Many years ago, I was watching the Olympic games on television and an elite swimmer was talking about handling the stresses of top tier sport. He used the phrase “it’s about managing what goes on inside your head.”
Maybe that was the first time that I became acutely aware that what goes on inside our heads can be managed and indeed it needs to be managed if we are to perform at our best, and most especially in times of stress.
In a senior executive career, there are times of extreme pressure, the sort of pressure that you feel physically, as if someone has drained energy out of you. And as you progress through your career these pressure periods have bigger consequences and can be quite sustained lasting some months or even years.
On several occasions I have felt the burden of this kind of pressure. And I confess that I have provided a mixed bag of responses, sometimes where I did well and others not so well.
I can say though, that over time I have improved, and inspired by this mantra of “it’s about managing what goes on inside your head” I have established my own mental routine that I have used on several occasions.
So, I am going to share that with you in the hope that it can help you too. There are 4 steps.
The first step is simply to recognise and acknowledge a pressure situation. Know that you are under pressure and know why you are feeling like you do.
Meditation courses talk about a technique called “noting” where you actively recognise the thoughts you are thinking and the emotions that you are experiencing, and that’s exactly what I do in my first step.
This step removes any mystery as to why I am feeling as I do, it confirms that certain events have brought this about and that I am in the middle of it.
I do this because I feel I can only prepare an adequate response if I have acknowledged and absorbed where I am.
The second step is about creating space to think.
What I do is to abstract myself from problem. By that I mean I try to separate myself from the emotion by breaking the link between the facts and the feeling. I acknowledge the facts of what is happening, but I park the feelings elsewhere. I slow down, breathe, and very deliberately give myself time to think.
When I do this step, the mental image that I use is that I am viewing the situation from above, as if I am studying someone else dealing with this challenge.
I find this to be very useful. It’s always easier to give advice when you have some distance from a problem so I use this abstraction to create that distance, so that I can, in effect, be a better advisor to myself.
The purpose of this second step is to calm yourself and get clarity of thought
The third step I call “toughen up”. Now that I have some calm, it’s time to find my will power and remind myself that it is the response to events that define us, rather than the events themselves, and this is my chance to respond.
It’s effectively an opportunity to prove what I am capable of.
I do this step by asking myself the question “When I look back on this moment, maybe in a few years, how do I want to see myself responding? What sort of response would give me satisfaction or pride?” I ask, “How does a wise, or emotionally intelligent version of me work through this situation?”
The purpose of this third step is to stop me feeling sorry for myself or feeling like a victim and to remind myself that you took on this job for a reason and this is an occasion where I need to step up.
One Tangible Step
This brings us to the final stage. Now that I have some calm from steps one and two and some drive from step three, I identify and take one small tangible step forward.
I have found this idea of the small tangible step forward very useful both individually and when leading teams under pressure.
In a large complex project where things have gone astray, and it is difficult to know how to regain control, then asking myself or the team for one small tangible step can unblock minds get us moving again.
Now, if you follow my guidance and you have done these four steps – acknowledge, abstract, toughen up and one tangible step forward – the problem has not gone away, but you will feel different and that will make a radical difference on how you perform.
Over a long career you can’t avoid these challenging times, but nor do you want to. Careers are defined by intense experiences, no one writes stories about the easy days, the stories are always about the struggle.
So rather than thinking about avoiding tough times, think about embracing them, and use my 4 steps, or something similar, to help you manage your mind as you work through them.