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What Leaders Can Learn from Lab Rats: Five Tips for Beating Stress


Have you ever noticed that the more stressed you get, the more likely you are to keep doing things that aren't that productive (e.g. waste another 10 minutes surfing the web or eat that second piece of cake)? Well, I don't know if this will make you feel any better, but it turns out that lab rats do the same thing.

As reported in the New York Times this week, new research out of Portugal shows that chronically stressed rats keep doing the same thing over and over (like compulsively pressing a bar for food they're not going to eat), because they're too stressed to do anything more productive. Of course, you might be stressed too if, like the lab rats, you had to live with dominant bully rats or periodically got zapped by a mild electric current. (Come to think of it, that doesn't sound a whole lot different than getting buzzed by your Blackberry 200 times a day.)

But, don't despair; there is good news in Rat Town. It turns out that when the rats got some time away from their stressful environment they came back with all kinds of innovative problem solving and coping skills. Researchers concluded that some time to recharge allowed the synapses in the prefrontal cortex of the rats' brains to grow stronger while the dendrite weeds in the habit forming parts of their brains were pruned back a bit. (I guess the researchers must have some rat size MRI's that they're using.)

So, I know what you're thinking. "Lucky rats. I'd be more productive too if I got some time away." That's right, you would be. Vacations are a good thing. But, you don't have to take a week off to give your brain a chance to recharge and come up with some more productive behaviors. Over the past few years, I've seen dozens of high potential leader clients in our Next Level Leadershipâ"¢ group coaching program increase their overall effectiveness (as measured by feedback from colleagues) by building in some simple recharging routines into their days.

Here are five routines from my clients that stand out:

1. Leave your Blackberry in your office: Several clients have made a commitment to themselves that they will leave their Blackberry in their office when they're attending meetings. As a result, they've found that they're more present and productive in the meetings and back in their office.

2. Schedule planning and review time: Some of my clients have had great success by scheduling an hour of planning time on Monday and an hour of review time on Fridays. Others have taken a different approach by doing the same thing daily with 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the day.

3. Start doing something you used to love to do: One of my clients used to love to swim when she was in high school and college. When we went through the Life GPS® planning process as part of the group coaching program, she realized how much she missed swimming. She started swimming at 7:00 am every morning instead of logging on to her email. Six months later, she had lost 25 pounds and was thriving in a new role at work.

4. Go out for lunch: Lots of people either skip lunch or grab something to eat at their desk. A client who lived a few minutes from his office decided he would go home for lunch a couple of days a week to visit with his wife. If you don't work close to home, then find some places you'd like to go where you can think about something other than work during lunch a couple of days a week.

5. E-mail free time: It's all too common to let the e-mails intrude on personal and family time. A number of my clients have set some boundaries on this by setting blocks of time each evening when the computer is turned off and the Blackberry is put in a drawer. Some of them use this time to hang out with the family and others have used it to work out. One guy lost 15 pounds this way. (I think I'm going to start an executive weight loss program.)

So, those are five simple yet effective ideas for taking a break from the stress that can lead to non-productive habits. What's worked for you on this front?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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