Sustaining Performance Under Extreme Stress

I started writing this blog post alone in a hotel room in Budapest last September. It was at the absolute zenith of stress; a time when I had never been under as much pressure as I was right at that moment. Project Svalbard (the sale of HIBP which ultimately turned out to be a no-sale) was a huge part of that and it was all happening whilst still being solely responsible for running the project. That much was very broadly known publicly, but what I haven't spoken about until now is that earlier that year, my wife and I had decided to separate and later divorce. As part of attempting to rebuild my life, I was also in the midst of buying another house, a stressful process at the best of time let alone under these circumstances whilst on the other side of the world. It was extreme stress the likes I'd never dealt with before at a time when the demands on me were at an all-time high, so I started writing this blog post, adding to it at the worst of times. Here's how I sustained my performance whilst under extreme stress:

I Leaned on Friends More Than I Ever Had Before

I realised something very profound last year; I've very rarely discussed my emotional state with friends. Maybe that's "just what blokes do" (or don't do), but it certainly wasn't a conscious decision on my behalf. It wasn't until the stress really started mounting early last year that I actually made a conscious effort to do this. Putting it in words now seems almost stupidly obvious, but there's a lot of evidence around the benefits of friendship on mental health:

It can be hard to talk to family members about mental health. That’s why it’s important to have healthy friendships to turn to in times of need. Our friends can be that ear to talk to, shoulder to lean on and nonjudgmental perspective that we need. They can also help increase our sense of belonging, improve our self-confidence and help reduce stress and anxiety.

Last year and early this year, it meant spending a bunch of time with friends in person during my travels. Since Feb this year as travel has become a thing of the past, it's meant talking to friends in different parts of the world every couple of days. Often those discussions have directly focused on the stresses in life but equally often, they've been an opportunity to bond around less contentious common interests; cars, tech, family. The quote above about helping to increase a sense of belonging really nails it.

The thing that perhaps surprised me most about those discussions with friends was how much their own stories resonated with mine. I mean that across all the fronts I was feeling the stress on too; whilst in San Francisco in particular, I spent a bunch of time with people I knew well who'd been through similar business processes and as for the things stressing me in my personal life, it felt like every second person I confided in had a similar story. Finding common ground with friends was always a huge relief; I wasn't alone in what I was going through.

I Did My Utmost to Not Make Decisions Based on Emotions

Emotions have been high during this period, both professionally and personally. More than anything, it was the unpredictability of emotions that got me; I could be cruising along thinking everything was on track then wammo! An email, a text message or a phone call would suddenly throw everything back into turmoil. I'd be upset. Angry. Vengeful. But none of these feelings would help me make rational decisions.

Frequently, I'd simply sit on an email for a day. I'd sit on my own emails for a day, granting time to reflect on whether my words represented the best path forward or merely reflected my emotional state at the time. A perfect example is that the house purchase fell through due to the vendor not being agreeable to the terms I set forth. I received their reply and was initially upset. I sat on the email, went and did a conference talk, drank some beer, had a sleep and responded the next day, cancelling the deal. It hurt to do that because I really wanted the house, but I also knew that "want" wasn't enough, it had to actually make sense and without agreeing to my terms, it simply didn't.

I haven't always gotten this right and there hasn't always been the luxury of time between emotion and response, but as a strategy to keep peace and maintain sanity, it's proven invaluable time and time again. I can't think of a time where I slept on a response and didn't tone it down a bit.

