Focus Here to Reduce Your Stress Today

The past two days were really busy for me, but they were not necessarily stressful. 

Have you ever noticed that when you ask someone how they are doing, a common response is “really busy..." and these words are usually followed by a heavy sigh, an eye-roll, and a shrug of the shoulders.


Being busy carries some sort of identity for us. We can’t just “be” who we are, we have to “be” something in order to have identity.

We've decided that to be busy is to be stressed. And if busyness is stressful then this fills our identity, bringing some sort of value to who we are. I am amazed at the thinking on this. Just because we are busy and stressed we are somehow more valuable and have more self-worth.

A lie straight from the pit of Hell!!!

I completely disagree with these lies we tell ourselves:

Lie #1: I am busy so I have to be stressed.

Lie #2: I am busy and stressed so I must be bringing more value to my work.

Lie #3: I am busy and stressed and bringing more value so even though I am exhausted I have a higher feeling of self-worth.

When are we going to stop equating busyness and stress with self-worth?

My Point

I think you can be really busy and not be stressed out.

My good friend Dr. Tim Gardner is famous for saying, “What people know about stress is killing them.” Think about that for a minute. In the world of stress and stress management, there is not much new information that has come around over the last 20 years or so. You know everything you need to know about stress and how to manage it and yet you choose it anyway.

I am not talking about temporary stress here like the tension felt in Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the World Champion Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals. A four and a half hour, nine-inning baseball game that had more ups and downs and tense moments for both teams.  While it that was a really tense 4 and a half hours, that is not the kind of temporary tension I am writing about.

What Dr. Tim means is that most of us know we are going to be busy, and this busyness has the potential to be stressful, and if you let it be stressful it can have a detrimental effect on your overall health and well being.

The question I have for you today is: If you are busy can you choose not to be stressed?

Main Idea

Many of you know that for the past 20 years or so I have been involved in the emotional intelligence movement. Now when you teach something like emotional intelligence, I think folks watch to see if you are a theorist or a practitioner. A theorist knows what the main ideas are and can pass any exam they might take on a subject. A practitioner is someone who understands the theory and works hard to put it into practice.

One of the things we are really excited about in our organization is the certification work we are doing with the EQi 2.0.  The actual certification class is a 2-day virtual training that is filled with a lot of practical strategies for implementing the EQi 2.0 assessment.  It is exciting for us to work with professionals dedicated to the growth and development of others. We love the work and hearing the great things the participants have to say in training.

One of the competencies we work on is stress management. This idea of managing stress really has two components:

  1. What to do in a particularly stressful moment?
  2. How do you manage stress so you lessen its overall effect?

It is this second strategy I want you to think about today.

Management is by definition a planning and organizing function. So if you know you are going to be busy, then how can you plan and organize your life so that the busyness is not stressful?

We often talk about how to deal with stress after the fact, but what if we were more observant of stress before it began? Here are 3 keywords to a proactive stress plan. These words may sound familiar, but pay attention to their definitions. Putting a word to feelings you might not associate with stress can make all the difference when it comes to preparing to overcome our obstacles by helping us create clearer goals. While you're reading, see if any of these definitions relate to your relationship with stress in ways you may not have been able to put words to before. 

   3 Strategies To Change Your L      

FLEXIBILITY: The ability to adapt to change effectively. Any change in life is going to bring emotion. How flexible are you with these feelings? This is a different question than "are you able to take the needed action in a crisis?" Instead, flexibility asks if you are able to flex and choose a different emotional response when you are faced with obstacles. If not, ask yourself: can you put strategies in place to do so? Do you have the flexibility to overpower your emotion and choose a different one, or are you subject to the emotion?

Tolerance: How much can I hold until I break? Tolerance equates with strength. Think of metal: There is a certain amount of weight it holds until it will break. You are the same. There is a level of stress you can hold until you will break. Tolerance measures where that level is for you. This sounds abstract, but it is not. Make a list of all the stressors you are juggling. Can you cross one off or delegate some of that stress? 

Optimism: To be optimistic is not to be a shiny happy person who refuses to see harsh realities, but to be resilient. Optimistic people know that it is not a matter of if something will go wrong, but when and are prepared to respond with resilience. It is a constructive response to setbacks. This is where self-talk comes into play: How you talk to yourself when things don't go your way? Are you able to say "This setback happened, but I am still myself apart from this situation and will move on," or do you equate the even with your personality, saying things like, "This is who I am, this sort of thing always happens to me." To be optimistic is to perceive reality properly by not using words like "always" and "never," and to instead to see the situation as what it was, and be ready to separate it from your future self. 

