This is all too stressful #2

Carole Speirs is a great motivational speaker and stress counsellor ( and as a mentor to senior executives, the management of stress has always interested me. It was no surprise then, that when she visited Dubai I went to one of her lectures.

I remember it was in this lecture Carole asked us all to talk about our stress levels. She was surprised, and a little disbelieving, when I was the one person who said, “I don’t feel stress. I don’t get stressed”. Maybe, it was a little bit of bravado but broadly it was true.

Subsequently, we met a few times for a drink and have maintained contact ever since. Carole and I have talked about stress and I particularly remember a drive through Dubai when the conversation became quite heated, although I can’t now remember all the detail but, delving into my version of Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace, a run-down shack at the end of a neuron trail, much of the discussion was Carole questioning me to discover f I was merely hiding and supressing my stress, which she thought may be more dangerous than denying it. A little like Nero fiddling in a burning Rome. I will ask her when we next meet.

Before I continue I should say, quite clearly, despite introducing Carole the following aren’t her opinions. They are all mine. It is not that I disagree with anything she says, it is just that from all that time ago I can’t remember what she said. I suffer from many things but generally, stress isn’t one of them.

I am always grateful that I manage stress well as there is every reason I should feel panicked. There are enough problems in my life that I could be a quivering and screaming wreck, but I sail effortless through the day and generally, sleep well. Doctors tell me that controlling stress will lead to a happier and better life and according to these doctors it will also extend my life. There ae many things that could kill me early, but stress is unlikely to be one of them.

There was a time in a staff review at Coopers & Lybrand when I was told that some directors and peers found it disconcerting that when there was a crisis not only didn’t I panic but I seemed to become even calmer, just like the lull in the heart of a storm.

I never practiced managing stress. It all came naturally.

I don’t think there is a universal panacea. If there were then others would be selling the snake oil. I am just lucky. It is the way my neurons are connected. On the other hand, there are parts of my background which help me stay calm.

One was my interest in how we all make decisions, covered in yesterday’s piece. I will come back to that later.

I am sure that some of my early reading and study of Zen has helped, not least the concept that there is always a ‘just right’ moment to make any decision and act. That is the time when all the stars and moons are aligned. In more prosaic language it is when everyone involved in solving a problem is most amenable to a solution and you have enough data to confirm it.

The real cause of stress is that you have found your past decisions have put you in a place you don’t want to be. Never tell me it is what others have done to you. Somewhere in the past you made a decision to involve yourself or interact in the problem you now face.

Of course, there are exceptions. Illness and ill health, or a global crisis are not the result of something you have done or a decision you have made but my rules still work!

The core of my approach is that I never (I feel tempted to put ‘never’ in bold and underline it) regret any decision I take. it doesn’t matter if I have made the decision too quickly or thought about it for a long time, or if changed my mind as more data becomes available, I never look back.

I am convinced that much of the source of stress is caused by reflecting on the past and because I never regret what has happened, what might have been, stress is reduced. Once a decision is made it becomes history and all I can manage is the future.

That is not easy to do but it is a lot easier if you are sure of your decision-making processes. If you are sure the decision which you made, at the time a decision had to be made, was made using all your skills and data then available, then, whatever the outcome, it was the right decision. Listen to me. It may not be the decision you would make today but the, at that moment it was the right decision. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just get on and manage the future.

A corollary is that as well as eliminating regret this approach can remove all feelings of guilt, another source of stress. Let me be clear. I am not saying that you shouldn’t feel very guilty about committing a crime that you have thought about and planned. Life is not that easy.

I am though talking about the sort of guilt we can feel from buying those over-expensive shoes, beautiful but inordinately expensive gold coloured dresses in Turkey, or a new mobile phone from Apple. I know two women, at least, who can now sleep more comfortably knowing that .

Understanding how you make decisions doesn’t take the enjoyment out of life. You can still be impetuous and let your System 1 brain have its say. In fact, I have a personal rule which is to try and answer ‘yes’ to any opportunity offered. You are rarely asked twice to do anything if your first reaction is always to say, ‘no’. Say ‘yes’ then let System 2 take over.

Letting System 2 have its say on big decisions is of course important and that means don’t be rushed into a decision. This is particularly true when a crisis looms. Experience tells me that is in a crisis, however serious, there is often a second, minute or day longer than you think. Take that time. Use it wisely. If the temptation is to react immediately the chances are you will get it wrong and your stress will increase. Don’t screw up the decision-making process.

My final tip to manage stress is to always remember you can only manage those things in your control. You can’t control President Trump (sadly, no one can) nor can you change the Brexit decision. You might get angry but there is no need to get stressed.

You are happy with the decisions you have taken, you never regret what you have decided, you manage the future and you manage what you can control.

Why should you ever feel stressed?