biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: dealing with stress

by Grace Bonney

Today’s Biz Ladies topic is one that is incredibly relevant and important to so many of us running our own businesses: dealing with stress. After an interesting Twitter conversation I had with some of you after reading this NY Times article, I really started thinking about how so many of us struggle with balancing work and life. While I’m pretty sure it’s something even the best business owners wrestle with on a regular basis, I think it’s important to hear from people who have tips, advice or feedback to share that they’ve found helpful. For most of us, stress and over-working aren’t issues that are solved overnight, so I have a feeling this is an important topic we’ll be revisiting here in the Biz Ladies column for years to come.

Today designer and stylist Michelle Smith is sharing her thoughts on the topic, along with some tips for unplugging and de-stressing that she learned after dealing with a difficult stress-induced illness. I triggered my own stress-induced illness while writing the D*S Book, so I’m going to be listening to Michelle’s advice closely. As much as I know that it’s important to unplug and take care of yourself, sometimes we all need a little reminder that these de-stressing ideas are crucial for not just the health of our business- but our bodies. Thanks to Michelle for sharing her story and advice today. Stay tuned for more personal/business stories on this topic in coming months… xo, grace

The full post continues after the jump…

I’m a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of girl, self-employed with an abundant drive and passion for my business; I’m also a classic workaholic, as I think many of us self-employed, creative types are. Not only do I work hard to make my business succeed but I pursue my dreams with an unwavering focus and my mind is constantly churning with new ideas to realize. But I’m also (reluctantly) aware that there aren’t enough lifetimes for the myriad projects I envision and of the toll that working too hard can take.

Last year, after a particularly demanding season I was able to catch a glimpse into my future in the form of a medical diagnosis. Because of too many hours working and not enough time to unwind, the stress I was experiencing manifested itself in my body: I was diagnosed with an extremely rare, but stress-induced condition, which has actually made me allergic to the sun. This unusual and unexpected circumstance has all but forced me to reevaluate my lifestyle across the board. Mostly it has made me even more mindful of the need for balance and aware of just how difficult it is to achieve when to-do’s and preoccupation are just a smart phone away.

So how do you slow down when there is always something else to be done? Here’s what has helped me:

• Step away from the computer and the smart phone. This is a difficult one with twitter, blogs, pinterest and email just a click away, and I am as guilty as the next, but seriously take time to smell the roses versus taking a picture of them and uploading them to instagram – your senses will thank you.

• Focus on one thing at a time. It is quite freeing to rebel against multi-tasking, to let go of all those internet tabs and have only one thing open on your computer at a time, to just focus intently on the task (or person) at hand without any other distractions.

• Clean the house. When I feel particularly overwhelmed I crank up Beyonce on the radio and dance my way to tidier surroundings. When my environment is in order, I feel less chaotic.

• Take time to reflect. Meditate. Write in an actual journal (again, away from the computer). Do this before anything else, right when you wake, before the daily email assaults and to-do’s pile up. Chart your own course for the day.

• Stop juggling so many balls. Create just a few goals for yourself a day, maybe even just one big one for the year. You’ll be more likely to achieve them this way.

• Stop holding yourself to such high expectations.

• Exercise. We all know it’s good for us, but how many of us actually do it enough? Since my job keeps me in front of the computer most of the day, I lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, less than I realized before changing it. Now doing yoga 3x a week and exercising on top of that, I can say it really makes a huge difference in managing stress.

• Evaluate your goals and make sure you’re still aware of why you are chasing them. Why are you pursuing your business? Why did you start it in the first place? Take stock of the things you’ve already achieved and make sure you’re not just moving to move.

• Empty your jar. A friend shared with me a philosophy on staying balanced based on the concept of a jar filled with water and rocks and it really resonated with me. The jar can be filled with some large rocks and lots of small rocks but too many and the water that is in the jar will overflow. The large rocks represent the things most important to you: family, health, whatever, the small rocks represent everything else. If you fill your jar with all small rocks there is no room for the larger more important rocks. And regardless of how you fill your jar, you need to periodically empty your jar to make room for new things to enter.

