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4 ways to keep your cool in the midst of chaos

By Cheryl Toth

How well do you think you handle stress at work? I used to think I was pretty good at it, until a few years ago, when I realized I wasn’t.

I was working for a healthcare technology company that was young and rapidly growing. Every day, my task and responsibility list seemed to grow exponentially. At first it was exciting, but after a while I was buried under a slew of incomplete tasks, and the excitement turned into anxiety, severe stomach pains, and such a focus on efficiency that there was little time left for strategic or creative thinking. Remember the Rock’em Sock’em Robots toys from the 1960s? When one of them punched the other one just right, its head popped off. Well, that was me. I was at a stress precipice. One wrong “punch,” or word or decision, and I thought my head would pop clean off.

According to research from the University of California, Berkeley, certain amounts of stress can be positive, increasing your attention and focus to improve performance. But the research also indicates why we should keep stress under control. Hitting a point of no return can result in greater and greater anxiety, or complete meltdown.

The good news is there are many strategies you can use to deal with stress before you hit this point. Here are four that I use regularly to keep my head above water, and keep it from popping off, too.

1. Be grateful. You may be asking yourself: What does gratefulness have to do with practice leadership? The answer is: It puts your business management decisions in perspective. When life and work are hectic it’s easy to go to a place of anxiety and negativity. Being grateful shifts this context. Some examples that come to mind for me:

  • One billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean water. I’m grateful that I do.
  • I’m grateful that I work with a team of smart and ethical people whom I respect.
  • I’m grateful that my body is healthy and that I am well.

What would happen if you and your team made a 180-degree flip from negativity and dwelling on what’s wrong, to gratefulness and dwelling on what’s right? Start every day, maybe every staff meeting, from this mindset. Your entire perspective will change, allowing you to prioritize and lead your team in a whole new way.

2. Accept imperfection. Attempting to make every decision the “right one” or “perfect” for every imaginable circumstance will paralyze you from moving forward, not to mention drive you over the stress precipice because you are trying to attain the impossible. Trade the perfect decision for the best decision that you can make, given the circumstances and information you have at the time.

When we help practices with operational redesign, we suggest developing policies and processes using the 80/20 Rule. This means managing to what happens 80% of the time, and not worrying so much about the other 20%. Sure, some people will refuse setting up a payment plan via automated, recurring credit care payments. But that’s no reason not to use this technology—because the majority of patients will gladly use it.

Stop seeking perfection and use the 80/20 Rule to frame your business decisions instead. Your decision will work 80% of the time and the other 20% of the time you will learn from the experience, strengthening your management and leadership abilities over time.

3. Sleep. Many business professionals boast about their ability to function on five, four, or even three hours of sleep. This is nothing to boast about! Lack of sleep leads to a whole host of health risks, as well as cloudy thinking, more mistakes, and poor decision-making because, well—you’re tired!

If you want to have the brainpower to lead and manage a business as complex as a medical practice, you must get enough sleep. Yes, this can be difficult, especially for working parents. But I would challenge you to look at what you spend your time doing during the last few hours before you go to bed. If it’s watching movies or mindlessly Facebooking and web surfing, try going to bed instead.

4. Dial down the java. I love the ritual of morning coffee. I’m not giving it up and not advocating that anyone else does either. Just don’t drink too much. You’ll feel better, make better decisions, and let’s face it – you’ll be more pleasant to work with. After cutting my caffeine intake by about 25%, I got rid of the mania, jitters, short fuse, and afternoon caffeine crashes that used to get in the way of my productivity. Of course the optimal coffee intake varies by person, and I don’t profess to be an expert on what the limit is for you. The point is: If you don’t overdo it on the caffeine, you’ll find yourself handling chaos and the unexpected with much greater aplomb.

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