Why Reducing Stress Stabilises Your Profits

As a small business consultant, I see the impact that stress has on people’s lives up close. Many times it is a good thing as it forces the business owner to adapt and excel so that his business thrives. Excelling, however, is contingent on the business owner knowing how to harness small doses of stress and manage its effects.

Unfortunately, for far too many people stress both consumes them and paralyses their decision-making abilities so that their health deteriorates and their business suffers as their short-term profits evaporate.

Elevated stress levels over time can lead to myriad health issues, such as high blood pressure, obesity, sleep problems, and headaches. Work relationships with employees, clients, and suppliers can also suffer as unmanaged stress can cause the owner to make more mistakes, become irritable, lack focus, and perhaps even resort to medications to lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Unmanaged stress can impact profits. The American Institute of Stress in 2014 estimated that around $300 billion is lost each year in America due to stress related absenteeism and health costs. While in the UK, the Labour Force Survey found that 11.7 million days were lost in 2015/16 due to stress.

As an owner’s ability to perform suffers due to stress, the management of the business can deteriorate. Client work will not get the attention that it deserves, staff will leave to find a less volatile work environment, and competitors will start to gain an edge. Diminishing business performance will undoubtedly cause the owner to become even more stressed, leading to further poor decision making. It will only be a matter of time before the overall business declines because its foundation, the owner, is unstable.

So, what is the small business owner to do?

  1. Remember to keep things in perspective. While the success or failure of your business endeavours are largely dependent on your efforts, there are many things outside your control, such as the economy, regulatory change, and political decisions.
  2. Focus your efforts on the task at hand. Evidence suggests that multi-tasking does not work. It only leads to ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. Just think how dangerous it is to text and drive at the same time; it is illegal, not just inadvisable, as you are repeatedly shifting your focus from the road to the phone. You cannot do multiple tasks at once and expect to do them all at the same high level of performance. Constantly switching your focus as you move between tasks drains your mental reserves.
  3. Schedule your activities to achieve control over your day. There is a reason why militaries and schools are highly regimented, and that is because routine is the best way to achieve results. If you want to have less stress, you need to have more planning, which should encourage you to schedule your activities, track the time taken to complete these activities and then follow up on them to see how it could be done better in the future.
  4. Document processes and repetitive tasks, whether they are back office or client facing. Thanks to technological advancements, this is now very cost effective with companies like Process Street or SweetProcess specialising in standardising operating procedures. Every successful business is bigger than any staff member, even the owner. Therefore, by documenting work process and key areas of organisational knowledge this will allow a new person to step in and with minimal training pick up where the last person left off. If everything is in the owner’s head, or in the heads of employees, you are putting your business in a very precarious position.

As you can see, having high levels of stress for indefinite periods of time and having no way to manage this will have a negative effect on your health and overall business performance. Managing stress is vastly more important than chasing profits because most small businesses are an extension of their owner and an owner can’t just take six months off on stress leave and have other people cover for him. A healthy owner equals a healthy business and a higher chance of converting profiits into a long term sustainable future.

Benard Chedid is a small business consultant based in Sydney, Australia. His aim is to help small businesses professionalise by filling in the missing gaps that are holding them back, whether marketing or administration, sales or bookkeeping.

Image: Flickr

Finding the One: A Job-hunter’s Fallacy

In today’s world, the lives of fresh grads are meant to revolve around their careers and professional advancement, and so it is obviously no surprise that so many of us struggle to commit to a specific field, out of fear that it’s not THE perfect job for us.

Much like dating, job-hunting is a game of statistics. And since we concede that it is impossible to know who we will end up with, why do we still insist on knowing exactly what our dream job is before we even enter the job market? Perhaps the key to finding a good fit is to broaden our search scope, apply a few necessary filters, be willing to experiment, and maybe even admit that there may be more than just one right job for you.

Experience

One misconception of recent grads is that their first real job will be great. Most jobs will require years of experience, so you’ll likely start at an entry level position. You should expect that it will be one of, if not the, most demanding job you will have, that the pay will be less than dreamy, and that you will often have to prove yourself. Conversely, this is also the upside of being a new entrant to the job market: you’re competing on equal grounds with people who have just as much experience as you, and you have the chance and energy to prove yourself. So look at it this way: you’re not looking for a job right now, you’re looking for an opportunity.

Company Maturity

You probably already know that there are countless firms out there, big and small, in need of brainpower. As a newcomer, your priority should be to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can. If you have the luxury of working at a startup, go for it, because it will push you to work in different capacities and give you loads of responsibility early on, and you will end up learning more than you could have anywhere else. If you would rather go for one of the major players, you might want to opt for graduate schemes that are much more general but give you a glimpse of different roles through rotations that will allow you to have a better understanding of what you do and don’t want in a job. Companies like Heineken, AB InBev and countless others offer such programs, which are quite competitive to get into, but will help you grow by offering resources, support, and even mentors to help you orient your career in a way that works for you.

