A difficult conversation with the client, speaking in public, or a product demo - these are all situations that can be daunting and stressful. However, I believe that, ultimately, a healthy dose of difficult and stressful situations can yield great personal and career growth - as long as:
- we don’t let the stress in the upcoming moments (days, hours, or minutes) take over our ability to think clearly,
- when the day comes, we perform to the best of our abilities,
- we do a retrospective afterward to analyze what we did well and what can be improved for the next time.
In order to learn the most out of such situations and perform better over time, I’ve developed a routine for handling stressful situations. I’d like to share this routine in three parts: today I’ll focus on the preparation, and in the following weeks, I’ll discuss my thought processes during and after the stressful situation.
Of course, what I’m about to share applies to me, but might not necessarily apply to others - still, I hope that it will inspire you to design your own routine for handling stressful situations!
The preparation routine
The preparation routine is all about staying calm before the situation actually happens. This could be:
- a couple of minutes before stepping on the stage to give a talk,
- a couple of hours before we have that difficult conversation with the client about why we failed to deliver what was promised,
- a couple of days before we go to a networking event.
In my experience, the closer we are to actually having to step into a stressful situation, the harder it is to stay calm. However, even if the event is still a couple of days away, just the thought of it in the back of our heads can make us perform worse at what we are currently doing. The preparation routine allows me to stay calm regardless of the time of the stressful event.
The routine is basically a list of techniques. Depending on how they fit the situation, I might apply all or some of these techniques.
The positive outlook
I’ve already written about turning negatives into positives about 2 years ago, and it still, to this day, remains one of the most powerful tricks in my mental toolbox. The ability to reframe a bad situation into a good one helps me persevere through hard times or even turn a seemingly daunting task into a fun one.
Reframing negatives into positives requires a bit of creativity, and the blog post I’ve linked above has a few examples of how I do it. However, the basic idea is that we take a negative situation and try to find the positive in it. For example, if we are about to give a talk, we can think about how we are going to help the audience learn something new, or how we are going to make them laugh.
If we don’t have any ideas on how to reframe the situation, the trick that always works for me is to reframe it as an opportunity to learn and grow. This fits - most stressful and difficult situations will indeed trigger personal growth. For example, if we are about to give a talk, we can think about how we are going to learn how to give a talk, or how we are going to learn how to deal with the stress of giving a talk. Or - how we will learn to better apply our preparation routine next time!
Visualization is a technique that I learned from the book How to Master Your Monkey Mind, where the technique is called the Hollywood movie.
The idea is that we visualize ourselves performing the stressful situation in the best possible way. For example, if we are about to give a presentation, we visualize ourselves giving the talk of our lifetime: we are confident, we are making jokes, the audience is engaged, and so on.
Not only does this help calm us down, but it forces us to prepare - we cannot visualize a successful talk if we haven’t actually prepared the speech for it.
I find that this technique works particularly well when preparing for difficult conversations. We can visualize starting the conversation and imagine all the possible responses from the other party. This way, we can prepare for the worst and be ready to respond to it.
As a side note, visualization can also improve our estimates as a developer. For example, if we are about to start a new project, we can visualize ourselves working on it. We can imagine the codebase, the architecture, the technologies we are going to use, and so on. This can help us identify potential blockers and estimate the project more accurately.
In journaling, we write down our thoughts, without censoring them. It’s as simple as that.
By writing things down, we are able to clear our mind. We can write down our fears, our doubts, our hopes, our dreams - anything that comes to mind. I find that when I write down my emotions, the stressful thoughts “move” from my head into the journal entry, where they cannot impact my current thinking.
Apart from this, journaling is great for retrospectives - after the stressful situation is over, we can go back to our journal entry and be reminded of what we were thinking before the situation. This can help us analyze our thought processes and learn from them - more about this in the last blog post of this series.
The Question of Nine
I’ve been employing this technique for quite a while, but I’ve only recently tied a name to it, thanks to Sahil Bloom’s The Friday Five post. To quote the article:
Whitney Wolfe, the founder and CEO of Bumble, a dating platform worth over $2.5 billion, developed a simple framework for focus that I love:
The Question of Nine.
Whenever she is faced by a decision, she asks herself: Will this matter in nine minutes, nine hours, nine days, nine weeks, nine months, or nine years?
This question can make us stop for a minute and put things into perspective. There are many things that we worry about and yet, usually only nine hours later, it’s out of our heads, as we are already busy with other things.
This technique goes hand in hand with journaling - we can write our thoughts down before a stressful situation, and then observe them after 9 hours - more often than not, we will find out that we were worried for nothing. That can help us be less stressed in the future.
Searching the past
This technique is very similar to the visualization technique, but instead of imagining the future, we think about the past. We think about the times when we were in a similar situation and how we handled it. This can help us realize that we’ve done this before and that we’ve handled it well, which boosts our confidence.
In addition, this technique can be used to back The Question of Nine with evidence. For example, in 3 weeks’ time, I’ll be giving a talk at the OTS 2023 conference. I’ve already given a talk at this conference last year. It was a very positive experience, but I also know that I was under a lot of stress prior to it. However, 9 days later, I no longer thought about it. Now it’s been almost a year, and it seems almost ridiculous that I was stressing so much about it. By matching our current stress to a similar (or the same) one in the past, we can apply The Question of Nine in a more concrete way by telling ourselves: “I’ve done this before, and it no longer matters - so why stress about it again this time?”.
I learned about this one in the aforementioned book How to Master Your Monkey Mind by Don Macpherson. I have to say that the name of the technique made me skeptical at first, but after giving it a go a few times, I’ve realized that it is very useful to defuse stress. It works both when the situation is days away or when we are just about to step into the firepit.
The technique is very simple: breathe in, counting to three, hold your breath, count to two, breathe out, counting to five. The breathing should be diaphragmatic.
Whether it’s a placebo or not, I find that this technique helps me calm down and focus on the present moment. The best part is that for the most part, this technique is invisible, so it can be done right before any stressful situation.
I’ve known about power poses for a long time, but I was always a bit doubtful about them. However, I’ve recently started using them, and I have to say that they do work.
The idea is that we can change our mood by changing our body language. For example, if we are about to give a talk, we can stand in a power pose for a couple of minutes before stepping on the stage. This will make us feel more confident and less stressed.
Amy Cuddy’s TED talk is a really good starting point for learning about how to apply power poses and what power poses even are. I strongly suggest watching it and trying it out yourself - it just might make a difference in a stressful situation.
To summarize, the preparation routine is all about staying calm before the situation actually happens. The techniques that I’ve described can be applied based on the situation at hand. I must note that I’m constantly on the lookout for new techniques to add to my mental toolbox, so this routine is by no means final and definite.
Hopefully, this post has served as a source of inspiration for you to design your own preparation routine for handling stressful situations! In the next post, I’ll detail my thought processes during the stressful situation.
This blog post is a part of the series “Handling stressful situations”: