Thursday, July 8, 2010

Being cool on the job

How to run on fumes
Maureen Farrell,

In 1999, just months after launching a new media consulting company, Deborah Collins Stephens landed her first major contract heading a six-person team that would design a series of educational videos on leadership for

Two weeks into the project, Stephens' husband was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal illness, and placed on life support.

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She was devastated - 60 per cent of those afflicted with the disease die within five years of diagnosis - but she still couldn't stop working. With two sons, ages 5 and 10, minimal savings and a mortgage, Stephens needed the income from the project.

"I had no idea what would happen to my husband," says Stephens. "I wish I was inside of a big company that would say 'Hey Deborah, take 90 days off,' but we didn't have that safety net. The world couldn’t stop because my husband became ill."

The U.S. Family Medical Leave Act allows employees of companies with more than 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for sick relatives.

But entrepreneurs and plenty of other cash-strapped folks don't have that luxury.

While physical and emotional exhaustion are bound to strike, there are ways of mustering the strength to plow through.

Stephens relied on two seemingly small but effective tricks.

The first: saying thanks. Every day for weeks, she took a few minutes to jot down a handful of things she was grateful for. "One day my list just said, 'I'm glad the dog didn't pee on the carpet'," she recalls.

Stephens' second coping strategy involved a healthy change of perspective, or as she puts it, finding a touchstone. "You need to train your mind not to go to the worst possible place," she says.

Her first touchstone was a book by Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl, which she read at every spare moment during her husband's illness. "I just kept thinking, 'If a person could survive that, I can survive this.'"

And she did: Aside from taking off a few days after getting the horrible news, Stephens stuck it out, never missing a single deadline on the video project, she says.

She also wrote a book about her struggle, called 'This Is Not The Life I Ordered'. Best of all, eight years later, her husband is still beating the odds.

Weathering fatigue is about serious physical preparation, too.

Consider yourself an "entrepreneurial athlete," says Jim Loehr, performance psychologist and founder of Human Performance Institute, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm and author of 13 books on boosting human performance.

It's a good buzz word, but the real challenge is sticking to healthy habits as the hour grows later and the pressures mount.

"When people are entering a high-stress period, they don't sleep and don't exercise, but in fact, it should be just the opposite," says Loehr.

"[Exercise] helps them clear the emotional channel." Even if you're ill, physical activity at a lower level will help you beat it, he adds.

When it comes to sleep, getting those seven to eight recommended hours just may not be feasible.

If you're trying to decide between a few more winks or reps, you're better off hitting the gym, says Loehr. Those who exercise need less sleep - and they sleep more deeply when they do.

As for eating, try to consume around three or four meals a day and two snacks - bananas and peanut butter work well - and never go more than four hours without sustenance, says Loehr.

Avoid sugary drinks, candy or any other glucose boosters: After all, what goes up must come down, and you'll come down even harder if you're already overtired.

If you're really desperate for a boost in the eleventh hour, stick with coffee or tea rather than soda and energy drinks, which come with a sugar slump, says Helen Pak, registered dietician and nutritionist at University of California at Berkeley Student Health Services.

And caffeine will work best if you're not used to it, so try to lay off the java throughout the day.

Finally, avoid over-the-counter "alertness aids" like NoDoz and Vivarin, which are overloaded with caffeine.

While not addictive, "those pills can be counterproductive, since they make you jittery and decrease your concentration and ability to focus," says Pak.

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