Stress and Distraction for the Essential Leader

Stress and Distraction for the Essential Leader
November 1, 2023 Rob Artigo
In Podcasts

Things in life that we have to deal with include stress and distraction. In this Tough Things First podcast, Ray Zinn says there are different degrees of stress and distraction and you have to know yourself to stay ahead and stress free.


Rob Artigo: I’m Rob Artigo, your guest host for this edition of the Tough Things First Podcast where I get a chance to talk to Ray Zinn, as noted, the longest serving CEO in Silicon Valley, and that’s for good reason. Hi Ray.

Ray Zinn: Hey, good to be with you today.

Rob Artigo: We’re going to focus this podcast on stress and distractions as it relates to the essential business leader. We had a series on the essential leadership. It was enormously successful, so we’re going to add this in addition to those essential leadership podcast, if you will. A lost chapter.

So, this is on stress and distractions. We know that stress and distraction is inevitable in business and in life, right, Ray?

Ray Zinn: Exactly. That’s one of the things in life that we have to deal with is stress and distraction.

Rob Artigo: What are the kinds of things, events or the attention grabbers, something like fishing lure, what are those things that can distract a leader from the tasks at hand?

Ray Zinn: Well, if they’re not happy in their job, if they don’t like what they’re doing, if they tend to have a disorder, that symptom where they have a hard time focusing, that’s an issue that increases stress, because if you get distracted, you’re going to be delayed in whatever thing you’re doing, and that just puts more stress on you.

Especially if the boss is yelling and screaming at you for why aren’t you getting this task completed? You’re easily distracted either by something next to you or around you, or if you’re the leader yourself and you become easily distracted, your employees are going to notice that. They’re going to see that you’re easily taken off-task, you become less focused. It’s a disorder. I mean, it’s something that you have to fix.

Rob Artigo: It’s the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD that you were talking about. I imagine that if the leader of the company is taken off-task by distractions, that person’s behavior and misdirection in the process could end up taking the teams off of their game without really taking them off their focus.

Without even knowing that they’re doing … all they’re doing is following the leader, and if the leader’s going, “Oh, look,” like a dog. You’re walking down the pathway with your dog and your dog goes, “Squirrel,” and runs off into the bushes. This can happen, because you’re supposed to be going that way, and the dog runs off into the bushes because it sees a squirrel. Okay, just that fast you could lose it, and that’s that ADHD you’re talking about.

Ray Zinn: Right. Again, there are people who can focus and there are people who can’t focus. When it comes to differentiating or trying to understand why you become distracted, you’ll find that generally the reason you’re distracted is because you don’t like what you’re doing.

I know that having run a company for 37 years as a CEO, I can tell you that there are a lot of jobs, a lot of tasks that I had to perform that I didn’t like. In fact, 80% of my responsibilities as the CEO of the company were doing things that I didn’t like, and so I had to focus on loving the things I hated. That was key to really becoming, I think, a long-term loving CEO is learning to love the things I hate, because then I didn’t look at those 80% of what I did as being things I didn’t want to do, because they were distractions.

Can you imagine if you don’t like 80% of your job, how distracting that is? You’re not going to do a very good job 80% of the time. So face it, part of being an essential leader is loving the things you don’t like doing, and so that takes some art. So, what I did to learn to love the things that I dislike doing is called discipline. Discipline is doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well. So, I would take a task that I didn’t like to do and I would work on it until I loved it.

Whether you’re a singer or an artist or a machinist, or whatever your hobby is, you didn’t love to do it until you start doing it well. I mean, I’m not a good golfer, and so if I want to like golfing, I’ve got to become better at it. I got to find how to become a better golfer or singer or writer, or whatever it is I’m going to do. I have to enhance that trait.

So, let those weak things become your strength by learning to love what you don’t like doing, because that’s discipline. All discipline is is doing what you don’t like doing. If you talk about all the successful athletes, their time they spend practicing, not doing the game itself, but their practice time is 10 times the amount of time that they spend actually on the court or on the field, because they’re just doing exercises, they’re getting their body in shape.

Doing things that are stressful, like exercising, is part of your job. The essential leader has to be able to deal with those tasks that he doesn’t like doing, and so that’s the key. I mean, I will tell you, even to this day at my advanced age, I can tell what I don’t like doing. If I find something I don’t want to do, I’m going to go get it done now and finish it.

As an example, I had a pool pump go out and it was driving me nuts trying to figure out what was wrong with it and how to fix it. I’m not exactly the guy that loves to do repairs, and it’s dirty and it’s not something I enjoy doing. So it began to bother me, and this is just recent, it began to bother me that I didn’t want to fix this pool pump. Yet my pool has been winterized and it’s shut down, so I don’t need the pool pump, but the fact that I thought in my head, “I don’t want to do this,” I decided I’m going to go do it.

