The ability to manage stress is what sets apart successful entrepreneurs from not-so-successful ones. Just ask Bill Gates or Richard Branson. For inspiration on managing all this stress, we can turn to the business greats – people who run multi-billion dollar corporations. If they can manage their stress levels, the rest of us can, too. Here are five lessons these icons have to teach:

Keep it simple.

When you have a couple of hundred emails in your inbox, a day full of meetings and a gym sesh at 6, keeping it simple seems like the most complicated goal – or the last thing on your mind. But it’s something that must be done, to gain a little perspective on what’s most important at that moment.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has said, “The ability to boil things down, to just work on things that really count, to think through the basics . . . It’s a special form of genius.” At this point, we can all agree that the method to Gates’ madness has worked.

By working smarter, not harder, we can keep things simple.

Focus on what matters.

One of the easiest things to do is become overwhelmed by all that needs to be done or all that isn’t getting done. When we’re overwhelmed, our tempers flare, and we take things out on those closest to us; things spiral downward.

But ask yourself, What’s really important? I have 20 things on my “to-do” list, but what will happen if, instead of taking care of all 20, I take care of only the top five? Will the world stop spinning?

No. Nothing will happen. For the most part, those worries are all in your head.

Richard Branson is synonymous with the Virgin brand, but he is someone who has his priorities straight. Said Branson: “If I lose the whole Virgin empire tomorrow, then I’d just go and live somewhere, like Bali. Now, if there was a problem with my family, healthwise . . . that’s a problem.”

It sounds trite sometimes, but prioritising the things that really matter can reduce stress levels considerably. If the big things are taken care of, or are going well, the smaller things are likely to fall into place.

Take control.

When we have looming deadlines, meetings with managers, lists a mile long: Our brains can short-circuit. Being overwhelmed breeds inaction and confusion. How can we break the cycle? By taking control of the situation.

If you’re stressing about the million things that need to be done, the only number you need to focus on is the number “1.” What’s first on your list? Tackle that specific task, and only that task – forget the others. Being that laser-focused allows you to take control of the situation, which propels you into the next task and gives you a sense of accomplishment, thereby, lowering stress.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have control over . . . I find that as soon as I identify it and make the first phone call, or send off the first email . . . it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it.”

Take a break.

This sounds like an oxymoron at times, especially when you feel that the fate of the world is resting on your shoulders. But, if you’re saying, “Can’t take a break right now,” stop!

Some entrepreneurs and executives have a higher tolerance for adrenaline rushes and a reputation for being workaholics – that comes with the territory. But what good are you to your family and friends if you burn out? Working nonstop leads to burnout and slows productivity. Recognising the signs can save you loads of stressing out. In fact, 90 percent of leaders in a survey by the Center for Creative Leadership reported that they managed stress by temporarily removing themselves, physically and mentally, from their source of stress.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki believes in stopping and smelling the roses. Wojcicki said, “I think it’s really important to take time off, and I’ve also found that sometimes you get really good insights by taking time off.” Find what works for you. Hit the weights, go for a jog, light some scented candles and sit in the bath – whatever puts you in a positive headspace for a little while, do it!

Plan ahead.

We all know what we’re doing every single day of the week, so planning ahead is key in managing stress levels. Every Sunday night, look at your calendar for the week and prioritise. Also take the time out to identify what might be the major stressors of your week and when you’ll have the time to destress.

Organising, planning and streamlining tasks are effective management strategies; having a good system in place helps things run smoothly, reducing everyone’s stress levels.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, said, “The more you can set a cadence around what you do, and the more ritual and the more consistency you can build into your schedule, the less stress you’re going to have.”


So, it’s not just grit, hard work and determination that separate the successful from the unsuccessful: It’s also how people manage their stress levels as they run their operations. We’re all stressed, after all; it’s a natural side effect of pushing to achieve our goals. But how we manage it sets us apart. Don’t let stress be your downfall.

For more on identifying and dealing with stress read: Let’s Talk About Stress.