21 Tips for Managing the Stress of Success
W e tend to think of success as a kind of salve for our problems, not a cause.
In fact, it seems self-indulgent or selfish to even talk about it. When I asked on Facebook for tips for managing the stress of success, one friend said, “If I had that kind of stress, I’d be counting my blessings.”
And that’s what makes us so dramatically unprepared for the stress of success when it happens.
Even worse, that stress undermines the very feeling of success we were after. We assume the stress means something is wrong, with us, our choices, with life.
Probably the best description of this feeling is Ze Frank’s brilliant video on the “supposed to be’s,” where you feel anxious that you’re anxious or disappointed that you’re vaguely disappointed in the success you worked so hard to achieve. Or as he put it, “to think that feeling bad is the same thing as moving backwards.”
Seriously, who among us overachievers hasn’t felt that way more than once?
Now that we’ve agreed that the stress of success isn’t frivolous, we can get on with the 21 tips to help cure what ails you.
1. Identify your fears
The root of stress is nearly always fear. The question is: which one? You can’t deal with it if you can’t name it, so take time to do a “premortem” to put things in perspective.
2. Let them be mad
One day I was talking to Jon Morrow about his various projects. The list went on and on. I scolded him a bit and told him he really needed to focus. He disagreed and said his strategy for success was to “let people be mad at me.” I’ve practiced this idea a few times myself and had great luck with it. I got a deadline extension and no one really minded. The fear was all in my head.
3. Get physical
Jonathan Fields once did a webinar for my No Regrets clients. He said, “If you’re the kind of person who thinks they’re too busy to make time to work out, you are exactly the person who needs to do it.” He went on to say that exercise will actually make you more productive and energetic, especially when grappling with big goals. This great video shows you the multiple benefits of just 30 minutes a day of exercise (and how to get it).
4. Set a timer
I’ve been working on writing a book chapter for a client, the longest piece I’ve ever written outside my PhD thesis. I couldn’t understand why I was resisting the work so much while simultaneously claiming I liked it. I started setting a timer for one hour increments to force myself to get the work done. And all of a sudden, a project that had been hard became easy and fun. Turns out I was just overwhelmed and intimidated by the scope, but I could do anything for an hour.
5. Define milestones
There are two big reasons to set milestones. First, you will depress yourself faster than a pickpocket in London by leaving big placeholders on your to-do list. It’s a mistake I’ve made many times. You have to break your big goals and projects into milestones so you can celebrate your incremental success.
As coach Annabelle Drumm points out, celebrating those small successes is also crucial to avoiding the “impostor syndrome,” where you feel unworthy of the acclaim you’ve secured. If you can point to all the small successes (and hard work) that’s gone into your success, you’re less likely to attribute your success away to luck.
6. Sleep on it
Whenever I got sad as a kid, my mom’s solution was to have a cup of tea and then go to bed. It took me years to realize the wisdom of this very simple solution, and it’s now the first thing I do when I feel stressed out and worn down.
7. Define (and redefine) success for you
Realize that what makes you feel successful will likely change over time. As coach Sarah Kent points out, a well lived life includes “challenges, heartaches, achievements, joys, discomforts, just plain hard stuff, and the simple pleasures.”
Learn how to define success for yourself here.
8. Subscribe to optimistic outcomes & realistic planning
Optimism has been shown to help people better cope with stress. But optimism can backfire if you don’t supplement it with some realistic planning. I tend to underestimate how long or hard a particular project is going to be. Over time, that can chip away at both my confidence and optimism. Now I just double any projections I make, and if I finish early, I feel even better.
9. Prioritize your spending
Think you can’t buy happiness? Then you might not be spending your money very well. I’ve found that indulging my “stress eating” habit and getting a scone will make me feel worse. But hiring a chef or signing up for an experience of a lifetime, like my upcoming dog-sledding tour, bring me immense stress relief and pleasure.
10. Stop procrastinating
Look, I totally get it. When I have something hard to do, I’m irresistibly drawn to Simon’s Cat videos and cleaning the bathroom. As good as those things make me feel in the moment, it only prolongs and deepens the stress of not doing what you know you need to do. So stop procrastinating (right after you floss your teeth).
