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Stress Management Skills for the Small Business Owner

Manage Stress for Peak Performance

Stress is excess tension. Tension, though, can be healthy. Human beings were not designed to be couch potatoes. Sure, kicking back is a healthy part of life. So is dancing all night. So is climbing mountains.

When it comes to work, we've got to find our own unique type and level of tension that brings maximum performance and peace or joy. Whether you're an adrenaline junkie, or placid like a crocodile on a rock, you've got to do what works for you and your business.

So, let's take a fun tour of the dimensions of stress. Then we can bring it under control, and zip, dance, or amble along to success, whatever works!

Table of Contents

Reduce Stress by Shifting Your Perspective

About 15 years ago, I was working as a consultant and, in general, I had enough work for the next three months. But I was always afraid that I'd run out of work in three months, and be stuck.

Then I stepped back and took a look. I'd been doing consulting for a major part of my income for four years - that's 16 quarters. And, every quarter, I thought, "I've got enough work for three months. But what happens after that?" And I got really anxious.

In fact, though, I'd solved that problem - 16 times over. I shifted from feeling confident when I had work on my calendar to being confident that I could put work on my calendar. If I got anxious, I would say to myself, "Sid, you can relax. You've done this sixteen times already. It's always worked."

Business effectiveness guru Stephen R. Covey calls this a paradigm shift. To learn more about paradigm shifts, read this overview of Covey's 7 Habits.

The lesson: If you're feeling anxious, give yourself a reality check. Maybe you have already proven you can handle this - you just don't feel the good news.

If that's the case, give yourself the good news, gently or loudly, and very persistently, until you feel it.

Tension and Stress: What's the difference?

Tension is real. Stress is a bad habit.

When we have goals to achieve, we create a situation where there is some tension until the goal is achieved, or we fail. It's like a good mystery novel: the enjoyable tension is either "Will the detective solve the crime?" or, "How will the detective solve the crime?" It's much the same at work. These questions can add healthy tension to the work life of the solo business professional:

  • Will I meet my sales goal for the month?
  • Will I deliver this job to the client on time?
  • Will the client appreciate my work?
  • Will I make more money this year than last year?

A mystery novel, though, is different from a thriller. In a thriller, the questions are more like, "Will the heroine survive? Will her boyfriend be killed by the mysterious serial killer?" When life gets like that, we experience more stress than tension. When our business isn't going well, situations like this create stress:

  • Will I be able to pay my lease before I get kicked out?
  • If I'm late for this client, he'll probably fire me: What can I do?
  • This client is so picky that he'll probably niggle me to death with little changes, and then not pay his bill, anyway: What do I do?
  • Will I still be in business next year?

So, first, ask yourself. Does my business feel good, like any of these: a fun romance; an intriguing mystery; or an exciting adventure? Or do I feel like the stress is going to kill me? Or, am I dying of boredom, like I'm reading a bad novel?

If you feel good about the level of tension in your business, that's great. Read on, to learn how to keep it that way.

If the tension is getting to you - if you're burned out, stressed, anxious, or afraid it will all fall apart - then your tension has become stress. There are two possibilities:

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If you're bored, read on to learn How to Liven Up the Game.

Stress vs. Success

Where Does Stress Come From?

Tension, as we've seen, comes from the real uncertainty about what is happening in our business.

But where does stress, or anxiety, come from?

Very simply, we weren't built to be civilized. We were built to survive tracking wild animals, then fighting to kill them; and for gathering roots and berries; and to survive when we are attacked by lions on the plain and tigers in the jungle, too. Our bodies are designed for a lot of hard work, a lot of relaxation, and the occasional life-and-death struggle.

But our bodies listen to our minds - and react all wrong.

If we think, "This will be the death of my business," then the body hears "death" and either charges in for the kill, or runs to hide. There's a surge of adrenaline very appropriate to living as a hunter-gatherer . . .and very inappropriate to sitting at a computer keyboard, in a centrally-heated or air-conditioned home or office.

Our emotions charge our bodies with energy appropriate to physical dangers. But we are facing problems that are solved by thinking, writing and talking.

When the fight-or-flight-or-hide response comes up, our ability to think shuts down. We can't think, or listen, or get any useful work done. That's stress. Keep doing it steadily, and it's called anxiety. Keep doing it until we get sick or just can't work any more, and it can be the end of our business.

There are two parts to the solution:

  • A perspective called Realistic Optimism
  • Practical Work to take charge of our business and succeed

Read on to pick up a few more key ideas and learn how to manage stress, maintain an ideal level of tension, and enjoy your own path to success.

Exciting and Free!

Realistic Optimism, or the Zone of Stress-Free Tension

Realistic Optimism is the ideal state of tension for our bodies, our minds, and our business life. This is the single most important practical discovery in the field of emotional intelligence, a new branch of theoretical psychology.

On a practical level, it makes sense. In life and in business, it pays to be realistic. Realism makes sense because we are much more likely to succeed if we face reality, rather than avoiding it.

It also makes sense to be optimistic. Why? Because, as human beings, we can solve our problems.

