Mark Robert Halper

My editor, who is also a good friend, helped me to see that my last several columns have followed the same “survival” theme, to the point of my using similar terms month after month, terms such as “perfect storm,” “mindset,” “business fitness,” and “change.” These issues occupy many of my waking hours (and some of my sleeping hours, too), so it’s understandable that I tend to write about what’s on my mind and what I think is relevant. Although I think repetition is key to learning and communication, I also began to think about why I am so focused on the notion of survival.

Then the other day I noticed that my wife, Margie, was feeling a great deal of stress from having to keep so many “balls in the air.” I said, “I didn’t think at this stage in our lives it was going to be like this,” and we talked about it. We agreed that while our plan for this time in our lives did not include lying on a beach eating bon bons, we did not expect so many things to be turned upside down, nor did we expect the overall levels of stress to be this high.

Ways to Manage

I think it’s natural in these circumstances to search for answers and insights about why things are the way they are, and how they affect us. Here are some ways I have found to manage and cope in this new environment.

Don’t lose touch with the long-term vision. It is tough in these times to spend as much time as you should on long-term thinking. But that’s all the more reason to make it a point to allocate at least an hour or two each week to thinking about the future and positioning your company for the long term

In “normal” times, a leader would spend equal time on the short-, medium-, and long-term issues, but in turbulent times, the long-term focus often gets lost. When that happens, you lose energy and momentum. By deliberately and regularly investing time in long-term thinking, you get that momentum back, and you constantly confirm that the path you are on is the right one.

Continue to grow and improve. Another area that tends to fall by the wayside is your investment in personal and professional improvement. Self-improvement is a big part of this issue, but a leader must also mentor others and work to instill the idea of “constant improvement” — of processes, systems, and client experience — as part of a company’s culture.

Unfortunately, in trying times it’s easy to cut the training budget and soft-peddle companywide improvement. But that would be a mistake. In fact, it is in times like these that the opportunity for improvement is most available. Those who have the discipline to continue to invest in improvement will gain market share both professionally and personally. And when conditions change, they will hit the ground running.

Make plans. “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” By now we have all heard this a hundred times. Yet even though a down economy is precisely the time when business owners should plan more, many actually plan less. There is something about a down market that causes people to be more reactive and to put healthy planning processes on hold. Sometimes the reason is as simple as having to take care of more day-to-day details, and it is counterintuitive to spend more time planning when you have less time available.

But the fact is, when responsibilities change and you’re trying to do more with less, you need to spend more time planning. As an example, three years ago I would spend 20 minutes each day planning the other eight or nine hours of my day; now I spend twice that or more. Just as athletes need to be better prepared for a tough opponent, businesspeople need to spend more time thinking through their strategies, priorities, and actions in a challenging economy.

Accentuate the positive. Although it may sound a bit naive, it really does help to make a list of all the things that are good in your business and in your life. If you are like me, when you compare it to a list of all the things that are not so good, you will find that the list of positives is several times longer than the list of negatives. That in itself will go a long way toward helping you cope with stress and uncertainty.

—Mark Richardson, co-chairman of Case Design/Remodel, recently accepted a one-year appointment to Affiliate in Housing Studies at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.; 301.229.9580.