11. Avoid entitlement
When you get a little success under your belt, it’s easy to begin to think you deserve more. For example, when I was in the military, I would get rated against my fellow officers. I was ecstatic when I got a #1 out of X rating, only to feel cheated when I was rated #2 the following year. Not only is it unhealthy, but entitlement will actually decrease your performance. Treat every accolade like it’s your first.
12. Make stress your catalyst
In Boris Johnson’s book on London, he argues that many advances were made as a result of ego and stress. Newton’s work on the mathematical proof for gravity came out of a desire to best Robert Hooke, a fellow polymath in the city. The great artist J.M.W. Turner painted his best work in an effort to outdo rival John Constable.
It works for everyday people too. My friend and fellow career changer Laura Berger said she kept a fear journal, and used its contents as a catalyst to quit her job and move to the jungle with her husband. (A tad extreme, but you get the idea)
13. Find your motivation
As part of a project, I’ve been researching the illicit use of ADHD drugs (like Adderall or Ritalin) by college students who feel they need a competitive edge to keep up. Apparently the drugs allow you to have tunnel-vision like focus and allow you to stay awake without fatigue for long periods of time. I can see where this would be useful on occasion, but unfortunately the drugs are also highly addictive. The more I read about it, the sadder I became, because it’s clear so many of us are dedicating long hours trying to get ahead in areas we aren’t all that interested in.
The answer isn’t drugs. It’s to stop doing the things that bore you and pursue what puts you in a state of flow.
14. Stop the comparisons
The more successful you are, the more likely you are to come in contact with people who are even more successful. And sometimes, that not only makes you feel like crap, it stresses you out too. When these feelings get to be too much, I isolate myself from the news, Facebook feeds and the like, and let my self-confidence find its ground again. Then I can re-engage with the world without the drag of envy.
15. Demonstrate commitment by saying “no”
As Micheal Bungay Stanier says, “What are you saying yes to? And by saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
Saying “no” isn’t flaky or slacking, it’s remaining loyal to the commitments you already have.
16. Remember the myth of one-off opportuntities
Related to my difficulty in saying “no” is the myth of the one-off opportunity. There’s a voice in my head that says, “You’ll never get this chance again!” The more successful you become, the more opportunities you’ll have to choose from. You want to maintain momentum, and mistakenly believe you have to capitalize on everything.
17. Give, don’t just provide
Most of us have to work to pay the bills, but it’s a mistake to solely see your work and success as an income stream. That can turn something fun into more of a burden, where you can’t afford to ever take risk or lose ground … or else.
One solution, says Jane Frankland, is to remember success isn’t about you, but about what you can give. Generosity feels a lot more fun than obligation.
18. Spend time in the company of friends
Never underestimate the power of a community, one that, as Hannah Braime says “values you for who you are, not what you’ve achieved.” I also think it’s important to have people you can see and touch who support you in addition to your online community.
19. Augment your diet
There are two easy supplements you can add to your diet that have been shown to significantly impact your resilience and ability to cope/bounce back from stress: DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) and probiotics (like yogurt). I now make sure I get both of these everyday.
20. Ask “how hard should I work” not “how hard can I work”
Another nugget from one of my all time favorite philosopher comedians, Ze Frank.
21. Demand excellence, not perfection (of everyone)
I’m an INTJ on the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator test, which means I get really bent out of shape over inefficiencies: my own and everyone else’s. I got better when my husband got promoted into a series of management jobs. I saw firsthand how hard it was to solve those problems that seemed so simple from the outside. Ironically, that has also helped me lighten up on myself. When you’re doing something hard, why should you expect perfection? Excellence of effort is not only enough, it’s a reward you can anticipate and enjoy every day.
That’s a lot of tips, but I’m sure I missed some. Do you struggle with the stress of success? If so, what advice would you give?
Editor’s note: This post is a day late, because I failed at tip #10, but while living up fully to tip #18 and tip #3. At that point I was so tired, I felt comfortable following through with tip #2 and then tip #6. All that to say that I’m not immune to any of these issues myself, but I do occasionally take my own advice!