On Maintaining Peak Performance During Times of High Stress

By: Jonathan Guerrera In: Stress Management 17 Nov 2010

As the title of this blog post indicates, I’ve been exposed to high amounts of stressful activity lately. Researching careers, companies, and future paths for myself – on top of blogging, an internship, schoolwork, and writing a business plan – is quite a lot of work. However, I believe that these periods of stress are beneficial in moderation. M. Scott Peck said it best when he said:

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

This blog post will discuss the various ways that I handle stress in the hopes that these ideas will work equally well for you.

Eustress vs. Distress

Before moving on, I want to distinguish between eustress, a positive form of stress that challenges us to grow in a positive way (i.e. – starting a business or having a difficult conversation), and distress, which is a form of stress that breaks us down and wears away at us (i.e. – getting verbally attacked by your boss at work every day).

Therefore, the key is to eliminate sources of distress, but identify and embrace sources of eustress. The strategies found in this post will be much less effective if you’re using them to do damage control from distress, rather than for finding the strength to embrace eustress. Although it’s not realistic to remove ALL distress from your life, it should be your goal to remove as much unnecessary distress as possible. With that said, let’s move into strategies you can use.

Step 1 – Leverage Efficient Productivity Systems

I’ve written many posts on different productivity techniques that can be utilized to exponentially increase how much you get done in a day. Personally speaking, I owe a lot of my accomplishments to my productivity system. Without it, I would’ve forgotten or misplaced many of my best ideas and would be much more overwhelmed trying to keep track of projects and meetings. Furthermore, the clarity of mind I get from putting my trust in my productivity system allows me to get more done in less time.

When creating an efficient productivity system, you must tailor it to fit your lifestyle. Since I’m on the go for 12+ hours a day, I require my system to be 100% portable. And based on how I like to organize projects and tasks, I need a quick snapshot of the time commitment required for each task on my to-do list. Finding a system that works for you is a matter of reading about different tools and systems and testing them out. See below for valuable resources on becoming more productive.

Literature (affiliate links): Getting Things Done by David Allen and The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (most notably, Part 2 on Elimination)

Recommended free tools: Remember The Milk (to-do list), ReQall (idea capture), Evernote (digital notebook for idea storage), Google Calendar (online calendar)

Step 2 – Treat Your Body Incredibly Well

A poor diet leaves me feeling spacey, dulled, and sleepy, whereas a clean diet of veggies, organic meats, and some berries leaves me feeling energized. However, I’m not here to preach to you about why eating an apple is better than eating a Twinkie. I trust that you know what you should be eating. Furthermore, it’s common knowledge that getting proper sleep and exercise are essential to keeping stress low and performance high, so I won’t address those topics here either.  However, the following paragraphs contain two not-so-obvious things that have done wonders for my ability to handle stressful situations.

Avoid Poorly Tolerated “Health Foods”
Through years of paying attention to how my body reacts to certain foods, I’ve learned that certain seemingly healthy foods drain me of energy and remove my clarity of thought.  For example, whole wheat bread, or excessive grains of any kind, aren’t conducive to a productive day for me.  I’ve found that minimizing grains and sugars, and eating more organic, free-range meats has roughly doubled my energy.  However, my ideal diet may not be your ideal diet.  Pay attention to all foods you ingest, not just when you eat junk foods.  If you feel that certain foods may be draining you of energy or causing “brain fog”, I recommend going to an allergist to get tests done.  Don’t let poorly tolerated foods zap you of your vitality and focus.

Adaptogens
Next, I want to discuss adaptogens, a class of herbs that help your body adapt to stress.  Adaptogens were discovered by Israel I. Brekhman, M.D., a Russian pharmacologist and physiologist.  He coined the term “adaptogen” as a plant type with these characteristics:

1. It is absolutely safe and non-toxic
2. It increases the body’s nonspecific resistance to internal and external stimuli
3. It brings any disfunctioning body system back into balance

Being in college, colds and other forms of sickness spread like wildfire.  Considering that getting sick usually results in many days of lost productivity, it’s extremely essential that I take something to support my immune system.  The most effective and cost efficient adaptogen that I’ve taken is astragalus root.  It’s a Chinese herb that has been used for centuries to assist the immune system and fight off stress symptoms.  I sleep better when I take this herb consistently and I avoid catching the waves of sicknesses that affect everyone else I’m around.  It’s an herb I definitely recommend looking into.  This is the brand I purchase: http://www.vitacost.com/Natures-Way-Astragalus-Root

Note: If you are on any type of drug or medication, speak with your doctor first to make sure that it doesn’t interact with anything you’re taking.

