Have you heard those stories where a family is renovating their house and half way through they find out that the house foundation is permanently damaged? The work stops and plans have to be adjusted. Now they can’t continue until the foundation is dealt with. This leads to frustration, anxiety and additional costs. Had the family started with the full assessment of the house at the beginning, they would have avoided those additional problems.
This situation with renovation is similar to how many people approach dealing with improving performance and and preventing burnout. They assess their situation and think what they can reasonably do to make things better. The most common stress issues are working too much, not sleeping enough and not exercising regularly. So the plan is to address those issues and hope it will contribute to one’s performance and productivity. They find a popular fix, a new app or gadget and jump right to it. They continue while the excitement is still there and most likely see some improvements. However, when life gets in the way the new routine is dropped and the improvements disappear as well. Does this sound familiar?
The problem with this approach is that we often use isolated measures to improve performance and deal with stress and burnout. We think that if we go to bed earlier or exercise more, it will fix the whole problem. What we forget to consider is that there is a reason why we don’t go to bed early or don’t exercise often enough.
We often try to solve consequences of having work burnout rather than its root problems. Since with time we get comfortable enough with our stress and burning out, we don’t think that there might be underlying issues behind them.
In reality, performance, burnout and stress are complex problems. They don’t appear just because we don’t sleep enough or don’t meditate enough. They also don’t appear out of the blue. They are the result of a combination of factors that affect different spheres of our lives.
Our thinking is likely the main contributor to the development of work stress and burnout. For example, we often equate success with achievements and money. Because of this, we put extra emphasis on work. With time (and further reinforcement by media, competition or colleagues) we start prioritizing work over other matters. Our diet gets affected since we don’t have time for a healthy diet or don’t think it’s important enough. We don’t exercise as we often feel tired and don’t any energy. Our relationships get affected as we put less emphasis on them. Our personal growth is slowed since we don’t think about what we truly want. This list can be continued further.
Poor diet leads to digestion problems. Lack of exercise leads to tiredness and irritability. Declining relationships lead to loneliness. Absence of personal growth results in the lack of motivation. Overthinking and self-doubt follow after.
All of these changes contribute to the overall stress levels and burnout. This is why tiredness and burnout cannot be linked to just one contributor like the lack of sleep or exercise. This is also why addressing burnout has to be done in a comprehensive manner. Isolated measures are unlikely to result in long lasting changes.
By far the most important element in increasing mental performance and preventing entrepreneurial burnout is the mindset. Mindset is what governs our thoughts, thought patterns and behaviors. If we get to bed late everyday or if we overthink things, it is essentially our mind that’s responsible for that. Ultimately, it is mostly the mindset that is responsible for the thinking and behaviors contributing to burnout and stress levels.
We acquire these thought patterns and behaviors in many ways. It’s the society in general, the school system and media. It is parents, friends and colleagues. Everything around us shapes our thinking and been affecting us for years. For example, many people are trying to earn a lot of money because success is frequently attributed to money. Many people believe that working 15 hours a day is the only way to succeed since they have seen how Elon Musk or Gary Vaynerchuck work. And since mainstream media for the most part equates success to material things, many people start to disregard such things as relationships, health and personal growth.
With time and constant reinforcement we develop certain behaviors that we believe serve a good purpose. We start believing that if we work as much as possible we will get more work done. We start thinking that grit and effective planning are more important than sleep and good diet. We start believing that stress is an essential part of being an entrepreneur. We start associating success with constant achievements and money. Such behaviors slowly become ingrained in our heads and we start perceiving them as normal.
Since such behaviors and thoughts become an everyday norm for us, it becomes harder to realize that some of them contribute to burnout and stress entrepreneurs have. How does fixation on money make you feel? What about self-doubt? Do you worry about things? At some point you realize that something is not working in your life and you want to change it. So when you begin altering some of those behaviors or thought patterns you realize how hard it actually is. Those behaviors are part of your everyday life and because of that cannot be altered easily. I’m sure your own experience shown that rapid and fragmented changes don’t usually work in the long run.
You can’t ensure lasting change in the behaviors contributing to burnout and stress if the mindset is not there. Sleeping habits perfectly illustrate the issue. If you don’t address the issue that prevents you from going to bed early in the first place, it will be much harder to get to bed on time. For example, working late may give you validation, it may give you a sense of purpose or it may distract you from thinking about complicated relationships in your life. With those beliefs going to be early will be very hard to achieve and maintain in the long run.
Do you remember how productive you were when you had a burger with fries for lunch? How much work were you able to do after that?
Many of us don’t pay attention to how food affects our performance. With hectic schedules our food should not take too much time to prepare, it should be filling and preferably tasty. We often view food from a practical standpoint – to keep us going. In doing so we often don’t concern ourselves with the quality of food that we consume.
We drink coffee anytime we need to be awake. We get a muffin when we are not hungry enough to get lunch. We always go for dessert. Fruits and vegetables are non-essential in our diet. So are healthy fats. And there is definitely a lot of carbs and sugars present in our diet.