So even though it’s the middle of winter and I’m not using the pool and I don’t have to have it done today as you would, I went ahead and I repaired the darn thing. I made a few mistakes and it took me some time and I was thinking some pretty ugly things about it, but anyway, I went ahead and I got it done. So, this again is doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well. This is a key to being an essential leader is learning to love those 80% of those things that you don’t like doing. That’s just plain and simple discipline.

Rob Artigo: Yeah, it comes down to your slogan, which is also the title of your book, Tough Things First.

Ray Zinn: Right, exactly.

Rob Artigo: It’s do the tough things first. I think that’s how, from the many stories that I’ve heard from you, the key to developing that discipline is recognizing, okay, so if I do those things that I don’t want to do right up front, I can spend the rest of the day doing the things that I want to do. But you get those things out of the way and it makes you focus on, like you said, getting that pump done. There’s a sense of satisfaction that goes along with that too.

Ray Zinn: Well, my son told me, “I don’t know why you’re wanting to repair that pump. You got enough money, you can go out and buy 1,000 pumps. So, why are you screwing around repairing that pump?” I said, “David, it’s because I don’t like doing it, and I don’t like not wanting learn how to like to do the things that I don’t want to do. So, it’s that weakness that I want to make my strength.”

Sure, sure, I could afford 1,000 pumps, but I didn’t want to mess with it. I mean, I didn’t want to just do that, I should say. I didn’t want to pass that opportunity up. So I grabbed it, put it on the bench and took it apart. It was dirty and it was messy and it took time, but again, I’m trying to get the point across, is that I’m trying to tell everybody or have them understand that it doesn’t take a big project to take you off your game, it can be a small thing like this pump.

So honestly, I’m telling you my audience, and I’m telling you, Rob, it wasn’t that I couldn’t afford a different pump. I could have bought a brand new one. It’s just that it bothered me the fact that I didn’t want to fix the darn thing. So I said, “Okay, since I don’t want to do it, I’ve got to walk the talk, okay?” So part of walking the talk was I grabbed the doggone thing, put it on the bench, took it apart and fixed it. Then I give myself a high salute, I said, “Right on there, Raymond. I did it.”

So again, learning to love the things you hate is key. I don’t care how simple the task is, whether it’s out there mowing the lawn, whether it’s out there picking the apples or whatever it is you’re going to do. Even though you can afford to have 10,000 people do it, that’s not the key. The key is think of the things you don’t want to do in your life and go do them.

Whether it’s cooking your own meal, whether it’s doing your own dishes, whether it’s mopping your own floor, cleaning your own bathrooms, polishing your own shoes, I don’t give a darn, washing your own car, repair whatever’s broken in your house. It’s not how much money you have, it’s the fact that you learn to love the things you don’t like doing, that’s the key. I will tell you that anything I don’t like doing, I’m going to jump on it and get it done. Do the tough things first I always say.

Rob Artigo: That’s right. A big part of this is we’ve been talking a lot about distraction, but also here stress. You said stress has a lot to do with expectations, but stress itself, the things that cause stress include, primary reason is expectations. Talk a little bit about that.

Ray Zinn: Sure. So again, back to the water pump. My expectation was to get that pump fixed and it was causing stress, because I didn’t know how to repair the pump. So rather than just writing a check and buying a new one, I mean, that would’ve relieved the stress for sure, because I would just signed it off and a new pump would’ve come, and I’d put it in or have it put in and away we went.

But that increased stress in a different area, because I’m avoiding, as you would, doing the tough things first or doing what I don’t like doing, and that’s stress. So I know it sounds counterintuitive, but you can cause stress by trying to avoid stress, if that makes sense.

Rob Artigo: Yeah.

Ray Zinn: So in my mind, my expectation is is that I’m not going to let any task get me down, okay? I’m going to pursue it until I solve it, whether it be writing musings, whether it be writing books. There’s a lot of things I do that I really don’t like doing, but I learned to love them by getting involved and just finishing them, and that relieves stress. So if you want to relieve stress, then learn to do the tough things first. Get them out of the way, that’s how you do it.

Rob Artigo: The stress, whether it’s the expectations of you want to get something fixed and you stew about it for a while. If it doesn’t get done and there’s no action taken on it, that stress, then you’ve got the next thing that comes along, then you’ve got the next thing that comes along. Then that’s where you say the stress, stress, stress and more stress. But what is the net effect on the leader already burdened by responsibilities of running a business or a corporation or whatever?

Ray Zinn: It’s procrastination. In other words, if you’re putting off doing something because you don’t want to do it, that’s still going to be on your mind. You’re still going to have that in the back of your head, “I got to get to that someday.” Like this water pump thing I keep referring to. I didn’t need it for four or five more months, but I didn’t want that on my mind. I didn’t want to have that stress bugging me about that thing, so I just went ahead and did it, got it out of the way.

