How to be More Productive Under Stress

Apr 4, 2013
11 Min Read

Got stress?

If you’re like 75% of other Americans, you’ve experienced moderate to high levels of stress in the past month, and often lie awake at night because of it.

Trying to balance the demands of your work and family life can stretch even the strongest among us to the breaking point. But there is a way to be successful and productive even when under stress, says Sharon Melnick,  PhD and author of “Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On.”

In her book she writes that stress is not necessarily the result of too much work or continual interruptions, but rather when the demands of your situation exceed your perceived ability to control them. Every challenge, she writes, can be divided into the 50% you can control and the 50% you cannot.

In this interview with Anita Bruzzese, Melnick offers strategies to cope:

In the book you address being “impeccable” for the 50% you can control when faced with a challenge. What do you mean by this? 

SM: We face so many stresses in our lives. The average business professional has 30 to 100 projects on their plate, gets interrupted on average seven times an hour and faces increased competition and rapid changes in their business. On top of that, 65 million of us are too wound up to sleep through the night so we walk around exhausted, and plenty of us have at least one person in our lives who drives us nuts!

The key to having success under stress is controlling what you CAN control.  You can practice this by dividing every challenge into two parts: the aspects of the situation that you can control, such as how you communicate, and the aspects that you can’t control, such as other people’s reactions.  Then, make sure that you are effective in what you are doing before you ever allow yourself to lose time and focus in frustration over what is not in your control.


AB: Many people feel stress because they feel trapped in their situation, whether it’s a bad boss or a demanding schedule. You say there are ways to keep a positive outlook and be happy even when the situation is negative. Can you give a couple of tips on how to do this?

SM: 1. See if you can turn that situation on its head in order to make it work for you.  Look for a “what’s in it for me?” How can you “use the company” instead of feeling used by them?  You too can turn an obstacle into opportunity!

2. You may be stuck in a bad situation because you have not exercised the choices that you do have in the situation.  If you are trapped in a relationship situation at work or at home, have you used the most effective influencing techniques to persuade that person to support you, or have you just been hoping the other person will change?  Have you set up constraints that are of your own making? Could you use your same skills in a new industry or start a side business? For example, instead of just being another coach, I now coach thousands of people to be productive under stress.

3. Scientists estimate we have about 60,000 thoughts a day.  That self-talk you have all day long is like listening to a mental iPod.  What tunes are playing on your mental iPod throughout the day?  If they are tunes that are bringing you down or focusing on what’s bad about your situation, you can always be a better DJ of your own mental iPod.


AB: Can you explain what you mean by clarity being a time management tool?

SM: The first thing you want to be clear about is this: What is the best work to be accomplished by you versus other people? Spend as much time as possible doing that skill, and require yourself to delegate, outsource, barter, or eliminate as many other tasks as possible.

Second, be clear about the objectives your work serves. If you work in an organization, make sure that the work you do aligns with the strategic objectives of your group and the company’s future directions. Always ask your manager for that larger context and check in to make sure your work is on track.  If you work for yourself,  rather than going to random networking events or trying to get your social media messages anywhere and everywhere – spare yourself this “spray and pray” marketing in favor of real clarity.

Third, answer in three seconds this question: “What are the top one or two efforts that either add the most value to your organization or do more than any other effort to bring in new business?”  Instead of getting caught up in the day-to-day, think through the work you have to do until the point of clarity.  Let your clarity help you be intentional about what you spend your time on.


AB: Some people claim they feel they have to do it all, such as meeting all the demands at work and at home. What advice would you offer them about trying to wear multiple hats all the time? 

SM: Though you will be tempted to do everything, you’ll stretch yourself too thin and won’t achieve as much as you want in any area.  Welcome to the new normal! Make your decisions in a context: identify what is most important to you in the current and future chapter in your life.

In addition, as Keith Ferrazzi discusses in “Never Eat Alone,” find ways to blend your work and personal lives, such as having business associates over for dinner to join in with family time, or having your children help you with some household chores or even work-related tasks, such as organizing your expense receipts.

You also have to “train” the people around you to support your efforts to be available for both work and personal interactions.  Examples include over-communicating with people you work with about your upcoming vacation in which you’ll be unplugged, or giving your family criteria for when it’s OK to call you at work and what can wait until you’re home for dinner.


AB: Can you discuss the difference between “always available” and “available on my terms”?

SM: Do you know “why” you make yourself available 24/7?  If you do, you’d be ahead of the rest of us who are unaware.

Is it that you want to be seen as responsible and responsive by your boss, coworkers and clients? If so, is it because you are proud of the contribution you make or because it helps you feel like you are a worthy professional?  Or it could be you are available out of fear – you are worried that the rewards will go to your competition or you will be reviewed unfavorably.  The more you know about why you make yourself available, the more you can check whether your assumptions are accurate.

We can’t help having our attention immediately drawn to an incoming text or email notification.  And I mean that literally – our brains are wired to deflect our attention to it.  But even if we don’t have free will, we still have “free won’t.”  We have the ability to stop ourselves from responding to that interruption. Decide what degree of availability seems right for you – have pre-set criteria which interruptions and communications you will respond to, and then filter out all other communications as often as you can.

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