Executives today face a number of unique challenges when it comes to stress management. Not only is stress itself a tremendous burden on your well-being and psyche, but it has a habit of compounding other problems in your life: Your physical health, social relationships, career, and more.
Many highly-skilled and talented individuals find that stress, however, is a double-edged sword, and therefore, hard to “give up.” Perhaps it’s been stress that’s caused trouble in your marriage, frequent headaches, and other problems. But it may have also been stress that technically pushed you to get through business school and helped you found your own company.
So, where does that land us?
Well, while some types of stress are indeed good for you, the massive weight of a constantly stressed-out lifestyle is decidedly unhealthy. Ramifications can be felt in every aspect of your life. It would behoove you, therefore, to take the necessary steps to combat the onslaught of stress in your life and improve your wellbeing and physical health as a result.
Ahead, we’ll unpack one of the most harmful types of executive stress — decision fatigue — and discuss how to manage it. We’ll also outline two simple and effective ways you can start mitigating chronic stress and start to unwind your mind.
Managing Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue occurs when interminable daily decisions — no matter how small — accumulate over time and result in a range of unwanted emotions and behaviours.
Let’s say you run a small successful company, for example. Daily, you’re bombarded with employees, investors, clients, and others who need your answers and opinions — and they need them now.
At home, things aren’t much different. Your spouse and children want to know how your day went, what you should have for dinner, and if you can get time off for a weekend getaway next month. Perhaps you’re getting a new security system installed — how many cameras do you want? It’s time to renew your Netflix subscription — do you use it enough to keep it? Then the doorbell rings. Girl scouts are selling cookies: How many boxes do you want?
Many of these decisions are small and therefore appear benign. But for executives and those who work in already high-stress, demanding positions, this near-endless stream of choices is extremely taxing and damaging.
Understanding our finite store of mental energy
Those who struggle with decision fatigue may feel like they’re at “the end of their rope” more often than not. In fact, this idiom is quite spot on.
The term decision fatigue comes from the studies of a social psychologist named Roy F. Baumeister. Like his predecessor Freud, Baumeister was enticed with the idea that each person has only a limited store of mental energy available each day. Notably, this limited store can be used for successful self-control and strong decision-making for a time. Once it’s been depleted, however, all bets are off.
This is when the negative consequences of decision fatigue set in:
- (Most ironically) Poor decision-making skills
- Irrational eating and drinking (for example, having junk food for lunch or overdoing the red wine at dinner)
- Irrational spending
- Anger and hostility
- A lack of focus
- Body fatigue
- Physical pain and discomfort
- A suppressed immune system and a higher propensity for illness
Combating fatigue and boosting mental energy stores
Fortunately, there are several ways to mitigate decision fatigue. We’ll go over two other huge stress-reducers later, but for now, here are three things to try:
- Get more rest
- Take time off from decision-making.
- Close your door for at least a few minutes during the work-day.
Ask your family for some quiet moments alone right after you get home from work. Say your hellos, then sit quietly on the deck, take a bath, or lay in a quiet room for at least 10 minutes.
Spend time listening instead of thinking. For example, in the car on your drive home from work, turn on music or a podcast. Let yourself be part of an “audience” instead of the main attraction.
2. Prioritize the decisions you make.
Though it may often seem like it, not all decisions demand your full attention. Large decisions like new hires, whether to relocate your family, or how to delegate an important job should take the majority of your decision-making energy.
Other choices, such as what movie to watch with your spouse, where to meet someone for lunch, or which tie to wear to a meeting are less important. That isn’t to say you should simply not make these decisions at all. Instead, let your whimsy decide for you. Don’t dwell, just choose. The ramifications of making a “bad choice” on a tie or movie pick are virtually painless.
3. Give big decisions more time.
Yes, you may have many people telling you they need a decision immediately. More often than not, however, this is an exaggeration. Studies show that breaking down large decisions into small “bite-sized pieces,” digested over time, will actually help you make a more thought-out, better choice.
Walking Meetings – Stress Down – Productivity Up!
In terms of overall stress management techniques, walking meetings are an excellent tool. They can even improve cognitive function. In effect, walking meetings take in-office communication to the streets — literally.
