(De)stressing Out: Elevate and Sustain Your Work Performance

What do Navy SEALs, NFL players, and professional photographers have in common? More than you might think. Internationally renowned performance coach Fergus Connolly, Ph.D., has worked with top performers such as pro athletes and elite military teams and has found multiple parallels between their stress triggers and the ones experienced by entrepreneurs—particularly creative pros like photographers.

Fortunately, there are techniques for recognizing and working through these triggers while reducing the stress that comes with running your own creative business. It begins with channeling the pressure that comes with professional performance.

“When you’re performing at the highest level, there will always be pressure, and you need that to perform,” says Connolly. “So pressure can be good, but you have to ensure that it doesn’t overwhelm you and cause you to choke. It’s important to manage stress so you can perform at your best.”

Deal with it

One of the biggest impediments to problem solving is stress. In the short term, stress makes you tense, and you can’t function properly. Over the long term, you can’t see solutions, get stuck in a box, and become myopic in your thinking. For photographers and artists in general, creativity is central to good problem solving. People who don’t manage stress well often fail to use their creativity to implement better solutions. Then they get more frustrated and aren’t able to do their jobs effectively.

That’s why Connolly recommends a “freeway approach” to managing stress. Think of stress as two lanes that you drive at different speeds:

The slow lane: long-term stress. This lane involves implementing long-term changes in lifestyle so you can address the root causes of stress.

The fast lane: short-term stress. When you’re in this lane, you deal with immediate stressors so you can perform.

To successfully navigate today’s landscape of pressure, Connolly says you need to switch between the fast and slow lanes, just as you do on a freeway. There are techniques to deal with short-term stress, but if you don’t address the long-term issues, it will keep coming back.

When you’re feeling stressed, the first step is to calm down, sync your mind and body, deal with the immediate issue at hand, and refocus. Connolly suggests doing this through breathing using only your nose. This type of concentrated breathing helps regulate your nervous system and calm your body. You can add a simple thing such as applying a cool, damp towel to your face or a brisk walk in the fresh air with no phone.

Once you’re calm, try to discover the deeper issues that are causing the stress and how you can address those issues.

Sort those issues in two categories:

1. What you can control

2. What you can’t control

For the things you can’t control, put them in a box and acknowledge these are things you have to accept. For example, after you’ve submitted a proposal to a new client, the next stage is out of your hands. Simply allow yourself to stop worrying about it. “So many people can’t let it go, and the residual tension associated with that issue creates unnecessary stress,” says Connolly. “You have to recognize that you can’t influence the decision by worrying about it. The stressors that we have no control over sometimes create more stress than the things we do control.”

The next step is to renew your focus on the things you can actively control such as how you deal with people, how you prepare for a job, and how you present your business to new prospects. Ask yourself, How can I address these issues or hand them over to someone else so they are removed from the box? Handing off some issues is a key part of the process. “The idea is to reduce the number of things in the box that you have to worry about,” says Connolly. This is another way of looking at classic small business management advice: Do what you do best and outsource the rest.

Change habits

When addressing the long-term pressures that create a stressful life, we often need to enact lifestyle changes. Connolly recommends starting with the pillars of health: rest and nutrition. Then by implementing new strategies and changing bad habits, you can gradually change the elements of your lifestyle that are creating more stress and impeding your creative performance.

“The key is making each change, each strategy, easy to do,” says Connolly. “Small, incremental lifestyle changes are much more likely to stick.” For example, reducing caffeine after 4 p.m. allows you to sleep better at night. Gradually reducing sugar intake lets your body relax because it’s not artificially charged up.

Several studies show it takes 28 days to change a habit. “However, those studies are based around habits that may not have been deeply ingrained,” says Connolly. “The first thing to recognize is how long you’ve had a habit and how ingrained it is. If it’s a new habit, it should take about 28 days to change your behavior. If it’s something you’ve been doing for years, it could take a couple months or more. So recognize that it’s going to take time, you’re going to have slip-ups, and that’s OK.”

The second thing to recognize is you shouldn’t make a change until you have a replacement behavior ready, says Connolly. For example, replace a cup of coffee in the evening with a cup of peppermint tea. The new, positive habit becomes the replacement behavior, and you are more encouraged to stick to it.

Connolly recommends making no more than three lifestyle changes at a time. Otherwise, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and give up.

Retrain the nervous system

Connolly explains that the key driver in our body is the nervous system. Our nervous system is the same today as it was in prehistoric times, and it’s both incredibly sophisticated and incredibly primitive. The nervous system was designed to protect us, and when we identify a threat, it activates and stimulates chemicals in the body that keep us alert. This allows us to respond to threats at a heightened level—like sprinting away from a predator. Over the generations, it has served us exceptionally well.

Today, we’re exposed to far fewer life-threatening dangers. However, our nervous system continues to respond in the same way to stressors such as deadlines or big events, often misinterpreting daily stimuli as threats and keeping us in a state of constant alertness. All day, we’re stimulated by alarms, alerts, reminders, messages, deadlines, and a kaleidoscope of flashing screen images. With this constant stream of stimuli we don’t get time to switch off the nervous system and relax. We need that time to wind down, and those times of relaxation are when we are most creative.

How do we turn it all off and help ourselves unwind while still maintaining the critical focus on our work? “Have a clear sense of what your business is and what your purpose is,” says Connolly. “This means identifying two things: One, what you are passionate about, and two, what you are good at.” These aren’t always the same thing. For example, you might be passionate about wildlife photography but really good at family portraits. That’s OK as long as you recognize the difference and maintain a balance between passion and necessity to keep the business healthy. Understanding your purpose helps you select appropriate projects and pass on those that don’t fit your core focus.

Next, drill down and remove the unnecessary elements in your workday that cause extra stress. If you aren’t consumed by an endless to-do list, you can prioritize the tasks that are part of your goal and actually get them done. This provides a sense of satisfaction that you’ve spent your time and energy on things that really matter to you. At the end of the day, you’re able to switch off and relax with the peace of mind that you’ve made progress on your professional journey.

Work smarter, not harder

Sure, it’s a cliché, but nowhere is the idea of working smarter more important than when you’re try-ing to reduce stress. “The biggest myth in Western society is that quantity is more important than quality,” says Connolly. “There’s a tendency to maximize everything rather than making things more efficient. And efficiency is critical to performance.”

The focus should be on how to sustain performance, not necessarily how to produce more. “Anyone can work hard for a year or two and get results, but you will not sustain your performance unless you take care of yourself,” says Connolly. “That includes maintaining a healthy nervous system, which arguably is more important in photography and creative enterprises than anything else.”

And, adds Connolly, when you can sustain your performance over long periods, that’s when you’re able to achieve great things and attain a new level of success—without cracking under the pressure.  

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.