Put Down Your Pencils

Do you remember in fifth grade science class when the teacher asked you to hold a pencil in your hand with your arm fully extended? That pencil was super light at first. But after 10 minutes, that extremely weightless object seemed 1,000 times its weight. I remember my arm actually ached by the time we were finished.

The object of the test is to guess the weight of the pencil. Psychology Resources sourced a similar test related by a lecturer. He raised a glass of water and asked his students, “How heavy is this glass of water?” People shouted out answers ranging from 8 ounces to 16 ounces.

But, ultimately, “the absolute weight doesn’t matter,” the lecturer replied. “It depends on how long you try to hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

What do both these tests have in common? The glass of water, like the pencil, is the paradox. How can something that is seemingly so small be such a burden over time? As the lecturer attributes, the metaphor of stress management works in the same principle. Over time, something that seemed so minor at the beginning can tear through our lives by the end if we do not manage it. And that is the key: management.

“If we carry our burdens all of the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on,” the lecturer explains.

So what do we do? Stress affects everything in our business game plan, especially decisions. Those decisions then impact everything from equipment purchases to sales calls to employee meetings. How can you lighten the load and be able to put down your glass of water? Even for just five minutes?

Nathan Misirian, president and chief idea officer of Autumn Consulting based in Gilberts, Ill., suggests several ways to keep stress in check when making business decisions, thus reducing the effect stress has on those very crucial impact points of the business day.

  • Don’t let stress reduce everything into black and white categories. “During stress, thoughts tend toward the extremes,” Misirian explains. “Either/or thoughts facilitate the quick decisions that increase survival during truly dangerous times. These thoughts are also too simplistic for the complex realities of the real business world. Take time to breathe and find some possible courses of action that are between the extremes.”
  • Use the strength of your team, but do not leave team-building for hectic times. “Teamwork breaks down when stresses are intense,” Misirian says. “This is an unfortunate reality because the power of the group is uniquely helpful at this time. The time for building teamwork, however, is when times are more calm and relaxed. When good teams are in place, there is a coherence and support that dramatically improves the response to stress.”
  • Maintain a sense of proportion. Misirian uses an example of being stressed by an unemptied trash can before an important sales meeting. “It is difficult, during these times, to make the effort to carefully think through priorities,” he says. “We often find it difficult to keep thing in proper proportion. Minor problems seem to be very important. It requires work (work that is worth the effort) to maintain a sense of proportion.”

Stress happens. During the day, you are forced to hold that glass of water through sales meetings, while prospecting clients and while making important business decisions. Sometimes that stress forces us to rise to the occasion and bring our best game to the table. Other times, the glass becomes so heavy, we drop it and it has the potential to bring out the worst in us.

The resting point is somewhere in the middle. We must find time to put down the glass and shake out our arms, before resuming our load. Using one of Misirian’s decision-under-stress tips, or simply taking a five-minute break, can turn that glass of water into, well, just a glass of water.

Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is currently a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.’s marketing/corporate communications department. Visit her blog at or reach her at [email protected].