What is interesting is that the brain-state, hormonal balance, and physiology of realistic optimism turn out to be ideal for the body, as well. When the brain has a balance of right-brain (experiential) and left-brain (intellectual) activity, with a slightly greater focus on the right brain, our brain functions as a creative whole, analytical and creative at the same time. This balance triggers the release of hormones (mood chemicals in the body) that create a relaxed, comfortable, alert body. We are able to do things, but we are not stressing out and getting fried. Learning to return to, and remain in, this mind-body state of realistic optimism is the key to preventing and managing stress.

Stress will build up as we go through our day. We may be over-energized, when our work calls for sitting still. We may be tired, when our work calls us to keep going. We may be wanting to dream or ponder, when our work calls for precise focus on detail. All these create stress. So let's look at some ways to manage that - in body, emotions, and mind.

Have you tried running?


Know What Relaxes You, and Do It

We can't just keep working until we fall over exhausted. And we can't start wasting time trying to recover, either. We need to learn to take effective, efficient breaks. Some people take power naps. Others go on power walks outdoors. Others go to the gym in the morning, at lunch, or at the end of the work day. And it's not only physical: We need to renew on all levels, physical, emotional, and mental. We may need to listen to music, or we may need to sing, or we may need silent meditation. We may need to complain about work, or have a friendly chat about anything but work.

I love swimming in the ocean. And I'm lucky, my wife's job landed us in a home near the beach. Now, it's my job to arrange my schedule to get to the beach one to three times a week. My friend Steve Joseph takes care of his stress - and weight - problems by running. He made a habit of running during his lunch hour, and people are following his example years later. You can read about it in: A Couch Potato Runs a Marathon: Small Changes to Big Success.

Find out what works for you, physically and emotionally. And do it. Often.

The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr and famous in 12-step circles is a guide to your circle of control:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change: My circle of concern

The courage to change the things I can: My circle of control

And wisdom to know the difference: Attention and decision to stay focused where we can really make a difference

Know What You Can Control, and What You Can't

Life is messy. I wish I could say, "drive your car safely, and you'll never have an accident." But it just wouldn't be true.

Effectiveness comes from realistic optimism. To be realistic in a messy life, we have to organize our thinking about life. And, since our optimism comes from our own ability to solve problems and make dreams real, it makes sense to organize life according to what we can do, and what we can't. Maintaining realistic optimism and effective work is best supported if we break life into three categories:

  • Circle of Control. What we can do by our own choice - our words and actions, and, if we learn self-awareness, self-leadership, and self-control, our thoughts and feelings.
  • Circle of Influence. Here, we can't be sure of making a difference. But we sure can try. If we don't ask, we don't get. If we ask, we might. Our circle of influence includes family, friends, and team members.
  • Circle of Concern. These are the things we can't change, right now, even if we wanted to. The economy is a good example. Here, we face things squarely, accept reality as it is, and do what we can do.

Every time a problem comes up, we can manage the messiness of life by asking, What about this can I not change, that I must simply accept? What about this can I change, in my direct control? And what influence do I have? Then we act in our circle of control, and use what influence we have.

We do the same with dreams and opportunities: What can I do to realize this opportunity, or make this dream real? Where can I go to get help, or get other people involved in what I'm doing? And what parts of the dream or opportunity are not real yet? I do the first, invite people to join in the second, and let go of the third.

As I move forward and get more done, people respect that. More people can see the value of my vision. My influence increases. Eventually, there's no more circle of concern, no more need to hope for what I can't make happen. It's happened: My dreams are real; the opportunities are realized and being leveraged for business advantage; and the problems are solved.

My Employees Are Stressing Me Out!

How to Liven up the Game: Stay Relaxed and Stretch Your Goals

There's a really neat idea from Six Sigma project management called the stretch goal. Normally, we set goals, try to achieve them, and then fall short. Boy, is that a way to create stress, or what?

Instead, we can set two goals. The first is a realistic, even somewhat easy, base goal. We will do this even if things go wrong and get in our way. Then we set a stretch goal, which is optimistic, or, for an adrenaline junkie like me, bordering on impossible. This is very useful for business planning. We can count on the income from our basic goal, and shoot for the higher income for our stretch goal. This keeps us both realistic and optimistic. That's ideal for business - and for life.

I'll illustrate with a real example.

I started the HubPages Apprenticeship Program at the beginning of June 2012. (It's great, by the way: I highly recommend that writers here on HubPages apply, if you want to grow your earnings.) The program requires that each participant write 8 hubs a month if we want to stay in the program, so that sets my base goal. At that time, they allowed each author to write up to 24 hubs a month.

Now, I could have set a reasonable stretch goal, like 12, or 16, or even 20. And I would recommend that to almost anyone. But I'm an adrenaline junkie. I'm an ultra-marathoner among writers. So I set my stretch goal to the max: 24 hubs per month.

That livens up the game. And, in fact, I've stayed interested and excited. And I've really watched my writing improve.

Only today is June 29th. I've just got 29 hours and 3 minutes to go. And this is hub #23. Will I finish? Read on to see the next exciting installment!