Field

This is the most important point of the three. Whatever you do, you will be accumulating experience and connections that will help you land your next, and hopefully better, job. However, if they’re not relevant to what you want your next role to be, you might have some regrets.

This is probably why so many people want to go into consulting: it is general enough to be non-committal, but the learning curve is still sufficiently impressive to get you anywhere you want to go next.

The issue with consulting is that there are only so many roles available, and it’s just not for everyone. Luckily, it’s not the only option out there. Some good starting roles are in sales, since you will master the art of pitching and acquire soft skills that are transferable to any industry. Major players in tech like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft offer some impressive graduate schemes centered around sales roles and with a high intake, which means you will be among several peers who will start at the same time, experience similar obstacles, and make your experience a lot more interesting. Alternatively, you could take a different route by choosing to go for a highly specific role that showcases your work ethic and skills, such as Investment Banking, and hence also act as an open ticket.

Ultimately, finding a job is about selling yourself, so find your unique selling point, whether it’s a language (spoken or coded), a degree, a reference, or anything else, and start applying – not to roles that you think will get you closer to your dream job (even if you don’t know what it is yet), but to ones that will teach you more; at startups, in unique domains, and even abroad. There is no right way to figure out what you want to be doing, but my advice is to try different things, and even if you don’t love what you end up choosing for your first job, by selecting demanding roles, you will at least learn and be challenged until you move on to your next job.

Sarah Yakzan is a Master’s in Management candidate at London Business School. Before moving to London, she got a BA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, and worked for a year as Marketing and PR manager, External Relations Coordinator, and Blogger. She will start her next role at Facebook in August.

Image: Unsplash

The Consulting Myth

The first piece of advice I was given when I started my Master’s in Management at London Business School was to beware of the mirage of consulting. On the first day of orientation, we were told that we should start applying yesterday, especially if we wanted to get into consulting – but not to put all our eggs in one basket because it was so competitive – and so we all polished our resumes and contrived our cover letters and sent them out left and right to anyone with an inbox.

As the rejections began to come through and most of us partook in a collective sigh of “oh well!”, applying to consulting began to seem like more of a rite of passage than a genuine attempt at forging a professional path. It was at this time, about two months into the program, that I began to wonder: Is consulting really the holy grail of careers?

Consultants will tell you that yes, it’s the best type of role you could hope to land; the learning curve is incredibly steep, it’s a free pass into any industry you want after a few years, and if that’s not enough for you, the benefits will make you come around. But what few of them admit is how demanding the job really is. The hours are ridiculous, the work is tedious, and you will probably be living out of your suitcase for weeks at a time. A classmate who accepted an offer from McKinsey & Company described his concerns about starting by saying “I will have all this money, and no time to spend it”.

Consulting is almost the business equivalent of being a doctor: your job is to diagnose and fix problems within companies and sometimes even industries, and you will always be on call. Does that mean you shouldn’t apply? Absolutely not, but what it does mean is that you should make sure you want the job. Not the benefits, not the travel, not the prestige. The research, endless calls, early meetings, and long hours painstakingly putting together beautiful slides instead of meeting your friends for drinks or going on a weekend getaway.

It’s not a matter of having what it takes for the job. It’s a matter of whether or not you will be happy doing it. In other words, would you do it for free? A good method to test how well you would fit into consulting is to prepare for interviews. Apply to whatever roles you want, do your online assessments, and while you wait to hear back about whether you have an interview, start doing cases as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can. If you continue to find some fun in the challenge of solving cases and crunching data, then congratulations, you have found your calling! If you are like me, and you get bored a few days into it, maybe it’s not the right choice right now.

Consulting prep isn’t actually “boring”, but it does require a certain ability to memorize detailed frameworks and apply them to case after case, which can become tiring because of the effort of trying to impose a logical structure onto your thinking process. There is nothing wrong with these frameworks; in fact they are a highly sophisticated method of tackling problems, but I personally found them frustrating because they didn’t always fit with a certain case, they limited how creative you could get in trying to find a solution, and they seemed too perfect to be applicable to the real world as more than an initial structure, which made it difficult to see the point of being interviewed on the basis of how well I could transpose frameworks onto a case. Nonetheless, this is not a general truth, and consulting applications are not only about frameworks, they are also about your personal fit with a certain firm, how well you pitch your solution, etc., and so there is plenty to like in both the interview process and the roles themselves, as long as you really want them.

After I realized that it was not the right time for consulting, I started looking at what else was out there, and believe me, there’s a lot. I was lucky enough to find something perfect for me in Tech, and can’t wait to start, but it’s only because I questioned whether or not I really wanted to be a consultant that I figured out what my next step would be. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t want the same thing as everyone else. In fact, it’s a good way to start looking elsewhere and find a field where you can make a real impact and be happy doing it.

