How Successful People Manage Stress

Stress is a mess you must address.


How successful people manage stressStress is pervasive. Everybody’s got some of it. And stress is idiosyncratic. What stresses out one person doesn’t bother another person.

For example, when I was delivering my program on “Take This Job and Love It! Managing Stress and Balancing Life … On and Off the Job” for IBM, I asked the audience members to write down what stressed them out. In a somewhat whimsical manner, their responses included such things as:


  • Bills travel through the mail at twice the speed of checks.
  • The hardness of butter is directly proportional to the softness of the bread.
  • You never really learn to swear until you learn to drive.
  • If you think nobody cares, try missing a couple of payments.
  • Success always occurs in private and failure in public.

Of course, we all got a good laugh out of that, but stress is not a laughing matter. Indeed,

1. Stress endangers your health, your relationships, your success, and even your peace of mind.

Two cardiologists … Dr. Rosenman and Dr. Friedman … made that abundantly clear in their research. They couldn’t help but notice that most of the patients they saw were what they called “Type A” people who had one, two, or three heart attacks, and often times a fatal heart attack.

They said Type A people had two major characteristics.

One, they suffered from “hurry sickness.” It was important for them to be someplace else than where they were at the moment and they couldn’t wait to get there. They tended to be multi-taskers who would try to read the morning paper, watch the TV news, and chat with their families all at the same time … and then be texting while driving to work. Type A’s are extremely impatient, sit on the edge of their chairs, finish sentences for you, and have great difficulty in just plain relaxing.

Does any of that sound like you?

Or perhaps you have the second major characteristic of Type A people. You suffer from free-floating hostility or anxiety. You may not be angry at any one person or situation but angry at just about everything in life.

The anger comes out in a myriad of ways. Drumming your pencil on the desk during a staff meeting. Physically hitting a table or speaking with a clenched fist through clenched teeth. Or perhaps you’re the kind of person who gets into line at one of the many fast-food establishments. You carefully examine the check-out lines to see which one is the shortest. You get into that line. Ten seconds go by and you figure it’s no big deal. Twenty seconds go by and you begin to wonder if you picked the right line. Thirty seconds go by and you’re angry at the restaurant for not putting on more help. Finally forty seconds into the wait you begin to think … or even say out loud … that you’re never coming to this restaurant again.

You may be a full-fledged Type A person or have only a few of the characteristics. But this is important. Contrary to popular opinion, Rosenman and Friedman found that Type A’s seldom rose to the top in a corporate hierarchy, not to mention all their other personal and professional relationships.

The most successful people were able to manage their stress effectively … for their own benefit and everyone around them.

So how do you do that? Of course, the simple answer is “let me teach you.” Invite me to speak at one of your meetings and present my award-winning program, “Take This Job and Love It! Managing Stress and Preventing Burnout … On and Off the Job.”

But let me get you started down that path with a few tips right now.

2. Systematically eliminate the unnecessary.

That’s right. Systematically eliminate as many unnecessary events, people, or activities from your life. Every one of those things carries a certain stress load with them.

You may need to say “no” to some things … such as bringing work home with you, volunteering for five different charitable activities, or overprotecting your kids. I remember having to say “it’s over” with a single mom I was dating many years ago because she could never relax, and as a result, infected everyone around her with her anxiety. For example, we couldn’t even go to a movie without her getting up three or four times, walking out into the lobby, and calling the babysitter to check on her kids.

You may need to eliminate your perfectionism because that always carries a stress load with it. When I was speaking at Purina Nestle, Jeff Roark told me he was raised by a father who always said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right!” He was taught to be a perfectionist by a perfectionist father.

Years later, Jeff heard Marion Wade, the founder of Service Master say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing half right.” In effect, Wade was saying if you wait until conditions are perfect before you act, you may never start and you will almost always lose out on something good. Jeff told me, “As a recovering perfectionist, I now ask myself: ‘Is this new idea or approach good enough to start getting some benefit out of it?’ If it is, I go ahead and do it, figuring ‘I can always make it better in version 2.0.'”

3. Consciously re-engineer the repetitive irritations.

You probably have some things in your life or your work that continue to bug you every day, every week, or at least on a fairly consistent basis. Then it’s time to figure out some other time or some other way to handle this irritation.

For me, it used to bother me big time to waste any time whatsoever. I wanted to make every moment productive. So I never wanted to arrive at the airport too early and then sit around and wait. The result was leaving the office at the latest possible moment, rushing to the airport, hoping I wouldn’t be stuck in traffic and miss my flight. It was crazy behavior that I allowed to happen hundreds of times in the early years of my career … until I re-engineered that part of my life.

Now I leave my office at least two or three hours before my flight so I don’t have to worry about traffic, the car breaking down, or a road being closed. I’ve always got enough time to use Plan B or C to get to the airport and catch my flight. And instead of being frustrated at the airport while having to wait at the gate for the plane to take off, I relish that time as a time to catch up on my e-mails or read another chapter in a book. It was a simple solution to a repetitive irritation that has paid off a thousand times.

My wife used to shop for groceries around 5:00 p.m. on a weeknight and would come home and talk about the long check-out lines, the cranky clerks coming to the end of their shifts, or the food items she wanted that were all sold out. It was a major stressor that happened at least once a week until she re-engineered that part of her life. After a two-minute chat with the customer service department at the grocery store, asking them about their quietest times, and after ten minutes of reflection on her own schedule, she found the perfect time to shop. It cut her time and stress in half.

What kinds of things are going on in your life or your work on a regular basis that stress you out? Think about how you can re-engineer that task.

4. Put things in perspective.

At the very moment you feel your stress level rising and your blood pressure elevating, STOP yourself for a second and put things in perspective. Ask yourself one question: “What difference will this stressor make five years from now?” Before a situation can be stressful, you must first perceive it as threatening your happiness or success. If you don’t see it as threatening, you won’t see it as any big deal and you won’t get stressed out.

For example, if a coworker refuses to greet you in the morning and just walks by you with a grunt or diverted eyes, will that make any difference five years from now? Probably not. If your neighbor puts an ugly plastic pink flamingo in his front yard, will that make any difference five years from now? Probably not. So as they sing in the movie “Frozen,” let it go.

On the other hand, if the stressor does indeed threaten your happiness or success, you should respond with appropriate assertiveness. When two people from a political group came knocking on my door, pushing a cause that would threaten the very nature of American democracy, my guest, 80-year-old Sister Margaret Schweiss, stood up to them. She clearly explained why she could never support their cause and asked them to leave. After all, she knew if that political group had its way, it would make a huge difference five years from now.

Stress is not a disease you catch like the common cold. Stress is a choice you make … albeit sometimes unwittingly and unconsciously. But stress is something you can manage. And you can start with these tips.


Describe two regular irritations that you can re-engineer in your life so they become less stressful.