• Take the time to regenerate and allow for periods of stillness. Joni Mitchell is famous for taking breaks between albums and painting during these periods of rest. Here is what Feist has to say about the subject in regards to the timing between her own albums “ I read a National Geographic article about soil and modern farming,” she says. “The point is for food to grow, the point isn’t for it to grow all at once and never grow again. Soil does its job, but unless you let it rest it can’t regenerate its own minerals and do the same thing again. You just have to let it lay there under the sun, dry out, get rained on, and be still a little while.”

To paraphrase a famous quote, life is like a river and will always be moving, the key is to follow the current and not resist the flow.

Suggested For You


  • Wow. I needed this right now! I’ve let everything get to me a little too much recently – I’m also way too harsh on myself. I’m trying to take on less from now on and stop saying Yes to everyone.

  • This is great advice, and I need to take action! Owning my own business, I feel as if I’m never “off”, and balance is key. Thank you!

  • I also needed this right now- I have HUGE goals that I have set for myself and two children not yet in school. It is a constant struggle to be a present mother and still work as much as needed to reach my goals. I feel like I am good at stepping back and taking time off, but not so good about not beating myself up about “all the things that are not getting done” when I do take that time. Thank you for the advice and I hope your health improves!

  • I love the Feist quote at the end. These are all good reminders. I’d really like to know if anyone has a good method and/or tools for creating a schedule for themselves that draws these appropriate boundaries between work and life. When you are your own boss it’s a must-have!

  • A great article and something we should all do. Take a step back once in a while and relax.I say this while my blackberry is buzzing away with new messages and my mind is whirring with a 100 ideas.
    But we got to start somewhere!

  • i’m allergic to the sun, too! not that that’s the most interesting thing about your post, but it’s good to know that i’m not alone.

  • I love the comment about the soil, its so true. I’ve just recently given myself permission to take weekends off. It’s amazingly restorative and Monday is a bristling of creativity vs another grinding day.

  • This article resonates with me so well. I have, myself, been working on breaking down the complexities in my life for the past 6 months. This has included simple things like decluttering my house (in order to be able to keep up with cleaning it) and letting go of some half-heartedly followed hobbies and accepting that I’ll have to be an admirer instead. I’ve also picked up reading more deep fiction, whereas I mostly read manuals and how-to’s and articles before. It’s been nice, but I still have a ways to go.

  • Wow. I could not agree more about the first point you make so succinctly and explicitly. To be open to experiences and to live them and learn from them is important. Too often, we seem to upload whatever we are doing…to share it before we even know what it means for ourselves.

    From a personal perspective, I sleep more soundly and have more interesting ideas when I have indulged my senses in reality during the day…

    From a design perspective, it’s important to experience things with our senses so that our work does not become too derivative, and monodimensional. More and more, I have become aware that being inspired by whatever is on the monitor doesn’t halfway feed the real reason I began creating things.

  • Great Feist quote. I can certainly relate. I have my own bus. 2 young kids, loads of side projects. I want to do it all and as a result am just coming out of a period of pure exhaustion! Over the past month, I made it a goal to do 30 min of exercise every day. Nothing major, but consistent. It’s made a massive difference. Thanks for the posting.

  • This is the best stress-reducing article I’ve read! Much better than the ones that start out giving you even more tasks to throw on the pile. Thank you!

  • Suddenly I became allergic to the sun. There were no explanations, now reading this article, I think I know why. I mean, my sleep schedule has gone haywire, my concentration and memory power are rock bottom. Obviously stress. Can’t evevn form coherent sentences… Thank you, for this bit of information. And the how to de-stress too.

  • Ok wait though, did anyone else read the nytimes article? The absurd picture of white-collar folks pursuing their “plan b” and finding out that it (surprisingly?) hard, honest work? Can it really get more insulting than to read about someone complain all she could afford for dinner was oatmeal, followed by Grey Goose for dessert? What did they expect?

  • I’m also self-employed and lead a very sedentary life. Doing yoga at least twice a week has literally saved my life. Getting in touch with the rest of my body and getting out of my head for a bit is crucial for my emotional well-being. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

  • Great advice, this came at just the right time! Exactly what I needed to read. Time to log off, put my feet up and enjoy a glass of wine!