Sarah Yakzan is a Master’s in Management candidate at London Business School. Before moving to London, she got a BA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, and worked for a year as Marketing and PR manager, External Relations Coordinator, and Blogger. She will start her next role at Facebook in August.

Image: Flickr

To do, or not to do

Why the traditional to-do list is possibly doing you more harm than good

We are all familiar with the concept of a to-do list. We are taught from a very early age that the best way to get things done is to make a list and tick tasks off as we complete them. The idea of a to-do list is comforting, it’s tangible and having one makes us feel like we know where we are in life.

But there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that your to-do list may actually be damaging, not only to your productivity, but also to your mental and physical health. Consider the times in your life when you have felt stressed out, with a lot on your plate and an overfull to-do list – how were you sleeping? The stress and anxiety caused by having an overwhelming number of incomplete tasks lurking in the back of your mind can have a detrimental impact on your overall wellbeing.

The Zeigarnik Effect

The human brain is more likely to dwell on incomplete or interrupted tasks than complete ones. This phenomenon is known as the Zeigarnik effect, after the psychologist who first studied it in 1927. There have been two main theories posited for how the effect works: the first argues that it is your subconscious mind keeping track of your mental to-do list, working to make sure it is accomplished; the second argues that it is the subconscious mind asking the conscious mind for help, like a child tugging on a sleeve, your subconscious mind is giving you nagging reminders to complete what it perceives to be ‘unfinished business’.

In evolution, nothing is an accident and so there are of course instances where the Zeigarnik effect is an advantage; in the original study, participants were shown to be better able to remember the subject of an interrupted study session than a completed one. But whilst this may be positive if you are attempting to utilise the effect to effectively plan your study schedule for an exam, if you are trying to manage your day-to-day professional life, it becomes more problematic. It’s very difficult to concentrate on the task at hand if your brain keeps sending you reminders of all the tasks you haven’t done yet.

Making Plans

The solution, it transpires, may lie in how you’re writing your to-do list. In 2011, Masicampo and Baumeister published a study entitled ‘Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals’. Their findings clearly showed that the act of making a list of objectives, with a clear plan for how those objectives would be achieved, has an effect on the brain that is akin to pressing a reset button. Study subjects who had made a clear plan showed significantly less tendency to return to those thoughts later on.

Anders Thomsen, former McKinsey consultant and CEO of no-more – a specialist provider of on-demand business services based in Copenhagen – says “I advise all of my team against keeping a to-do list, as there is a growing body of evidence which shows that they can actually interrupt your thought processes, thereby disrupting productivity. Instead, we have a weekly kick-off session on a Monday morning, where each department outlines their plans and goals for the coming week. I’ve found this to be a much more effective way to work, and my team agree with me.”

Decisions, decisions

The human brain has a finite amount of decision-making power each day; the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making is called decision fatigue. When your to-do list contains vague items such as ‘do sales strategy’ or ‘find new customer leads’, your brain will naturally try to skip them, as they require more decision-making capacity. How many times have you looked at your list, skipped over all the things that seemed too overwhelming and ended up doing something that was easy, but offered little value? You’re not alone.

One way to ensure that a task languishes indefinitely on your to-do list is to make it open-ended. When a task has a deadline attached to it, whether that deadline is self-imposed or otherwise, it automatically becomes more significant to your subconscious, making it more difficult to skip. The main difference between a traditional to-do list and a well-executed objectives plan is that those vague to-do items are expanded into a list of tangible actions, with goals and deadlines attached to them.

“The main thing with the service that no-more provides is that it is designed to improve productivity.” Thomsen explains, “the idea is that instead of coming into work and spending your time avoiding the elephant in the room by ticking the easy win, low return items off an overfull to-do list, you send those small but essential tasks to our specialists and spend your time on something more important that requires your full focus and expertise.”

Eat your frogs

The evidence seems clear: in order to work smarter, we need to change the way we plan our time. This means changing the way we write our to-do lists, especially when we consider that 41% of to-do list items never get ticked off, while only 15% of items on a ‘done’ list even started out life as a to-do item, representing a startling disparity between what we perceive to be the required tasks and what actions are actually required to achieve an objective or goal.

It all comes back to your ability to prioritize and to write effective plans. Mark Twain once said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Of course, as we all know, that frog is often the big, vague to-do item that you’ve been skipping over for a few days now and is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. But if you break it down into its component parts and make a plan for how and when you will do each of those tasks, that frog begins to look a whole lot more palatable.

Who knows – you might even have room for a second helping.

Emily Bolton is a writer and Marketing Manager for No-More, a Denmark-based company providing specialized business support on demand. By enabling individuals to outsource cumbersome office tasks like PowerPoint and Desk Research, NoMore is making it easier for the world’s businesses to focus on what they do best

Image: Pexels