to calm or frustration.
In this case, given that majority of stimuli has been negative in nature, it’s likely that you feel a bit of frustration. The greater the proportion of negative inputs or the greater the quantity of negative inputs, the more frustrated you will feel.
To counteract this, you’ll need to counteract the proportion either by:
- Adding more focus and attention on activities that give you joy; or
- Adding other activities that also give joy
This model would explain why people would “feel a bit better” if they meditate for even just 5 minutes during an intense day. For some, they allocate time to go to the gym to achieve that feeling.
Why does this help? Invoking the Yerkes-Dodson law, this activity allows us to go back from a high-stress arousal state (which leads to low performance) to a state of optimal arousal which gets us back to optimal performance.
Now how can you apply these theories and models into practice?
Applying the Strategies in Practice
Now I’ll share with you how I recently dealt with my stress.
Recently, I had to deal with these specific problems:
- Overwhelmed with tons of “needed” work
- Frustrated due to aggressive targets over more aggressive timeframes
I’ve dealt with these using both problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.
How I practiced “problem-focused coping”
Since some of the work is something I can eliminate, I’ve decided to delegate these off to a virtual assistant. I have about 5 Standard Operating Procedures that I’ve typed in Google Docs and have handed over to the VA. These tasks included metrics tracking, user research, and email scraping. I’m now working on an SOP that will allow me to delegate cold emails.
These are some of the step-by-step tasks that I’ve given my VAs. Lots of screenshots and foolproof action steps.
The trick to identifying tasks that you can delegate is if you can transform these tasks into a simple checklist or a template.
How I practiced “emotion-focused coping”
Second, to deal with the frustration of aggressive yet self-imposed timelines, I’ve decided to insert some activities where I can decompress. For about 10 minutes after lunch, I give myself license to watch or read any tutorial I want (I’m the type who enjoys new ideas and concepts).
After dinner, I give myself 10 minutes to meditate, another 10 minutes to play an online basketball management simulator (I like management sims!), and make sure that I call or message my girlfriend to see how her day went.
Once I get home, I like to fire up Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp and message my friends on trivial things. Sometimes, I message my peers or mentors to set up a coffee over the next few days.
How you decompress is up to you. Personally, I’m quite an extrovert, so I look externally to receive joy & stimulation. It’s likely that your decompression tactics will look different.
Also, note that decompression should be scheduled time. Not ad hoc time. If it’s scheduled, it’s something that you can look forward to.
How Can You Implement These Coping Strategies in Your Life?
Now it’s your turn.
When you’re stressed out, these are the two strategies that you can use:
– Problem-focused coping: attack the problem head-on. Either eliminate the problem or reduce its impact. You can also delegate the tasks to an employee or a VA.
– Emotion-focused coping: if the problem is inevitable, manage your emotions by adding positive stimuli. I suggest having decompression rituals in the morning, noon, and at night.
With regards to emotion-focused coping, it’s best to look at it using a lens of a simple input/output model: calm & frustration as outputs and internal and external factors and inputs.