  • I can totally relate. I actually quit my job this year due to stress, and then got diagnosed with high blood pressure. I had the savings to take six months off (I know, I’m really lucky), but my powers of concentration and putting together a coherent sentence (as Li, above, aptly put it) are still not up to speed. Meanwhile, I’m now looking for a new job, going back to design school, and working on starting an interior design business. The trick for me is actually scheduling down time – away from the desk, computer and phone, and sometimes away from the TV. When life starts affecting your health, you have to find a way to decompress. We weren’t built for this kind of craziness.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful article. I own my own design business, and have one child and one on the way. This second pregnancy has made my really evaluate my crazy work schedule- and I have really made myself cut down. The amazing thing I have found- is that I am working half the time, but I am still just as productive. I think sometimes we tell ourselves that more work means more..everything. But it just isn’t true. There is something to be said to working smart and balancing our time.

  • I have to say that I absolutely love the Biz Ladies series in general. It is so inspiring to read positive pieces like this, and also to be reminded that even though there are so many expectations we have to fulfill (our own and others), we can totally do it!

  • this is so wonderful. thanks for this great post grace & michelle. the jar metaphor is what stops me from being a full blown workaholic (and my 2 1/2 year old ;)

  • Thank you for the post. I think I have been on the same self-degrading path over the last couple months…I can se these and will, so off with the laptop.- Time for some reading and thinking…

  • As I embark on my own business full time (starting Sept. 2nd, gulp) I need to keep this article in my back pocket. Already my migraines are more frequent with the buildup to the great change and I need to remember balance in all things – for my health if nothing else. Thanks for the advice (as usual, I love Biz Ladies)

  • I originally started visiting design*sponge for the posts on interiors but found an unexpected bonus “biz ladies”. And this is one of the best articles on managing work life balance stress I’ve ever read. Thank you for posting, I’m hanging on to this one. Not only relevant for sole proprietors or business owners but for those with high stress positions for corporations (like my day job). I’m a new blogger and writer (well wrote all my life but new at publicizing it) and am finding it hard with my day job to “shut down” at night, too many ideas racing thru my head on top of day job deadlines and other stressors which were already present. I’m taking a hard look at my schedule to ensure I fit exercise and healthy eating in with me pursuing my dream of eventually being a free lance writer.

  • Ok, I`m totally tearing up right now. Thanks to all those smart biz ladies out there for an incredibly timely article. I was just laid off from my day job with city government due to funding cuts and am taking my art business full time. But I KNOW I’m a major workaholic and even my husband and friends are worried about what I’ll do to myself when going at this 24 hours a day. I’m printing this post out and taping it to my desk. Seriously, DS folks, thank you.

  • Marque, thanks for the NY Times article mention, I had missed that one. Went back and read it and was surprised like you. To rise the corporate ladder, you had to start from the bottom, work hard and it can take years to reach your goals (well, at least that is the way my life went). Why would anyone think starting your own business be easier? The same way we don’t pop right out of college and become a ceo, people can’t expect to get a business license and suddenly be at the top of their game or have the resources to delegate the general & administrative tasks to someone else. Also when it comes to creativity, I’m fully aware I’m years behind writers who have been honing their craft for decades while I chose to go down a different path.

  • It can be hard to accept that you’re stressed until your body throws a hissy fit at you. Earlier this year I was experiencing severe headaches and tiredness every day and I just ignored it until I caught a bad virus that brought me to a standstill and forced me to rest and re evaluate. Sort out your stress before you get ill!

  • I’m so glad to see that my post has resonated. I see so many of us working ourselves sick and I want to shout it from the mountaintops to slow down so I’m grateful to Grace for allowing me to write about it in this forum. Reducing my workload and stress continues to be a hard battle for me to take on , but I know that it is so worth it.

    I hate to see all of us thriving and vibrant now, but nursing serious injuries and burn out later.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

  • Thank you Grace & Michelle!! This is just what I needed to read today. My to do list is massive, but I might just block out some time for myself.

    It’s wonderful articles like this that are a good wake up call. Especially the exercise and burn out reminders!

    And I loved the mention about a period of stillness. I think too many of us just cross one thing off the list and jump right into the next task. We forget to have time to reflect, learn and improve between each task.

  • Great tips! I find regular exercise and journal keeping the most useful. I’ve started keeping a dream journal too. Writing down particularly vivid or strange dreams and then reading over the entries every once in a while, enables us to see trends or repeated images and themes and lets us know what direction to take, when to slow down, when to go for it, etc.

