Whenever I think of stress, I think of an episode of the TV show Seinfeld called “The Serenity Now.” A character named Frank Costanza is advised to say “Serenity now” whenever his blood pressure gets too high. The funny thing is, he throws up his arms and shouts it instead of saying it calmly.
As online business owners, we may also have moments that make us want to throw our arms up and yell, “Serenity now!” According to an article titled “Types Of Stressors (Eustress Vs. Distress),” negative stress, or “distress,” decreases performance and can be caused by stressors like “excessive job demands” or “lack of training necessary to do the job,” among other things. I’m sure we can all add to the list of stressors in our business that almost paralyze us and make it hard to move forward sometimes.
But before we talk about how to manage our negative stress, it’s helpful to remember that not all stress is bad. The article above also talks about positive stress, or “eustress,” that feels exciting, motivates us, and improves our performance. Eustress is typically short-term, and you may have felt it as a surge of excitement when you experienced things like learning a new skill, being offered an exciting project, or signing a contract with a new ideal client. Instead of paralyzing us, this type of stress can make us keen to do a good job and move forward.
So as you listen to yourself and your emotions, take note of whether you’re experiencing positive stress or negative stress. Since we’re all different, we react to things in different ways.
Here are some tips that can help you manage negative stress as a business owner:
Imagine a day in the life of your business. You get up in the morning, grab a beverage, and log into your email.
You just received a troubling email about [blank], or you logged into your email and suddenly the internet connection was lost. Fill in the blank with whatever trouble is happening in your business.
Now what do you do? First, are you breathing? When I’m stressed, I have a tendency to hold my breath and not even know it. This lack of oxygen sure doesn’t help, so in times of negative stress, be conscious of your breathing.
Slow yourself down and breathe in and out. Before you do anything, sit for a moment and breathe deeply. It’s hard to feel agitated when you’re breathing slowly. Stop to take a breath before replying to whatever email, phone call, Skype call, text message, etc., has created stress. In any event, pausing to take a breath will help keep you from reacting too quickly or harshly.
Marcus Geduld has some great advice in his article “5 Simple Steps for Mastering Mindfulness.” He suggests a discipline called “Mindfulness Meditation” as a way of training your brain to live in the present. This technique may be helpful when you’ve just responded to a stressful situation and need to move forward, or it may even be helpful in the midst of a stressful situation. It simply involves setting a timer (for five or ten minutes, then gradually increasing the time over a period of many weeks), sitting comfortably upright, closing your eyes, focussing on your breathing, and gently returning your focus to your breathing whenever you notice your mind has wandered.
In the Seinfeld episode I mentioned above, one of the problems with yelling “Serenity now” was that it didn’t address the cause of the stress. As Virtual Assistants and online business owners, we often work completely alone. Sometimes we work during the day while the rest of our household is out, or during the night while they’re all asleep. So we can often feel alone in our stress.
If you’re experiencing long-term stress that’s interfering with your daily life and impacting your health, it may be helpful to talk to a counsellor or mental health professional. If your stress isn’t severe, you may benefit from having coffee with a supportive friend, family member, business mentor, or mastermind group who are willing to let you vent and give you advice if needed.
Online forums or groups like our VAClassroom University Facebook Group can also be a supportive, caring environment where Virtual Assistants can bring their concerns and commiserate with others who have experienced similar stressors. Asking questions in these groups or contacting your clients or colleagues to ask questions may also help alleviate stress.
And if you’re facing a stressful moment and are unable to reach anyone at the time, another option is to write your thoughts down in a journal. You may have an online document or an old-fashioned paper diary you can use. Sometimes it’s helpful to write down frustrations just to get them out of your head. You can then delete the document or rip up the page if you don’t want to keep a record of it permanently. Or you may have just written the first chapter of a great memoir on the life of a business owner!