I Stayed Focused on The Bigger Picture (and the Small Steps That Would Take Me Towards it)

I was always looking a year or more ahead and I had a very clear picture in my mind of how I wanted my life to look like in the future. Stress has a way of clouding judgement and causing you to make irrational decisions, many of which might feel right at the time, but don't ultimately further your life goals. I had a vision of what my future would look like (and obviously given the HIBP no-sale, reality hasn't always aligned with the vision), and everything that was happening as I wrote this blog post had to support that objective. But there were also massive changes in my life that had to be dealt with here and now, and there was only one way to do it:

When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time

I like the way Psychology Today explains this adage, by breaking those steps down into goals that must be:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Attainable
  4. Relevant
  5. Time-bound

Consider what was required to achieve the big picture goals I had; everything from literally hundreds of meetings, thousands of emails, endless proposals, terms sheets, negotiations - and that was just on the HIBP front. Throw in the stress, emotion and frankly, some pretty dark moments on the relationship side of things and consider how totally overwhelming it can all feel.

I tackled it by focusing on the very next thing I needed to do to; the single, attainable thing I could do to move me towards a goal. Complete some financial documents. Schedule a meeting. Agree on some key deliverables. So long as the activity was an enabler of that big picture it didn't matter that it was a little thing, it was progress.

I Tried Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

It's so easy to get bogged down in detail and derailed from focusing on what's actually important, that there's literally a book on it:

I can think of many occasions across all the various things that put me under stress this last year and a half where I literally concluded "fuck it - it just doesn't matter enough". They were things that by any reasonable measure I had every right to be upset about, but equally they were things that had I gotten upset about them, they'd derail me from focusing on that bigger picture.

Legal jargon in contracts is a prime example. I recall one occasion where lawyers on my side of the HIBP deal were arguing with lawyers on the other side about whether or not I was a "sophisticated investor". I needed to be in order to receive the proposed equity component and unless we agreed that I was, the exact words I heard were "the deal's off". It was an obnoxious comment about a ridiculous premise, but ultimately, we concluded that the real world impact of the clause was likely negligible and further arguing about it really didn't serve my own purposes.

I Moved on Quickly from Setbacks

There were so many outcomes along the way that frankly, felt devastating. Incidents and events that left me fuming, emotional and sometimes, pretty inconsolable. It was so easy for these things to eat me up and consume me, taking my focus away from that big picture and keeping me from moving forward towards that bigger goal.

I found I kept going through the same cycle after a setback and it tracked pretty closely to the whole Kübler-Ross model of 5 stages of grief. I'd very quickly move through denial and anger, blast through bargaining and depression and get to acceptance. I tried hard to bring myself to that last stage and I remember thinking so many times on the way there "this feels much worse now than it will tomorrow or the next day".

In thinking of an example to illustrate this, the following tweet and exert from the "no sale" blog post came immediately to mind:

According to the lock screen, I took the photo below at 04:49 on the 24th of July last year. I was in yet another bland, nondescript hotel room, drinking bad coffee in an attempt to stave off the jet lag. I'd arrived in San Francisco a few days earlier after barely making my connection in Helsinki, literally running through the airport. My bag hadn't made it. I was tired, alone, emotional and if I'm honest, at an all-time low.

I felt like shit at that moment, but it was temporary and I had just enough sanity left to know that the feeling would pass. Just. But it always did pass and there'd be something else of a much more positive nature happen the very next day.

I Always Thought 3 Steps Ahead

Let me begin by saying this: I didn't always get this right (far from it) and on multiple occasions I got blindsided by things I never saw coming (the circumstances under which HIBP ultimately didn't sell is a perfect example). But the basic premise is that before expressing my position on something, I'd consider the range of possible responses I'd receive. Let's say there were 3 of them; for each of those 3 possible responses I'd not only consider how I'd respond to each, but how each of my responses would then be received. Same again for how I'd respond to each of those and in my mind, I was drawing out a mental image of 3^3 different possible outcomes - which one did I want? It was an exercise that enabled me to look much further down the road and consider whether it aligned to an earlier point in this blog post - my big picture.

This requires time, practice and patience and as I said in the opening, I didn't always get this right. You can't always be aware of all the factors influencing third parties nor can you be aware of all the cards they hold, but without doubt, this way of approaching any negotiation is enormously valuable. It also forced me to empathise; how will other parties feel? What's the most natural reaction they'll then have?

