Reframe stress

Top performers do business while workaholics are busy. There is a huge difference. Do we allow stress to manage us, or are we capable of stress management? Quite often the difference between the two is our mindset. Here I want to focus on the mindset involved, not on the stress resilience or reframing skill. Read more here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Soldier vs officer

One of my bosses used to tell me a funny line: “A soldier should be industrious and stupid, while an officer should be smart and lazy”. Let us think about it for a moment.

If a leader is stupid and energetic he will make a lot of mistakes. A smart and industrious leader will do the work for the entire team and will not dedicate sufficiently. The team of a lazy and stupid boss will be highly ineffective.

A smart and lazy employee will not do any work, or question all the instructions he is given. When the employee is stupid and lazy, he may sabotage the entire team. A smart and industrious employee will do so much work, that he will eventually burn out.

Now, most of us want to be both smart and industrious, but this is a stressful position. So let us reframe stress.

The worst-case scenario

OK, if you are stupid you should probably work hard. However, if you read my blog I think you are anything but stupid. This means that in the ideal world you should get a promotion and start working less. Will that work?

There is a high chance that in addition to being smart you are slightly neurotic. Even if you are neurotic below the average, you still worry that your peers or underlings will screw up their projects. Moreover, you worry that if you do not work hard enough, not only you will not be marked for promotion, but quite likely you will be marked for downsizing. These worries are real, and things like that happen.

Yet the worst-case scenario you forget to worry about is not work-related, but health-related. Your body may collapse, you may suffer a nervous breakdown, or your routine may have an adverse effect on your family. This is something people try not to think of. I remember that when I worked in a big company I did not see a coworker for 3 weeks, so I asked his boss what happened. His answer shocked me “The guy died from cancer 3 days ago”.

Long hours and social pressure

Koreans are known for their tendency to work crazy hours. One of my friends had a meeting at the head office in Samsung. All the conference rooms happened to be busy. Three engineers entertained him for 3 hours until there was an available conference room. After the meeting, they continued to work till late at night.

There was no pressing project. Nobody was selected for promotion. Their job was not that important. They simply did not want to go home before their peers, so that stretched their work to fill in all the available time. Do not do that!

We can be present and at work and useful and yet do zero work. There are several alternatives which I want to offer.

Healthy alternatives to hard work

So now we assume you are lazy, yet ethical and do not want to go home due to social pressure. What can you do?

  • Brainstorm. This what I do about 30% of my work time. I am simply thinking of various ways to make things work better, discussing the alternatives with my peers and formulating my ideas.
  • Read. Another thing you can and should do at work: understand your project intimately, know your industry well enough to understand the role of each feature, learn the latest trends in the market and in your area of expertise.
  • Walk around. Go to professional conferences, visit your suppliers and your clients, give a helping hand in different laboratories of your company, go outside of the building simply to have phone conversations or brainstorm in a more natural environment.
  • Build pet projects. Before you can prove that your ideas work, you may need to construct and test prototypes. Some of them will fail, yet some will succeed.
  • Document. Most people understand the value of good documentation, yet hate the process of writing. If you can write and enjoy the process, everybody will be grateful.
  • Improve tools. Another strongly underrated activity is building the tools to make the teammates work more effective. It will keep you busy, reduce the stress levels, and the results will help your company.

Reframe stress into a wakeup call

If you feel so stressed that you need to do something, no matter what, it is a very bad sign. Maybe you should stop and do mindfulness or grounding exercises. A very good doctor once said “If the patient cannot wait the time it takes a doctor to walk to his bed, the doctor will probably be helpless once he gets to the bed.” We need to calm down and reduce stress levels to make sound decisions.

Chronic stress is somewhat different from the stress that is generated by timing and urgency. We do not really notice it. Occasionally it feels like a week of great excitement followed by a week of apathy. A team that is dedicated to crisis management will do very little between the crisis periods. It is not very helpful to build infrastructures and solutions that eliminate crisis situations.

In my last work, I replace a manager who was lousy in systematic thinking but great in crisis management. It took me exactly 12 months to restructure the team and the working practices to the point of elimination of crisis situations. During this time, the team members were mostly managing the crisis while I was developing proper tools. The crisis was caused by using prototyping tools in a production environment.

If you feel stress and the stress does not go away, something you do is wrong. Maybe you can fix it, possibly wait for the management to change and maybe you should be looking for a new job.

Competition may reframe stress into motivation

Not all kinds of stress are bad. Some stress that is associated with competitive environments may actually be good for you. More than once I felt most creative near a deadline working on a hard task facing fierce competition.

The competitive stress depresses some and motivates others. Some leaders generate constant competition giving the same challenge to multiple teams and achieve several goals:

  1. Gamify each team’s work. Nobody wants to come last.
  2. Provide alternatives to choose from.
  3. Boost creativity, as the teams will prefer not to face each other directly.
  4. Map out less effective teams.
  5. Reduce the chances of negative result, e.g. a project that did not come up with a solution.

It is also possible that competing teams will take each other’s practices and ideas, generally improving their effectiveness.

The competition needs to be healthy. If this practice is overused, the teams will feel apathy and burnout, or aggressivity and sabotage.

Do not reframe stress into a status symbol

Some people love to feel needed. They often encourage stressful situations, as these situations boost their ego or feeling of security. This is probably a mistake.

Being a manager of an irreplaceable employee or a client of irreplaceable service provider is stressful. Simply to control the situation and to scale the effort, it is only reasonable to look for viable alternatives as soon as possible.

A good manager will prefer to hire a team of six and pay six times more, just not depend on one person.

This is how my father became a pensioner. He was replaced by six people that could span his expertise between them. They were so afraid of his capabilities, that they did everything to prevent him from becoming a consultant. He worked very hard, became an expert in multiple disciplines and then became unhirable because of it.


It is possible to reframe stress into a business opportunity. You can ask for more computational resources, a trainee, maybe to have a larger team, possibly even ask a figure of authority to mentor you.

You will probably be asked to formulate some of your tasks in a structured fashion, so they can be delegated to other people. This is probably a good thing, as it will allow you to focus on more interesting and complex tasks while relieving you from routine duties.

Very few people can effectively divide and delegate tasks. If you can do this, you are marked for promotion.

Practice mindfulness and creativity

Most people fix things or avoid issues automatically without understanding what they do. If you practice certain kinds of creativity and mindfulness, you become painfully aware of the things that stress you.

Anything that stresses you is probably stressful for others. If you can find a way to overcome the stressor, you might be able to monetize the solution.

Did you notice that most discoveries come from certain pain or confusion? Being able to identify needs very accurately and find solutions that others overlooked is the way of an inventor or entrepreneur.

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