So now that you’ve had a chance to breathe and talk about the stress in some way, it’s important to come up with a strategy for moving forward. One of my business stressors is often caused by receiving a project description and having an instant case of imposter syndrome. My first thought is, “How on earth am I going to do this? What if I mess it up?” Stress related to business tasks can sometimes be caused by our own self-doubt, lack of time, resources, or even lack of required skills.
One effective way to manage stress is to break the work up into manageable chunks. I like to create a roadmap for projects by figuring out what I need to do first, then second, then third, and so on. For example, in a nutshell, when writing this blog post, I research, outline, brainstorm, ask questions, draft, rest, edit, and then send it off to my client.
In the case of a problem that has cropped up, you may want to break the solution down into manageable parts and strategize what actions need to be taken. Do you need to subcontract a task? Do you need to say no to a task? Do you need to end a client relationship? Do you need to phone the cable company and see why the internet connection isn’t working? In each case, try to slow down and come up with a process and step-by-step strategy for facing the issue.
Here’s where the technique of “Mindfulness Meditation” will come in handy. As you begin facing your stressor, whether it be a problem or a project, be sure to focus on only one aspect or one task at a time. Don’t let your mind jump ahead or jump back into the past.
I’m particularly guilty of not focussing. I remember in my university days, I would receive a syllabus for a course and feel overwhelmed by the list of assignments and exams. But if I could talk to my younger self, I would say, “Relax! You don’t have to do all those things at once!”
Similarly, when I receive projects from clients, I have to remember to focus on one thing at a time. Right now I’m writing this blog post. I’ll focus on my next project when I’ve finished this task.
In this case, time tracking tools can be used not only for productivity but as a way of encouraging yourself to focus on one thing at a time. For example, you can set the timer and say, “I’m going to focus on this one thing for 20 minutes. I’ll worry about the next thing half an hour from now.”
This is a hard one, especially if you have a busy schedule and full client load. But in any way you can, try to take a rest in between stressful moments and after stressful work projects. Take time to revel in your accomplishment before moving on to the next task. Read any positive comments or feedback you’ve received and let the affirmation sink in. I like to keep positive emails from my clients and educators so I can look back on them and give myself a little pep talk.
If you’ve just solved a tricky issue or finished a task, whether big or small, reward yourself with at least a beverage or a favorite snack. I sometimes like to stop and listen to a favorite song to clear my head for the next task.
And whenever possible, take regular breaks away from the computer to allow your mind to rest and refocus. I usually program my time tracking software so I can get up and walk around every half-hour. If I’m at a loss for words or struggling to solve a problem, I often think of a solution once I’ve walked away from the computer.
Most of all, try to get adequate sleep to allow your body to rest and relax. Managing stress is very difficult when we’re sleep-deprived. If it’s hard to get a full night’s sleep, sometimes a power nap in the middle of the day can help.
Back in my university days, I discovered intramural ball hockey, and I remember thinking, “I love these times when all that exists in the world is a ball and a hockey stick.” When I’d head back to my dorm room, I felt energized and focussed, ready to tackle my homework assignments. I used those hockey games as a way to slap-shot my stress away.
Now that I’m older, my poor knees can’t handle the running, so I take a low-impact dance fitness class. I’ve noticed that if I ever head in there feeling stressed out and grumpy, I leave with a smile on my face and more energy after grooving to the music.
So as you face the stressors in your own Virtual Assistant business, pursue activities that give you energy and a feeling of well-being. Do something enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic where you can feel your stress melt away. Eat healthy food to keep yourself nourished and treat yourself now and then to your favorite dessert.
And be sure to get regular exercise in whatever way works for your body to release endorphins and build your strength and stamina. For example, you could do gentle stretches at your desk, or your may enjoy a walk outside, a bike ride, or an exercise class at a rec center.
While it may not be possible to avoid stress as business owners, there are ways to manage it so we can remain productive and healthy. What are some strategies or tips that have helped you manage stress in your Virtual Assistant business? Please share your thoughts below!