So again, the whole thing about doing the tough things first is to do the things you don’t like doing first. Get them out of the way, and then begin, as they say, the rest is easy. So that’s the key here, begin, the rest is easy. So, that’s the key to being a essential leader is being able to really focus on and getting those dirty tough tasks out of your way first.

Rob Artigo: Now, we talked about in a recent podcast about the flight or fight syndrome with stress that can take over. If it does take over, what can we expect for our stress level?

Ray Zinn: Well, if you have a lot of fight or flight activities, you’re doing something wrong. You have to examine, why am I in this fight or flight syndrome? Whether it’s making payroll, whether it’s getting this project out in a timely way, that all adds to the stress.

This fight or flight syndrome is stress, and so you want to minimize the number of fight and flight stress activities that you have. Again, I know I go back to repeating myself, doing the tough things first, get them out of the way. Whether it be a fight or flights problem, get them out, finish them, don’t let them carry on. Hopefully you’re not going to end up in a long battle where your fight goes on for months or years.

Rob Artigo: I suppose too much stress and too many distractions can lead to irrational decisions. I think I heard you say that. I saw you write it as a matter of fact.

Ray Zinn: Yeah, that’s what happens. If you’re just trying to knock it out just to get it out of the way, get it off your plate, you might make an irrational decision, because you don’t want to deal with it. Of course that’s not what I’m referring to about loving the things you hate, ’cause you can’t love something you’re making an irrational decision about.

So again, it’s doing a good job. As I said earlier about discipline is doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well, doing it well. That’s not irrational, that’s doing it right the first time. Measure twice, cut once.

Rob Artigo: Let’s see here. It says life is too short to get worked up over things you can’t control, and this is what you wrote, saying, “Don’t worry about things you can’t control and only be concerned about the rest.”

Ray Zinn: Right.

Rob Artigo: Yeah.

Ray Zinn: So again, if you’re worrying about things you can’t fix, then it’s going to be that fight or flight, you’re going to be stressed about it. So if it’s something you can’t control, there’s nothing you can do about it, so letting it build up as stress is really going to cause you to do things that you’re going to regret doing.

Now, if there is things you can change, then just be concerned about them, but not change … I mean, sorry, things you can’t change, you can be concerned about them, but not stress over them. So as I said earlier, don’t worry about things you can’t change, just be concerned about the things that you can’t.

Concern is different than worry, okay?

Rob Artigo: Yeah.

Ray Zinn: There’s a difference between that, ’cause worry means it’s all-consuming, it bogs you down, whereas just being concerned is to recognize the issue so that in a timely way you can resolve it.

Rob Artigo: Well, exercise is a stress reducer as well, and I know that you start every day that way. It’s part of doing the tough things first for you. Are there other ways that we can just mitigate stress in a general way?

Ray Zinn: Sure, take 10. Maybe go for a walk or maybe go home early. ‘Cause if you’re under stress, you’re not going to be rational about the way you fix or solve a problem, so rather than just keeping at it and do it in an improper way, take five. Just go for a walk or take a break, change what you’re doing, set it aside for a bit, and you’ll be surprised.

If you set it aside for a while and then come back to it, whether you’re writing a book, whether you doing podcasts like we’re doing today, or whether you’re a football player or whatever it is, if you’re getting bogged down, if you’re in a rut, then the best thing to do is to back off, let it simmer as you would, and then come back to it as you would when your mind is more clear.

Rob Artigo: Let’s wrap up with this one last thought, and that is, what are some of the things we should not do to address stress that might exacerbate the problem, create worsening stress?

Ray Zinn: Well, I mean, I talked about them earlier. Number one is procrastinate. Don’t put off tomorrow what you should do today, as you would.

Rob Artigo: Yeah.

Ray Zinn: So procrastination, it just increases stress, because if it’s in the back of your mind ’cause you procrastinated it, that causes stress, ’cause now you’ve got to remember it in order to get back on it. So, avoid procrastination.

Then obviously if you are bogged down, you’re in a rut, it’s to set it aside, not let it get you that circular reasoning going on so you’re going to exacerbate the problem. Then just be familiar with stress, understanding stress. So as I said, don’t worry about stuff you can’t change, only be concerned, and so don’t focus on things you can’t fix.

So to be an essential leader, you have to understand yourself. You got to recognize your limitations, what your strengths, what your weaknesses are, and be willing to do whatever it takes, no excuses.

Rob Artigo: As always, you can reach out to Ray Zinn with your questions at Continue your education and the conversation with all the podcasts, blogs, and links with information to Ray’s books, Tough Things First, and the Zen of Zinn series one, two, and three. Great conversation, Ray.

Ray Zinn: Thanks, Rob.

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