In my mind, this is akin to a "choose your own adventure" book; at each crossroad there are different ways you can go. Each of those then has their own crossroad as do those ones too. Before making a decision at that first intersection, I want to know what the next 3 will look like.

I Drank Beer

Treat this less as a suggestion to consume alcohol and more as a representation of taking time out for yourself. For me, having a beer is something I associate with switching off from the everyday stresses. I very rarely drink alcohol when working (now coffee, that's another story!) and treat beer as an opportunity to "down tools" and relax.

I drank beer on my own in a pub:

I drank beer with friends:

I found new ways to request beer:

The point is that I made a conscious effort most days to tune out and give my brain a rest. A good mate of mine is convinced meditation is an equal of beer in terms of helping him disengage from daily life and maybe he's right, I just don't have the patience for it (yet). Find your beer, whether it be actual beer or an activity which allows you to do what the process of going and having a cold one does for me.

I Threw Myself into Exercise and Health

From beer to physical wellbeing: I was trying to find a tweet to illustrate the point, and this one nails it:

At this time, I was now well into Project Svalbard, I'd separated from my wife and per the caption, I was preparing to deliver a keynote at Australia's premier security conference. When I first started to really feel the stress, I absolutely threw myself into exercise:

Gav is both my son Ari's and my own tennis coach. I literally said "Gav, book me in every day at the hottest possible time" and when the weekend came, I'd play with Ari as well. The standing commitment each day forced me to get out on the court and focus on something other than life's stresses.

Per the earlier image, I was also getting right into Poké Bowls which meant a lot of raw fish, brown rice and greens like edamame and seaweed. I'd order it on Uber Eats, it'd arrive at my door and IMHO, it's genuinely delicious. Physical health has a profound effect on your ability to perform mentally, particularly when you're under extreme stress. Exercise in particular has very well-documented benefits when it comes to depression, anxiety and stress.

Despite the emotional turmoil of recent times, I'm in great shape physically with a typical week including running, bike riding, tennis and wake boarding. I'm about to pass 3 months of closing all rings on the Apple watch every single day (amazing how much not travelling helps you do that!) and I can really see those benefits showing in the kids too when they share the activities with me.

I Established Stable Routines

In a tumultuous period like this, it's easy for routine to go out the window. Most people have some form of routine which establishes consistency in their life, for example going to work each day. A regular social commitment. A Sunday roast dinner. I spent 243 days travelling last year so consistency was near non-existent.

A saving grace has been my weekly update videos. Every single week, without fail, I've done the video. Sometimes they've been at the worst of times, needing to record and put my face in front of the world after feeling emotional / jet-lagged / broken (and a big shout out to those who commented to that effect!) But what those videos did was give me a small sliver of consistent predictability in life. During each week I'd take notes on content, pull myself together then sit down and record.

Same again for my blogging and drafting this one in particular was a big part of that. For the last 11 years, I've written about most of the things in my life that have been important. Writing transparently about what's going on in my life has become a part of my routine and indeed, a part of my identity. It feel "off brand", for want of a better term, when I don't.

As things have stabilised this year, I've been able to broaden those routines with regular tennis, time with my family and simply walking down to the beach most mornings:

I snapped that pic last week after watching a humpback whale and her calf cruising by, probably just 50m offshore. It was a moment of reflection following a period of great turmoil; it's been both the highest of highs and lowest of lows. But now, being at home and finally having stability it's crystal clear: this is a routine that's going to stick around for the long term.

Closing

This was a heartfelt blog post about some momentous events in my life. By all means, please comment, share your experiences and ask questions but avoid topics related to my relationship. As much as I'm open about the emotions I went through and how I dealt with them, details of a personal nature are something that will remain that way. Thank you.

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Hi, I'm Troy Hunt, I write this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP who travels the world speaking at events and training technology professionals