Are you going through the motions without examining your stress management? Use these 3 words this week to help you evaluate yourself in these areas, and open up a dialogue with yourself. Ask yourself difficult questions about how much you can really take on, what you are allowing to define your worth, and whether or not you are a slave to your emotions. 

When Negative Self-Talk Creeps In

A good friend of mine (and an avid reader and commenter on this blog,) Ken, submitted my name as a speaker for an organization he is affiliated with. He emailed me asking if I would consider giving a talk and facilitating a dialogue on the value of emotional intelligence (EI). I am always humbled when anyone thinks that I might have something valuable to say when it comes to EI. It is one of my favorite subjects to talk about, and I often use the EQi 2.0 in training programs I do and with almost every coaching client I work with does a self-assessment that shows them what their leadership habits may appear like to others.

Now, here is what you need to know about Ken. His job is to serve as a hospice chaplain in Polk County Florida. His request was for me to come and speak to a group of his peers and his boss on the subject of how EI can be of value to a hospital chaplain.

Gulp! I have to admit, the email produced mixed feelings in me. Like I said above, I was humbled for sure, but scared out of my pants as well. Hospice chaplains...really?! While I might know something about EI, my immediate “knee-jerk” reaction was, I don’t know anything about hospice chaplains!

Then the negative self-talk started to creep in:

  • You’re no expert in hospice care.
  • What do you know about how to fit EI into their world?
  • You have never even studied EI in this context, what if there is no data?
  • Your not a very good public speaker.
  • Maybe you should call him up and back out.

Now, am I the only one this happens too? When you are hit with a complex, tension-filled situation what do you do? Do you immediately become filled with fear, anxiety, and self-doubt? How do you stop the negative self-talk from creeping in and taking over your thinking?

Here is a quick and easy method that I use when this happens to me: I use an acronym I call "STOP." It is a four step method that helps me turn my negative thinking into a more positive and constructive use of my time and energy.


Stop: Do something to interrupt the cycle of negative thinking.

Take a deep breath: Breathing relaxes your tension, releases dopamine, and calms you down to think more clearly.

Other focused: Exercise empathy and become curious about what it is like to be in the other person's shoes.

Purpose a question: Asking questions can have a calming effect and bring you more into a zone of safety than one of fear.

Here is how the model helped me get rid of the negative thinking and increase my confidence in this situation:

When I first noticed the negative thinking creeping into my mind with the thought, you’re no expert in hospice, I should have taken the time to put this model into effect. Unfortunately, even though I teach this stuff, I got all the way down to, maybe you should call him and back out before I put this into practice.

Stop: Psychologists call this pattern interrupt. I noticed the negative thinking and I did something physical to draw attention away from the negative thought. In this case, I was sitting down when I read the email. When I finally noticed the negativity, I stood up. I concentrated on doing something different. Distract yourself away from the source of negativity.

Take a deep breath: When I stood up, I took several yoga style breaths. Focused on bringing my belly button to my spine. I actually could feel myself starting to calm down. This is often when I will also say a prayer, asking God for wisdom as I navigate these treacherous negative waters. I distracted myself from the negativity for a moment. That is the goal with this step.

Other Focused: I tried to take the thoughts off of myself and my shortcomings. I put my thoughts onto Ken and his team instead. I began to think, what might they need from a model like emotional intelligence? What value could it bring them? Notice the questions starting to form when I start to turn my thinking from self-referential to other-focused.

Purpose a question: I crafted an email back to Ken asking him, what are some common situations that hospital chaplains find themselves in where they need more EI? What had other speakers done that the chaplains found valuable? How had he used EI in his work as a hospice chaplain?

I noticed, then, that my fear and anxiety were dissipating into curiosity. I was moving from a lack of self-consciousness into a state of confidence by focusing on the value I could bring to this group of dedicated servants.

Self-Actualization and Optimism

According to authors Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book, EI always exists in balance. This is pretty easy to see when we think about a leader who is very self-confident but lacks any empathy or interpersonal ability. We often put a label on a leader who has this balance of qualities as being someone who is arrogant at best, and a real narcissist on the more clinical side of the psychology

In my case, I am usually a fairly self-perceptive person. This means that in part, I get a lot of meaning and purpose out of my life and the work I do. This is a real strength for me.

Most of the time I am optimistic, which means I have a positive outlook on the future and am fairly resilient in the face of setbacks. However, this ability can come into question, especially when fear or anxiety enter the stage. My optimism can turn into a negative downward spiral of self-critical thinking.

