9 Mental Hacks for Dealing with Stress

Stress management is critical no matter what field you’re in, but in a startup environment, it’s paramount. If left neglected, stress can cripple you. It can also demoralize your team, who relies on you for stability and leadership.

How you, as a founder or team leader, handle stress, then, will prove a big indicator of whether or not your company succeeds.

I’ve experienced this first hand. Because of that, over the years I’ve developed a series of mental hacks and reminders to help me confront, combat, and ultimately overcome stress so I remain reliable and strong for my team.

Here are 9 of the most impactful.

1: You can’t force productivity.

We all know the feeling. You’re sitting in front of your laptop, an empty email, presentation slide, or Excel spreadsheet blinking back at you, and… nothing happens. The words don’t come. You can’t focus.

It’s a torturous feeling. Personally, I’ve spent hours in this state of stress-induced paralysis, trying to be productive and accomplish something even though I can’t make my mind work — can’t hack through the jungle of competing thoughts and concerns polluting my head.

The answer, in these moments, is to stop, take a break, and come back to the task later with a fresh brain, or whenever the inspiration strikes. It doesn’t matter how long that break is. It just matters that it happens.

2: Not everything is an emergency.

This is a common and corrupting misconception that faces startup founders: you react to every inbound question, request, or problem with internal alarm. You feel as if your answer or solution is required immediately, lest the dire emergency in question spread and destroy your company.

The truth is, there are very few real emergencies.

You don’t need to answer every email or message you receive right away. In fact, sometimes it’s better to let your people know that they shouldn’t expect an answer right away. This will help your team grow to become more autonomous and effective, and it will help you hold on to a bit of your sanity and prevent burnout.

3: Catch yourself when you’re acting out of stress.

When you’re stressed, you make rash decisions. You lash out at people. You neglect logic in favor of emotion.

The good news is, you can sense when stress is building up inside of you, threatening to compromise your rationality. And so when you feel yourself starting to get stressed — starting to make decisions informed by that stress — take a step back. Ask yourself, will I regret this choice tomorrow? You’ll find the answer is usually yes.

4: Stop plotting revenge.

In business, you should expect that your competitors will try and screw you. The best course of action when you face such an inevitable attack is typically found in patience, awareness, and level-headedness.

Stress, however, encourages anger, irrationality, and a desire to get revenge.

Often, revenge is a distraction, hardly ever offering clear, tangible benefits. It’s better instead to maintain your cool, and focus on taking actions that drive progress for your company. As Mark Suster once wrote, enacting revenge is often a great way to “lose twice.”

5: Maintain perspective.

Stress warps perspective. Simple as that. It can turn what is a subjectively benign problem into something that seems cataclysmic.

Whatever the problem at hand, it’ll hardly ever be that horrible.

Take your day-to-day one step at a time. Like I mentioned above, when you’re feeling stressed — when a certain problem feels like forewarning of the end of the world — remind yourself to retain perspective. This will save your sanity and also lead you to the best solution.

As our studio’s Creative Director, Stas, likes to say to me (and borrow from John Lennon): “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

6: Use stress to become better.

Here’s a little secret: stress can be motivating, empowering, emboldening — as long as you utilize it correctly.

Consider the concept of “strain hardening,” or the process of strengthening a metal or polymer by deforming or damaging it in the formation process. Metalworkers make the material they’re working with stronger and more durable by testing it as they’re fashioning it. They force the metal to “overcome”, in a way, the challenges of deformation so as to become stronger.

The same is true of your leadership abilities: you can make yourself stronger and more durable by confronting stress head on and overcoming it with a rational solution. Every time you do this, you’ll become better. By embracing this mindset, stress can become something you welcome, even anticipate.

7: Break things into small prioritized tasks to get the ball rolling, and start taking action.

Jeff Bezos once said, “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over.” Or, in other words, stress comes from feeling inundated with large tasks that feel unmovable.

A helpful hack here is, instead of attempting to complete the entire roadmap for a given project all at once, break the task into smaller, more digestible chunks.

Start tackling these less intimidating tasks, and the next time you look up, you’ll realize you’re well on your way to completing what once seemed insurmountable. I get the ball rolling personally everyday by creating daily todo lists for myself of tasks that I absolutely need to finish before calling it a day. These todo lists start off with small easy tasks that I can speed through quickly — there’s really no better feeling or way to gain motivation and momentum than by crossing things off your list.

Bezos backs this up. “I find as soon as I make the first phone call, or send off the first e-mail message, or whatever it is… The mere fact that we’re addressing it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it.”

8: Exercise.

It seems simple, but it’s true: taking a break and running a few miles or going to the gym can seriously help calm you down and reduce stress. It dissolves anger and gets your endorphins flowing in the process. Some of my best workouts have been when I was really pissed off so this is my absolute go-to tactic for any stress that turns into anger.

9: Practice tuning people out.

My last hack is one of the most important. One common source of stress is feeling like you need to listen to every opinion or piece of feedback that’s tossed your way.

This isn’t sustainable.

Instead, learn to identify which people in your life possess high believability indexes, or who has skin in the game, and focus on their feedback. Everyone else’s you can take with a grain of salt. Believe me: this is key to maintaining your sanity.

Look, everyone manages stress differently, and the effectiveness of the hacks above will vary from person to person. The important thing is you take the task of combatting (and, in some cases, utilizing) stress seriously. Your team, your company, and your life will become happier and healthier for it.