Other notable adaptogens include rhodiola, cordyceps, ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, and reishi.  I encourage you to do some research into these herbs to see which one fits your lifestyle requirements.

Step 3 – Remember Why You’re Here

When you’re lost in a sea of tasks, appointments, and deadlines, it’s easy to lose track of your high-level goals and the direction you should be heading in life to achieve them. This is why extremely busy people often marvel at how fast life passed them by while they were caught up in the daily grind of work. Consistently reminding yourself of your dreams, goals, and ambitions will help keep you on course. Furthermore, people who can keep in mind the higher purpose behind high-stress projects, tasks, and deadlines are more motivated to take on the challenge and generally perform better. For more research on how autonomy, mastery, and purpose motivate people to perform better at work, I highly recommend Drive (affiliate link) by Daniel Pink.

Think of the high-level view of your life goals as your lifestyle GPS. Let the GPS tell you where you should be going, and you just focus on driving. That being said, you must also program the GPS first, which, in our example, means defining your goals very specifically. Once you’ve defined your short-, mid-, and long-term goals, here are some strategies you can use to maintain a bird-eye view of your progress.

a) The Whiteboard Method – This is a strategy I utilize for my goals that take 1-3 months to accomplish. Buy a large whiteboard that you can hang in your room/office. Using the space on the whiteboard, outline 2 or 3 goals that you wish to accomplish in X amount of time. Below each goal, list all of the milestones that will track your progress as you work towards your goal. Put a little square or circle next to each milestone so you can check off the milestone when you reach it. Here is a real-life example that I’m using to track my career preparation progress:

Goal: To get a full-time job offer at a company that I would enjoy working for (to achieve by May 2011).

Milestones:
-Research the Fortune Top 100 Companies to Work For list, and the GlassDoor.com top company list, and select companies that look interesting and exciting to work for.
-Undergo at least 20 practice interviews
-Match up skills with the job openings at my selected companies
-Check my network on Linked In for anyone I can reach out to at these companies
-Tweak my resume to match the requirements of each job position.
-Apply to at least 4 jobs from my list

b) The Gantt Chart – Businesses frequently use Gantt charts to track the progress and projected timelines of a project. By challenging yourself to keep within the deadlines set by your Gantt chart, you’re more likely to act efficiently and effectively (Parkinson’s Law). There is a bit of a learning curve to understanding and utilizing Gantt charts, but free online services such as Gantter make it easy to create Gantt charts for your projects.

c) The Key Lifestyle Indicators (KLIs) Method – Considering how often I learn about successful companies using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to track progress, it dawned on me that KPIs could work incredibly well for providing a quick snapshot of the progress of your most important and valuable goals. I chose to rename Key Performance Indicators to Key Lifestyle Indicators, since personal goals are more for living an extraordinary life and finding happiness. Unlike the Whiteboard Method and the Gantt Chart, I’ve yet to experiment with tracking KLIs, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness as a motivational and measuring tool. However, I will start tracking four “lifestyle indicators” that I feel are most important to me and write a blog post on the results in the near future.

Conclusion

My goal for this post was to give you an in-depth look at how I handle incredibly stressful weeks, during which I sometimes don’t return to my house until 14 hours after I leave in the morning. A bullet-proof productivity system, proper diet and supplementation, and remembering the purpose behind your projects and tasks will do wonders in this regard. I’d love to hear some of your strategies for dealing with stress, so please feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart, and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I hack my way to happiness and fulfillment.


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Unlimited Drive is the result of four years of diligent research on what drives people to achieve great things. I always wondered how the most successful people in the world could reach such high levels of success and accomplishment. Well, I found the answer and wrote an ebook so I could pass it on to you (for free).


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