How to Stay Cool in the Clinch

Right now, with 27 hours and one minute to go, I've published 16 hubs, and written 6 more. To finish all 24, I need to finish this hub - minutes away. Then I will proofread 7 hubs and add photos to them. That makes 23. Then I will need to write one more hub, proofread it, and add photos tomorrow before midnight. Is that midnight Eastern, or midnight California time? I hope I don't need to check that out!

Now, I could stress out about all this. And I will, if I keep using the word "need," as I did in the paragraph above. I'm actually very careful about that. I used the word "need" in the above paragraph to make a point. I actually stay more relaxed if I say, "to reach my goal, it will be necessary for me to." Why? Because "need," like "death," triggers that fight-or-flight-or-hide syndrome. And I don't want stress right now. So, here are things I'm doing to stay cool in the clinch.

  • I avoid words that trigger stress, like "need."
  • I remind myself frequently that I've already met my base goal - in fact, I've done double my base goal. My stretch goal is gravy.
  • I remind myself that I took this on because it's fun!
  • I take frequent breaks, and focus on the physical. I take a walk, do gentle exercise, even take a bath.
  • I keep my blood sugar steady with healthy snacks and small meals, and I stay well hydrated.

As I get tired, I work for shorter times and take longer breaks. But I stay at it. Though I will take a nap if I need to.

One thing I absolutely won't do: I won't risk my health to reach a business goal. Been there, done that, and learned my lesson, thank you very much!

I'm sure I'll publish 20 hubs. I'm pretty sure I'll publish 23. And I'm still betting I'll publish 24.

And I am seeing the benefits of what I will achieve, whether it's 20, 24, or anywhere in between:

  • I'm a much better writer than I was a month ago, even though I've been writing books and articles for ten years.
  • I've mastered a lot of HubPages features, so that writing here is now fun and easy.
  • I've learned how to integrate photos and polls into my writing in several different ways, making it more playful and fun for me and you.

Playful and fun matters - to the bottom line. When readers like what they get, they stay with me and become fans. Then I succeed in business. And that's not just my business. Think about the flight attendants on SouthWest Airlines. All are fun, and some are stand-up comics. Their lighthearted style is the heart of the whole SouthWest experience - and SouthWest has a fan base among flyers that can't be beat!

There is also a wonderful book, How Tiger Does It, by Brad Kearns, that points out that Tiger plays golf at work. He succeeds because his work is play, and his play is work. He's always in the zone, which is another way of saying he's always on his game, or he's at peak performance, in the state of realistic optimism.

This goes way beyond stress management to peak performance.

See you there!

Peak Performance

Peak Performance at Work: Create Stress-Free Modes

When we think of peak performance, we often think of challenging situations: Marathons or fighter pilots and astronauts.

But what about peak performance of a dancer, or a comedian? It isn't all about ultimate pressure.

In fact, you can create a very balanced, stress-free life at work by choosing your modes of peak performance. Here's how:

  1. First, make a short list of how you spend most of your time at work. Don't be exhaustive; simply pick a few items that cover most of your time. For example, as an author, coach, and consultant, I picked writing; working with current clients; and contacting prospective clients.
  2. Now, for each one of these, come up with a healthy physical image. Since I like dance and swimming, I'll use those: Writing is like a solo dance; working with a client is teaching him to dance; and marketing is like a playful day at the beach meeting new people.
  3. To take it the next step, find a picture of each of these activities and post it in your office. Then, when you are doing each type of work, look up at the picture now and then. Sink into the picture and give yourself the feeling of the motion of that wonderful experience - while you work.

Gordon Bethune, the CEO who turned around Continental Airlines, said that he wanted his employees to be happy. He said he didn't mean he wanted them dancing on the runways. He wanted them to enjoy their work, be proud of their accomplishments, and feel great about being part of a great team.

What works for you? I hope you'll share your stress-free successes below so that we can all get inspired to the joy of success.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 12, 2012:

Hi Surecome - Relaxation is a key to success for the solopreneur, just as it is for, say, the professional golfer. It's part of being on our game. Relaxed excitement is the way to stay happy & productive in small business.

Surecome on July 12, 2012:

I found myself in your post...this was in the near past, not long time ago. I had both of them...but when stress and tension were active at the same time the words just get upside down for me.

In time I have managed this by inducing relaxing programs to help me thru....

Very detailed information in this post. Thanks

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 02, 2012:

Hi Tara - That's a wonderful thing to do! In fact, I'm spending the next two weeks decluttering my office as a gift to myself. (Do you know the book "Organizing From the Inside Out" by Julie Morganstern? If so, what do you think of it?) on July 02, 2012:

I love your discussion on the difference between tension and stress. I try to help my clients reduce stress through office organization. Visual and physical clutter can really add to our daily professional stress and tension. Thanks for your great insight. I will be sharing it with my readers as well! -Tara

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on June 30, 2012:

Hi Super Lux - I'm glad I could help. Each of us - including you - is a precious gift to the world, worthy of joy, not stress. And you are a gift to me this morning - thank you for reminding me of why I write.

Super Lux from Singapore on June 29, 2012:

stress is the number one silent killer in our society. thank you for sharing these tips. this could help save millions of lives...including mine. :)

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