When I was young, paramedics came into our school to talk about their job. Although I don’t remember 99% of what they told us, I do remember one thing. The paramedic said that if you watch paramedics in an emergency situation, they never run. They walk briskly, but never break into a full run. The worst thing could be happening, but they walk quickly.
Of course, we all wondered why.
The reason, the paramedic explained, is when you run, your heart starts beating quickly and you feel like you have to act or make decisions quickly. And when you are rushed into things (as you probably have experienced trying to get somewhere by a certain time or in a pressure buying situation), you make mistakes.
In other words, one way to stay cool in stressful situations is to control your physiological response. The difference between being stressed, nervous, or anxious about a decision and being calm about a decision is clear: you can think through thoughts, come up with different options, and are much better at assessing risk and value. In fight or flight situations, your options are limited because that’s how humans evolved. Back in the day, primitive humans didn’t have the time to assess whether that shadow was a tiger or a large plant. If you didn’t act right away, you may be eaten.
But enough about history, how can you stay cool, calm and collected even when all hell breaks loose?
Focus on what you can control
Stoicism is the philosophy of focusing on what you can control and ignoring what you can’t. If you go outside for a picnic, you can’t control the weather, but you can control whether you and your family enjoy the picnic (by eating indoors, undercover or in your car). Why get mad at the rain when you can’t change it?
I don’t think I’ve ever worked on or managed a project where issues did not arise. Sometimes it’s one key stakeholder who refuses to acknowledge and support the work. Or it could be that we have sponsors with their own hidden agenda. In all cases, I try to steer the project back on track as best I can. But I also recognize that I have no control over some of these factors (like if someone has a political agenda). If it’s something I can’t control, I don’t worry about it. Simple as that.
Get it out of your head
One reason you want to get tasks and worries out of your head and onto paper or a digital system is so you can see it with clarity against other tasks and worries. I noticed that when I get ideas into a system, I think about it less (or not at all). Your brain is incredibly powerful and any time there are open loops in your brain, you will not stop thinking about those open loops. But if you capture all the open loops into a system, your brain’s ‘RAM’ will be freed to think of other things.
Find colleagues who you can bounce ideas and suggestions off of
Sometimes, you are so deep into a problem or activity that you can’t see anything else outside of it. I’ve always found it helpful to talk to colleagues about it, especially those that have no involvement with what you’re doing. They ask questions to clarify your thinking. Your peers may suggest ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of. They recommend people to talk to that you wouldn’t dream of approaching.
Understand that your behavior affects others
One thing I noticed as a project manager is that when I talk to my sponsor or stakeholders, they notice my manner and demeanour. If they see that I’m stressed or worried all the time, they get stressed and worried because they think there’s something wrong with the project. If they see me calm and cool, they worry less because they think the project is going well (though to be honest, it’s not always going well).
Years ago, I made a terrible mistake on a project I was working on. I figured out what I did and because I was new, I couldn’t think of a solution. But I knew I needed to talk to my boss to tell them what was going on. I went into the office, and calmly told them what had happened. Because I came to my boss in a calm manner, she didn’t freak out. My behaviour primed her for a calm situation.
Plan for the worst
This is more so an activity to do before embarking on a highly complex or challenging project: do what Tim Ferriss calls the fear activity. Write all of your fears, then write how likely they will happen, and the impact they will have in your life. And then finally, write what you would do if that fear came true. For example, with starting a business, one fear you might have is not having income for several months or years. In that scenario, you can always go back to your job, maybe at reduced pay. Or you can do consulting gigs to pay the bills. What you think is a worst-case scenario is, in reality, magnified by your imagination.
Know that things will be okay
Nothing is ever bad as it seems given enough time. When my girlfriend broke up with me, I thought I would never find love again. When I was laid off from work, I thought I would never get as good of a job working with smart people. Give it time, and trust in yourself that things will be okay and it will work out.