How designers can deal with stress

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar…?

The product manager kills a feature that you’ve been working on the entire sprint. A stakeholder criticizes your design in the middle of a big presentation. An executive demands another feature be added to your mockups but refuses to allow the timeline to be adjusted accordingly.

Unexpected frustrations can pop-up and challenge the poise of even the most seasoned Product/UX Designers. It can be tough to keep your cool when you get hit with last minute changes or unexpected scope creep right before the deadline.

However, the cost is simply too high when we lose our composure and snap back. We can lose respect, compromise our reputation, and damage the trust of a professional relationship when we lose our cool. I had a boss once who would pound his desk and drop expletives when he got upset. Needless to say, he didn’t last long at the company. That’s an extreme example, of course, but repeatedly losing his cool contributed to him losing his job.

As professional designers, we have to manage ourselves in tense workplace situations when projects go sideways. Here’s a few tips on turning those obstacles into wins…

1. Expect the unexpected

The opportunity to get offended is pretty much always there for the taking. The choice is there. If you have a lengthy commute in a city, there is probably a 5% chance that you will make it home after work without getting cut-off on the road. It is basically guaranteed to happen. Admit to yourself that something offensive is probably going to happen today. How you choose to respond, however, is up to you.

When was the last time that worked on a professional design project that went perfectly smooth with no surprises? When was the last time nobody changed their mind about anything during an entire sprint? Expect the bumps in the project to surface. Expect the unexpected stakeholder feedback. Adjusting course and maintaining poise is part of being a professional designer.

I don’t subscribe to Murphy’s law, and I don’t live my life expecting bad things to happen. In the workplace, however, I do try to anticipate the curveballs that every professional designer has faced. I accept the reality that frustrating surprises are going to pop-up with most design projects. It comes with the territory of being a professional designer and working with other humans.

2. Find the humor

What is a funny angle for that frustrating situation that just happened? The humorous elements may be a challenge to notice in the heat of the moment, but you can probably think of something that’ll give you a chuckle if you give it a minute. Finding the funny angle on a tough situation can minimize the frustration and help you keep your cool. Bonus points if you find the humor during the tense moment at work. Humor can defuse a tense situation like nothing else… just keep it respectful and HR appropriate if you decide to share it out loud, obviously. When in doubt, keep the joke to yourself.

I’m not saying to avoid tough situations and sweep everything under the rug with laughter. If there’s an issue to resolve, it needs to be resolved. I’m merely saying when tough stuff pops up, you can reduce some tension with a good laugh.

3. Take a moment to cool

You don’t want to unload and complain in the heat of the moment without taking a little time to reflect on what went down. Take the time to cool off when a tense moment happens at work before responding. Hold off on sending that email response until the next morning when you’ve had the chance to sleep on it and think clearly. If you have to respond quickly to keep the project on-track, you can still take a brief minute to step outside. Don’t hit the return key on that Slack reply just yet. Go for a short walk around the block first.

4. Breathe

Breathing exercises are a legit way to cool down and manage stress. Here’s an excerpt pulled form the University of Michigan website“Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.”

Learn a breathing technique and give it a shot. You can even implement it at your desk and nobody will notice that you’re breathing differently… except you, because you’ll notice that you feel better. Give it a shot.

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