  • Great article and I think that most women/mothers do have a tendency to multi task which turns into the super mom syndrome. Daydreaming helps me to break away from my multi tasking.
    I love the idea of the jar. I personally do lists and redo them every couple of days putting the most important things to the top. Oddly those are the hardest to do so I like to play a little game by allowing myself to cheat and do something at the bottom and for some reason or other it makes the hard task easier.
    Keeping the balance in your work space which is your home enviroment, is a real task and this article is definetly one that I will be cutting out a couple of ideas to post in my space.

  • This article is so timely for me. I just got back from a dentist appointment this afternoon and he told me that he could tell how stressed I was by the teeth indentations on my tongue!!! I guess I’ve been overly clenching my jaw?! I’ve had the petal to the metal the past month preparing to participate in my first craft fair. Now that it’s behind me and time to return to my regular routine, I think I’m going to take this opportunity to start from scratch and build a whole new routine, with more time for myself, my hobbies and my relationships. It’s really incredible the amount of pressure I can put on myself sometimes! Thank you for the pep talk!

  • Michelle, is there anyway I can know the name of this condition please? The stress induced allergy to the sun? (if you don’t mind.)
    Thank you

  • What a great post! It is a a great reminder to take a break. I find exercise is definately the best form of stress relief but I need to be reminded to slow down and relfect. Thanks!

  • THANK YOU for this, Michelle. I need to hear it desperately – I’m going into my last year of an incredibly intense journalism degree (as in I have 6 weeks to get out my thesis), and will be working two jobs (one in radio, at a place I plan to work in) and holding down a 20-hour/week editor position at the school paper while also developing online content as the brand-new online editor (did the site this summer). It’s already starting to feel like way too much and I’m freaking out a bit. Our school’s motto is “you can sleep when you’re dead” and it’s not in any way a healthy attitude, yet I keep having this conversation with people in my program about how stressed we are like it’s some kind of badge of honour. I needed this kind of article right now, it’s a nice bit of sanity! (And also needed, apparently, to rant. Sorry!!)

  • This is a great article, we can never talk about the work/life/family balance enough I don’t think. So close to every woman’s heart! Love your words of wisdom Michelle.

    Personally I’ve found having Sunday as my one computer free day a week awesome.
    And I also wrote a list of things I DON’T do in my life, so that I can do the things I really value. So no ironing, gardening, free design etc. for me anymore!! The freedom is amazing :)
    Thanks again Grace and Michelle!

  • Li, there are a number of sun aversions people can have, some much more common than the one I have. Mine is called Solar Urticharia and you probably don’t have that since it is so rare. There is another more common sun condition called PMLE.

    Hope that helps. Feel free to email me directly if you want to talk more about it.

  • this is unrelated, but could you PLEASE PLEASE make an article about monetizing your blog. your blog has been such a success & i know at some point, you were new & small. i’d really like some suggestions of decent companies that don’t require 100,000 readers or more. i’ve only been around for a few months & have a few thousand, but i can’t seem to find anything that pays you per view & not per click. adsense seems to be quite awful.

    i’d really like to find out b/c next month my blog is going to be featured on a site that gets 2.2 million readers a month. so, i’d like to be ready for the traffic.

  • I read that NYT article while I was in NY last week. Made me think as my husband and I consider embarking on our own business journey.

    So true all this. It is so easy to let technology take over us, we need to take IT over and put it away in a drawer sometimes. Sometimes we pressure ourselves to keep up with the internet Joneses, but do we really want to be the Joneses? Taking time for ourselves, to reflect, and to be with real live people and have real live conversations and time together is so important. As I get older I feel myself rebelling against all the technology I prided myself on using. I’m not going to throw it all in the ocean, but I can put it away for a few hours a day. :) Like Jordan, I try to have technology free Sunday’s and have begun to savor them.

    Thanks for the timely article.

  • Great post, thank you.

    I realised something about myself the other day that I think is at the heart of being a perfectionist (which in turn leads to stress): the inability to forgive myself for not doing something perfectly.

    For some reason I can forgive other people, but not myself. And it becomes a self defeating circle. The more frustrated you get with yourself, the less able you are to work effectively, making you even more frustrated and stressed.

    There was another great NY Times article the other day on decision making and how much effort and will it really takes, especially in an age of a huge range of choices to decide between, which I think is relevant for most of us commenting here!

  • An article I needed to read given everything I try and juggle. I need to now live some of these suggestions!!!