How to Move from Stupid to Smart when You’re Stressed

You do some of your old job and some managing too. It’s a pressure cooker of tasks and responsibilities.

Stress isn’t all bad:

Low stress is boring.

Reasonable doses of stress challenge you to rise and conquer.

Stressed-out makes you stupid, moody, negative, and unproductive.

How to Move from Stupid to Smart when You’re Stressed

I use the following pattern for conversations with over-stressed leaders.

#1. Fear drives the conversation. They’re afraid they can’t succeed. Call it panic with a smile, but it feels like they’re thrashing in the weeds.

  • Pop the cork on pressure. “What’s going on?” (You won’t have to invite them to talk.)
  • Never minimize, explain, or solve a stressed-out person’s problems.

Address emotion before seeking solution.

#2. Reconnect with purpose.

Don’t try to solve stress until you find a reason to face stress.

  • How did you happen to get into this job in the first place?
  • What made this role attractive to you?

#3. Make a list of the trees in the jungle. Imagine you’re hacking a path through the jungle. What needs to be chopped down?

#4. No solutions allowed. When leaders list their pressing responsibilities, they add solutions. As soon as you hear a stressed person try to solve a problem, stop them. “Lets just make a list. No solutions.”

Get it all down. When they slow down, ask, “Anything else?”

Read the list back to them. Keep your pen handy. “Is that it?”

#5. Break it down.

  • What can you put off until tomorrow? (Prioritize)
  • What can someone else do? (Delegate)
  • What do you have to do today? (Prioritize)
  • What can you get done? (Make imperfect progress)


  • Where they feel uncertainty, ask, “Who might know?” (Bring the outside in.)
  • Remind them of their talent and strengths. “You’re suited to face this because you’re really good at….”

What suggestions do you have for making progress when stressed-out?

What shouldn’t be done when someone is stressed-out?

NOTE: This entire conversation can happen in 30 minutes. This is a short-term strategy. Long-term solutions require calm heads and time.

Bonus material:

Stress Makes You Stupid (Time)

Coping with Stress at Work (APA)