What I need when I am faced with these fears and anxieties is to balance my self-actualization and my waning level of optimism.

The STOP model helps me to put the brakes on the negative thinking, so I can use all the meaning and purpose I get in my life to teach and coach emotional intelligence, regaining my level of optimism.

I am happy to report that Ken and I have a call scheduled to talk through what value EI can bring to the hospice chaplains and the talk is scheduled for mid-April.

Homework: Where do fear and anxiety creep into your leadership? Can you anticipate when these events occur? When you feel your thoughts going negative, try using the STOP model to see if it can bring you back into emotional balance.

You Need This More Than Anything Else to Lead Effectively In 2016

Last summer my wife Kim and I ran a “Hit & Run 5K” This was a traditional 5k with an obstacle course built into the run. It was a blast, and even though my 5K time was pathetic, we laughed so hard it made my side hurt. As you ran this 5K you would come up to an obstacle that had to be navigated in order to continue the course. These obstacles were of the blow-up variety, so they all had some bounce to them and many of them included a water feature as well.

Atlanta, GA USA - March 5, 2014: A woman begins to slip and fall into the water trying to run through the wrecking balls event, at the Ridiculous Obstacle Challenge (ROC) 5K race.

One of the obstacles we had to traverse was a rubber air mattress that had plastic pillars all around it that were filled with air. People stood behind the pillars and pushed them into you as you ran across the mattress. Their goal was to knock you off balance so that you could not go straight through the course and finish the obstacle. These pillar pushers were trying to keep you from hitting your goal time.

Many of you, during this week between the Christmas holiday and the New Year, find yourself on such an obstacle course. You are trying to get in some meaningful family time while closing out 2015 and preparing for 2016. It is like your family, 2015, and 2016, are plastic airfield pillars that are trying to knock you off course, inhibiting your ability to finish the race you are running.

There is an important leadership concept that is continuing to surface in the leadership literature, and my guess is that it is only going to get more study time as the years go on.

What I am going to continue to reinforce with those I train and coach is the idea of Rejuvenation.

If you are going to run through an obstacle course, from time to time you need to recharge your batteries. No leader can stay on the course, being battered from all sides, all the time.

Henry Thompson, in his most excellent book The Stress Effect states that leaders have an effective energy zone they run in. If the stress gets too high, they can be subject to burn out. If the stress is too low, they can rust out. As you prepare for 2016, how are you going to be intentional with your rejuvenation?

I hope you didn’t miss that last sentence. If you did, go back and read it again.

Here is the key: Be intentional with rejuvenation.

Leaders face immense stress and pressure from all parts of the organization and their lives. You have to be equipped to handle the stress that is going to come your way. One of the best ways to be equipped is to plan for different types of rejuvenating events.

Here are some tips to help you rejuvenate as your day goes along:

  • Be self-aware of the impact that stress of others can have on you. Many of us have a habit of picking up on the emotional stress that others bring when we interact with them. Own what you can own, but do not be subject to stress that someone else is feeling. Be empathetic instead of sympathetic with them.
  • Pay attention to what you eat for breakfast and lunch. I had a conversation with my physician recently about my diet. I told him I loved hamburgers. You see I really lovvvvve hamburgers. I just know that when I eat one, I go into a food coma for about 3 hours. So, if I have one for lunch, I might as well take the rest of the day off.
  • Drink 100 ounces of water every day. This will rejuvenate your cells as they dehydrate. It wall also get you up and moving to the restroom more which will give you the short break you need to refocus when you get back to your desk.
  • Find an exercise you like and commit to it. I love my boot camp and exercising 5 days a week. It works for me. It might not for you. Try yoga, try walking in the park, get a dog and walk it. Ride your bike. I know this one isn’t new, but if you are going to rejuvenate and be an effective leader, you have to find some way to release the cortisol that is accumulating in your muscles throughout the day.
  • Find a leadership group to join. Talking with like-minded peers is therapeutic. When done once a month for an hour or two , it can revitalize your energy. There is real power in sharing where you are in your leadership life and hearing where others are as well.
  • Get a coach. If you have some intense conversations that need to be released, there is nothing like a coaching relationship to help you clear your head so you can navigate your leadership course.

Homework: Pick one of the 6 Leadership Rejuvenators outlined above and implement it starting the first week in January. Commit to doing this one thing for the next 6 months and see if you can notice any change in your leadership energy. If you decide to implement one of these, please let us know. We would love to hear your story so we can learn and grow as well.