I recently met a client to help her work on her VC pitch. She had clearly been burning the candle at both ends – she was spending plenty of quality time with her family, working to secure early customers for her startup, and of course, putting her story together for her slides. She was exhausted. She was stressed. But as she shared her story with me, I saw very clearly that she was also fueled by something that let her keep at it.
I work with people when they’re at the peak of their stress. All the work, effort, dreams they have are being funneled into this VC roadshow. They go to meeting after meeting to get funding, dealing with rejection at every step of the way. And yet they all manage to keep it together for just long enough to make their dreams a reality.
So much of the anti-stress advice out there focuses on unplugging and relaxing. But the truth, as so many of my clients know, is that we all have busy periods where we can’t follow that conventional advice. I too find myself struggling between juggling my many “titles” – Business owner, Storyteller, Mama, Wife, COO of my home… It’s a lot – and sometimes I just feel the world caving in and have to stop for a moment to regroup, or I risk exploding or imploding. Stress is still a problem worth facing, even when you can’t just have a two-hour bath to unwind. This is how I’ve seen some of the most stressed-out people on the planet manage their stress and land on their feet, and how you can do the same no matter what life throws at you.
1. Keep your priorities fluid
It’s tempting to draw a line in the sand and say that those tasks are absolute priorities that can’t be shifted. But if you insist on adding additional priorities to your ever-growing to-do list, you’ll find that you quickly burn out.
What’s important today might not be important tomorrow. For example, founders might need to focus on their vision for their product today, but tomorrow the priority is networking and staying in touch with people.
While it might feel great to commit to doing LinkedIn outreach every single day, that isn’t helping your stress. Instead, allow your priorities to be fluid and shift with your stress levels and what needs to get done. I always look at the “Important and Urgent” part of the metric – what is most important to growing my business or maintaining balance in my personal life – and what is most urgent as well. Things that can’t wait are what I tackle first. Everything else will wait.
2. Draw your line in the sand
On the other hand, there are some things that you shouldn’t give up. In your most stressful periods, make a point of actively deciding what can’t go, no matter how hard the road gets. Maybe you indulge in working on a passion project, maybe you’re a parent who won’t ever miss your kids’ bedtime, maybe you just need that girls’ night out to maintain your sanity. No matter what your current situation is, there will need to be something that you WON’T give up.
You need to outline this now and remember it, put it in your schedule – otherwise, it will simply slip away. Then you’ll deal with the frustration of giving up something that was important to you, and managing your emotions will turn into just another stressor. You count, your needs are important, and you will be a better manager/parent/person if you invest in yourself too.
By simply determining what matters most, you’ll be able to manage your stress a bit better. It reduces unpredictability and allows you to rely on a bit of stability in a tumultuous period in your life.
3. Be kind to yourself
Here’s a hard truth many people have trouble accepting: nobody expects you to be perfect other than you. You are your own harshest critic, and rarest praiser. In the course of your life, you will make mistakes. Some are your fault, some are circumstantial. You will disappoint others and yourself. It’s just part of being human.
If you spend time and energy beating yourself up about your flaws and mistakes, you’re just piling more stress on yourself. Even CEOs I work with understand that to conserve mental energy, it’s important to accept that they’ll slip up during life-changing pitches and meetings. It happens to the best of us, multiple times. Instead of berating yourself and indulging in self pity, give yourself a few hours to really be emotional, upset, angry – whatever you need to express. And set a time that this is over. Then, look at what happened, own what you could have done differently and focus on what will make you better next time. A much better and more productive use of time which will leave you energized, rather than depleted.
4. Accept rejection
Sometimes those mistakes you make will bring you rejections. Sometimes they’re totally out of your control. Either way, you’ll get rejected. You won’t get the job offer though you thought you were a perfect fit. You won’t get that second date though the first date was seemingly great.. Other people will tell you no more often than you’ll ever want to hear.
It reminds me of my acting days, and having to face rejection at auditions time and again. I had to tell myself – “it’s not that you are not a good Actress, you didn’t match the vision of what the Director was looking for.” And when it was a match – everything just magically fell into place. I’ve worked with over a thousand founders who have faced repeated rejections on the dream that’s closest to them. Over my time working with them, I’ve realized that the thing that separates individuals who give up and those who keep going is the ones that know rejection is necessary and who are able to channel that into impersonal feedback and use their resiliency to get back up and keep going, not bringing the negative emotions of the last experience into the next one.
If you’re under stress, fighting rejections will just add more of a mental burden to handle. In the timeless words of Elsa, “Let it Go!”
5. Get rid of unnecessary time and energy drainers
You are not a superhero, though it might feel like you’re expected to be. You are human and there’s only so much you can handle. And some things you simply shouldn’t be handling Take a good, hard look at your life and figure out what is actually adding unnecessary stress. Drop the guilt and be honest. What can you handle? What can’t you? What is the best use of your time and resources and what can be outsourced?
One of the founders I work with used to insist on home-cooking all his meals because he felt that was the only way he could eat healthily. But when he had an honest conversation with himself, he realized he couldn’t handle it. He set aside his guilt and swapped to a meal kit service. It was just about the same as he was spending on groceries, maybe a bit more – but the time he gained back was priceless – because he had an extra hour to just work on his company or spend meaningful time with his family.
You might feel guilty for hiring someone to help with household tasks, or someone to play with the kids while you spend some time with your partner. The problem is, burnout is real and if you insist on doing it all, you might be stuck doing nothing at all.
Focus your time on doing what you love and what brings you the biggest rewards. And identify the time draining responsibilities that you, realistically, can’t cope with. Drop them, or outsource them.
6. Identify what gives back
As you navigate through your stressful seasons, some of your hobbies will naturally be dropped from your roster. However, if you pay attention, you’ll find some actually reinvigorate you and give you more energy, motivation, and even relaxation. What are they? How can you prioritize them? For me, making sure I have exercise classes on my schedule is a must. It’s tempting to let it go and take one more meeting, but it’s too important to my physical and mental health.
One of my clients was an avid embroiderer before she started on her pitching run. She gave it up early on because she thought she needed more time to focus on her pitch and other things that cropped up. But when she picked it back up, she discovered that by investing just fifteen minutes a night on it, she could recharge just a bit. That “me-time” took time but gave her back some mental peace and energy.
Find the hobbies, tasks, or even just downtime that gives back to you when you do it.
7. Find something to look forward to
As great as it would be to simply be able to slow down whenever things get stressful, that’s not the reality for most of us. Things get stressful, and we just have to keep on plugging. For me, having a something to look forward to keeps me going even during high stress times – a date night with my husband, a road trip with our girls for an upcoming long weekend or even just family dinner at the end of a long day. It is the light at the end of the tunnel that gives me that extra burst of energy.
In my time working with founders at the most stressful juncture of their lives, I’ve seen how they all use these seven methods to keep their stress levels manageable. These tips are applicable for anyone else who is dealing with high stress levels and finding that the typical advice of “unwind and have a bath” just doesn’t quite cut it.