How To Stay Afloat In Stormy Waters
When the pressure's on it can be difficult to keep your head above water.
In ‘Willpower’ by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, one of the stories told is what happened when a psychologist, who’d been invited to give a talk about managing time, met an elite group of generals at the Pentagon. 1
The psychologist asked them to write a summary of their approach to managing their affairs. To keep it short, they were instructed to use no more than 25 words.
Several minutes later, all bar one of the generals was completely stumped: given the vast range and complexity of their responsibilities, how was it possible to boil this down to 25 words or less?
Only the lone female general in the room managed to complete the task. Here’s what she said:
First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three and so on. Then I cross out everything from three on down.
When the pressure's on we all need to find a way to cope. If you find the general's advice too extreme – here are 10 more strategies to help you cope when the pressure's on.
1. Get Some Perspective
It can be all to easy to get sucked into the vortex when you're under pressure – and if this happens you'll lose sight of the big picture. It's really important to retain perspective. Stand back a little from what's happening and make sure you can still see what specific contribution you can make in response to the situation.
If you're only reacting to events as they hit you you're going to find yourself in some unexpected places. Take a moment to think about what's happening – then make a plan and start to be proactive. That way you can influence what happens next.
2. Identify The Cause
If you're under pressure there's always a reason. So if you feel you're sinking it's vital that you take a pause. Look for reasons for the feelings of pressure you're experiencing. There might be more than one cause. Here are some of the most common ones.
- Unrealistic timescales.
- Too many priorities.
- Unexpected urgent event.
- Missed deadline.
- Too much to do.
- Lack of sleep.
- Feeling unwell.
- Depression or anxiety.
Whatever the cause, if you can't identify it, you won't be able to put things right. Once you've identified the cause you can implement some of the strategies mentioned below.
3. Ask For Help
When you're under pressure a sensible thing to do is ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness – it's an appropriate response to excessive pressure.
I had trouble with this one earlier in my career. I found I could overcome my resistance to seeking support by thinking through the consequences of failing to get the help I needed. Then it became clear that it was nearly always far worse to avoid getting help than the alternative.
Also, people are usually surprisingly willing to be lend their help. People enjoy feeling useful.
So don't be a hero – look for and get the help you need.
4. Engage Your Team Fully
If you work in a team now is the moment to make sure they're fully engaged. If you're the leader of the team then take some time to fill them in on your difficulty. This may open the door to some new responses which hadn't occurred to you. It might also lighten your load.
If you're a team member, share your current situation with the rest of the team. It might be that everyone else is too busy to help in any practical sense. It's nevertheless good to calibrate the pressure you're experiencing. While it may be cold comfort, knowing that you're not alone can lift some of your anxiety.
5. Remember Your Priorities
If you read this post you'll know how important it is to remember why you're doing what you're doing. Being mindful of your most important priorities can help you get back on track when the pressure's on.
One good tactic is to clear away everything that isn't a core priority. Close all the open tabs on your browser, shut down your emails. Turn off your phone or put it on silent. Think about what your priorities are. Write them down.
Now selectively re-engage with the world and whatever it is that's creating the feeling of pressure. With any luck you'll have found some fresh perspective and will understand what you have to do next.
6. Make A Change
By definition you're not in a standard situation. Something is pushing you away from what's normal. My advice is to do something positive to acknowledge your changed situation. Here are some ways you can do that.
- Relocate yourself or your team – demonstrate that something unusual is happening by moving to a new location. It might be to where the root of the problem is, or it might be into a 'war-room.' This signals that something out of the ordinary is happening and a new response is needed.
- Temporarily cease some activities – maybe you're required to complete a monthly return, or perhaps you would normally spend time on administrative jobs. Negotiate a temporary halt to all lower value activities while you focus on digging yourself out of the hole.
- Make a new delegation – make the best use of the people around you. One way to do this is to change what you delegate. Shift some of your responsibilities to some new people in your team to buy yourself time. As a side benefit, you'll learn a lot about their capabilities when you do.
- Declare a special state – simply acknowledge that you're in changed situation. Hospitals will do this when they respond to major incidents. You can too.
7. Signal It
Many of us work in organisations, which means there's always a boss to manage. Don't forget to signal your situation to your superior.
Present the situation using an SBAR. 1
SBAR's were developed in the nuclear industry and are a good way to deliver important information in a standardised form. Failing to brief your boss may lead to more pressure building on you through a lack of shared understanding of your current situation.
It pays to keep your boss well briefed. Personally I always tell my team that I prefer there to be as few surprises as possible.
8. Get In Front Of What's Happening
When you're under pressure it's usually not a good idea to hunker down and wait for things to blow over. You'll still feel the pressure while you're avoiding dealing with it and things might actually get worse in the meantime.
Remember it's important to 'not be a victim.' You can always make one more move. So implement some of the other strategies recommended here and then take action. It's surprising how often just making a move can empower you and relieve some of the pressure.
9. Recharge Your Energy
While you're under pressure it's important to take care of yourself. Take some exercise and get some fresh air. Just a quick ten minute walk can clear your mind and renew your strength.
Don't OD on caffeine – caffeine is useful to a point. If you get too strung out however it will affect your sleeping– which will short-circuit your decision making and leave you feeling even more anxious.
If you meditate – and if you don't you really should – now's the time when your practice can help you. Everything that you are now feeling worried about will pass – listening to your breathing rising and falling will remind you powerfully of this.
I use an app called 10% Happier to guide my meditation practice.
10. Review and Learn Lessons
Finally when the dust has settled and the crisis has passed it's really important you evaluate what happened. Can you spot something that might have headed things off before the problem happened?
If this feeling of pressure happens to you frequently it could pay to create a forward plan. Against each of the possible causes (see above) – list some ways you could respond differently.
Preparing yourself for the next time and having some new tactics at hand could do a lot to stop pressure turning into something unhealthy.