Life is full of stress--especially the life of an entrepreneur. As someone who has run my own business for the last two decades and teaches strategy and entrepreneurship at Babson College--the country's entrepreneurship leader for nearly two decades--I know what startup stress feels like.

Entrepreneurs often feel so much stress that they can't think clearly and instead feel panic gripping their chests along with a deep desire to run away.

Here are some of the challenges that make them feel this way: How can I get enough money to make payroll this month? How can I persuade my investors that I will give them a huge return on their investment instead of losing it all? How can I keep my spouse from divorcing me because she is so angry that I just canceled our vacation for the third time? How can I get my engineering team to finish the latest version of our product right and by the deadline I promised our customers?

So I was not too surprised when a Babson student asked me December 3 to talk about what she should do to manage all her stress.

Here are four ideas that work for me.

1. Write down everything you have to do.

Here is my most effective starting point for handling stress. I recognize it when I can't really think but I just have a generalized sense of panic.

The simple act of writing down a list of all the things I have to do releases a tremendous amount of the sense of panic. After that, it may be obvious which of these things should be done first and which can wait.

If my list of things to do is very long--I might come back to it later and put numbers in front of each item in the order in which I think these items need to be done.

I might also decide which of those things I must do and which I might ask someone else to do.

2. Do the most thinking-intensive things right after breakfast

I am very interested in behavioral economics. Those who share this interest should read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman who won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his pioneering work.

He mentions there a study of judges and their patterns of granting parole. What the study found was that if you were a lawyer seeking parole for your client, you should schedule the hearing as soon as possible after the judges had eaten.

I found the reason for this conclusion very interesting. People require lots of energy to think through difficult problems. As they get further away from their last meal, their energy level falls.

For judges, this declining energy level means that if they must consider a parole case, their energy level will be highest right after they eat--and they will thus devote the most significant amount of mental energy to considering the arguments in favor of parole then.

If the judge must consider these arguments right before lunch, he will lack the mental energy to think through them and make the safer choice--to deny parole.

For me this means that if I am faced with an array of things to do, I will do the thing that requires the most thought and creativity right after breakfast when I am feeling full of energy.

If I need to do something that does not require much thinking, I will do that before dinner.

3. If you can't think of what to do, tell someone you trust

Often people are so stressed out that they feel the urgent need to do something. But if they are like me, they hear a very quiet voice in their gut that it might be the wrong thing to do.

I have made my share of mistakes by heeding that urgent need to act--instead of listening carefully to that quiet voice.

As a result, I have learned that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait out that urgent need to act. Unless you are in a life and death situation, there is almost always time to wait and talk about the problem with someone you trust.

Often just talking about the situation will help you to think about whether you need to act at all--and if so, what is the right thing to do.

4. Take at least an hour a day for exercise

This last one is pretty hard for many people to do. But I like to run about seven miles a day--which takes me longer than an hour.

There are two ways that this helps me to handle stress. First, I think it gives me more energy for the rest of the day and probably releases endorphins which put me in a better mood.

But I find that if there is a particularly difficult problem I am trying to solve, a solution often pops into my mind while I am running and thinking about something else.

I have found that these four life hacks help me handle the stress of being an entrepreneur. They might help you too.

Published on: Dec 4, 2014
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