The Center for Disease Control reports that 85% of disease has an emotional component to it. Stress is emotional yet it affects our physical bodies in measureable ways: brains shrink and nerve endings (dendrites) disappear from brain neurons. The stress hormone cortisol causes increased fat around organs. Stress weakens our immune response and causes changes in antibodies. There’s more, but I am not a doctor or scientist so it quickly gets too overwhelming for me.
Where are we supposed to find the time to exercise, relax and spend time with our loved ones? How can a leader take the time off that’s essential to reducing stress?
If you are a leader it is vital that you can handle stress, and you may think that you can handle more than most people. That may be true. But what is also true is that if you don’t manage your stress well, your organization will suffer from your poor decisions.
According to Henry L. Thompson, author of The Stress Effect, stress is often the reason for poor leadership performance. High stress compromises the ability to access our emotional intelligence and our cognitive abilities, leading to impaired thinking and behavior choices. Brain scientists such as John Medina tell us that stressed brains can’t learn as well either.
Here are two (just 2!) tips that will help you find the time to do the relaxing things that help manage your stress:
First, make sure you have your priorities straight. General George C. Marshall said “save (your) ammunition for the big fights and avoid a constant drain of little ones.” General Marshall, who as Army Chief of Staff during WWII built up troop numbers from 174,000 to 8 million, regularly rose at 6 am to exercise on horseback – to give him thinking time, he said – and quit for the day at 4 pm. From 4pm to his 9pm bedtime he relaxed with his wife dining, walking and canoeing. Sure, occasionally he worked late, but he knew the value of incorporating sleep, exercise, and recreation into a regular schedule. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your team members and your projects very well.
By reviewing your projects to ensure they are aligned with your organization’s strategy, mission and values, you will probably be able to scrap a few that aren’t. Enlist the help of your employees to identify and eliminate the draining little tasks that don’t directly support the projects that are priorities. One of the questions you can ask to help identify vital tasks is, "Would our customers be willing to pay for that?"
Second, trust others. Delegate, ask for help, and relax knowing that your team members can take care of things as well as if not better than you can. Keeping information and responsibilities to yourself creates a downward spiral leading to dysfunctional teams. Micromanaging is detrimental to everyone, stressing out you and your subordinates unnecessarily and causing them to feel distrusted. Let go a little, and maybe let up on yourself a little too.
These two tips will help you manage your time better. In Good to Great, Jim Collins says “Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding 'to do' lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing—and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who built the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of 'stop doing' lists as 'to do' lists."
If you prioritize thoughtfully and delegate more, you will have time to regularly schedule exercise and relaxation. In global research from the Center for Creative Leadership, it was found that executives who exercise regularly are rated significantly higher on leadership effectiveness by their bosses, peers and direct reports than those who exercised sporadically or not at all.
So take a tip from General Marshall, who wrote this in a note to a new brigadier general:
It may be hard for you too to “change your spots” but the benefits are far more vast, and the detriments far too serious, for you not to take the time, every day, to relax.