Instead of holing up in your office or a boardroom to discuss the day’s business, new proposals, and more, a walking meeting allows you to move, relax, and focus while still getting work done.
So, how does it work?
First, walking meetings force you and your fellow employees and colleagues to get up and move. Most businessmen and women stay seated for the majority of the day, which is unwise for your health. Physical activity promotes an overall healthier lifestyle, which leads to boosted energy, improved mood, and reduced stress.
Next, research has proven that walking meetings can actually boost productivity. In other words, moving around while configuring future plans, working out problems, and exploring new ideas may actually improve the meeting’s outcomes.
The reason for these positive outcomes seems to be the relaxation effect that walking meetings produce. Neuro-chemicals in the brain are positively affected by the physical activity, and this, in turn, will enhance executive function.
Additionally, participants are more engaged when a meeting is held during a walk. Focus and motivation are also improved. This may be due to the fact that leaders and employees can “bond” during walking meetings. Instead of a supervisor sitting at the head of the table or standing, everyone is on “equal footing” on a walk.
Furthermore, in the boardroom, work is front and centre at all times; small talk is discouraged or prohibited. On a meeting walk, however, your group may connect over the weather, things you see, or people you meet while out and about. At the same time, your meeting goals can be adequately achieved and, as we’ve discussed, possibly even surpassed.
Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress
Most people have been told to “take a deep breath” at one time or another when they feel stressed. Still, many people continue to think of this common encouragement as merely a figure of speech. Perhaps one big breath is taken before going out on stage or delivering a presentation — with no apparent effect or benefit.
In fact, breathing exercises to reduce stress are beneficial. The benefit lies simply in utilizing the right techniques for you — and using them often. Think of breathing techniques as a medication for chronic stress. Other chronic illness medications must be taken regularly to be effective. The same is true for stress-reducing breathing techniques.
Breathing slower and deeper than usual, in a controlled and focused manner, helps by relaxing your body and mind and reducing tension. This type of breathing is what your body does naturally when you are relaxed. Choosing to induce it yourself tells your mind that you are relaxed — whenever you decide that you want to be.
Below are two breathing techniques that can be implemented any time. Ideally, you might integrate them into your daily routine. For example, try performing one of the techniques at one of the following times each day:
- Every morning after you wake up, but before you get out of bed
- After lunch in your office, with your door closed for a moment of peace and silence
- As you’re falling asleep at night
Short and Effective Breathing Techniques to Try
- Roll Breathing: Start with one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Close your eyes. Take one deep breath through your nose, aiming to raise the hand on your stomach on the in-breath. Make sure your other hand on your chest remains still. Breathe out deeply through your mouth, feeling your stomach hand go down. Complete 10 complete breath cycles.
- 4-7-8 Breathing: Start by placing your hands in the same position (one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest). Close your eyes. As you take your in-breath, count silently and slowly to 4, feeling your stomach rise. Your chest should be still. Now holding your breath, silently count to 7. Finally, release your breath slowly as you count to 8 and feel your stomach go down. Repeat this cycle 3 to 5 times.
Breathing Awareness and Meditation
Meditation is a common stress-reducing technique used by many successful executives and high-powered employees. Within meditation, the breathing techniques listed above (and others) are emphasized. The key difference is that the brain is also engaged in certain meditation practices as well.
As an example, a beginning meditator may be told to take several deep, slow breaths while focusing their mind on the movement of air throughout their respiratory system. This attention of the mind means to give the brain a break from constantly trying to work out problems, anticipate future challenges, or dwell on past actions.
During this type of meditation session, it is important that practitioners realize their mind will drift.This is the mind’s job — as sure as the heart’s job is to beat continually. What must be done when the mind does wander is for the practitioner to simply notice and return to the breath, time and again.
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Written by Clint Johnson
Clint teaches Yoga, Pilates, breathe, and mediation to students and teachers all over the world. Prior to joining the wellness world, CJ as his friends call him, started his career as a MBS derivative trader and portfolio manager on Wall St. Clint is the founder of Anahana, and holds an MBA from INSEAD.