We as entrepreneurs can always use any energy and focus we can get. We always have long to-do lists. We have great goals to reach. We have the drive and that makes us different from most people. However, if we don’t have the energy or health to support that, we won’t get very far. This is why finding your optimal working hours and ensuring peak performance during those hours is so crucial to getting ahead. And food is a major contributor to it.
Food directly affects our productivity and performance. So it would make sense to keep the diet balanced for the sustained performance. However, it is not always happening. A few things prevent us from it.
First of all, we don’t always pay a lot of attention to the diet. We believe that healthy diet takes time to figure out and forever to prepare. Another possibility is that many of us don’t realize how food affects us. We let our hunger dictate food choices. No one tells us what a healthy balanced diet is. The knowledge we received from our parents and school might not be the most accurate as a lot of new research on nutrition was done in the past 10 years. So it is up to us to figure out what it is. That takes time and effort. And we have enough things to worry about.
Another reason behind the poor diet is stress. We are always on the run. We always have things to do. We are always busy and don’t have enough time for everything. This is why many of our food choices are dictated by urgency.
On top of that, certain foods make us feel good. Since childhood we’ve been conditioned to associate happiness with sugary treats. Eating fat and sugar activates brain’s reward center similar to what cocaine does and facilitate the release of dopamine. When we are stressed a burger for lunch seems like the best possible option. Just think of a juicy medium rare burger and fresh fries for a second. How did that image make you feel? This is exactly my point – it is so hard to resist foods that involve chemical reaction in our brain. This is why dealing with stress has to be a complex issue – so that we don’t resort to food to make us happy.
Healthy diet is not as complicated as you might think. With minor tweaks and some dedication it is very manageable to clean up the diet, get rid of cravings and better sustain energy levels. For example, eating some protein before carbs will help control tiredness levels. Consuming more healthy fats helps with hunger and cravings. Using supplements like MCT oil or ginseng can help keep energy levels high. Easy and tasty recipes can be found online, cookbooks and from friends.
To address your immediate concern about giving up food – there is no need to completely exclude addictive foods. That is one of the main misconceptions when it comes to dealing with food cravings. Once in a while they won’t hurt. And since you will be amazed by how much more energy you have from the cleaner diet, you won’t be inclined to eat those foods as often.
I will leave you with one last thought about nutrition – have you ever wondered if athletes eat burgers with fries for lunch?
Remember that sweet feeling you get when you stretch after sitting for 4 hours? It feels amazing and yet we don’t do it often enough.
Exercise is boring, I know. But it doesn’t diminish the fact that it is one of the main pillars of staying healthy and productive. Our bodies are made for movement (for running, to be exact). They were definitely not made for sitting in front of a screen for 10 hours per day.
While we know that exercise is good for us we don’t do it often enough. We often feel too tired to get to the gym. We believe that exercise requires extra energy which we never seem to have. The initial effort to get changed and head to the gym is the worst part. And then there is the prospect of sweating on an elliptical machine. So many obstacles that need to be dealt with in order to get some exercise done. We rather crash on a couch and watch Netflix.
Exercise comes hard because we also believe that we either need to spend a full hour in the gym or it won’t be worth it. We overcommit and as a result we end up not doing much at all. But to have a positive effect on our health and energy the workout doesn’t have to be very long. Even if you get up from your desk every hour and do basic stretches, that already would be a great benefit and will prevent you from feeling tired after a long day. You can spend 7 minutes doing pushups, lunges and jumping jacks every day. The effect will be much better than if you wait 4 days for inspiration and then go to the gym for 2.5 hours. In fact, there is a scientifically proven workout that lasts only 7 minutes but has the benefits of a much longer workout. Exercising doesn’t have to be painful.
How often do you crash in the afternoon? Do you get that tiredness feeling in your back after sitting for half a day? In this case some exercise will do the trick and provide you with enough fuel to finish the rest of your day. This is why going to the gym or yoga during lunch hour is a fantastic idea. Or you can even do basic yoga stretches on a mat if the gym is inaccessible for any reason.
We have so many reasons for not exercising. There is not enough time. We don’t have energy. Feeling lazy. Exercise is boring. The painful initial effort. The lack of progress. Not knowing where to start. There is probably a dozen more. In reality, it is a combination of factors. Not prioritizing exercise is the main one.
We simply don’t pay enough attention to exercising and its effects. They say that where there is a will, there is a way. If only we were interested in exercising we would definitely find solutions to those common reasons for skipping a workout. Not enough time – change your priorities. Not enough energy – drink a cup of green tea with honey. Boring – listen to a podcast. One thing that makes entrepreneurs stand out is the ability and desire to solve problems. So if they truly wanted to be more physically active I’m sure they would find a way. Their focus is just not there.
Increasing performance and dealing with burnout wouldn’t be complete without exercising. It releases happy chemicals in the brain. Exercising has anti-inflammatory effects that protect against chronic diseases. Studies shown that exercise is an effective measure in dealing with anxiety and depression (sometimes as effective as anti-depressants). However, exercising cannot be the only measure in dealing with stress and anxiety. If there are not enough resources (time, energy, etc) to support regular exercising, it will not be sustainable in the long run. This is why exercising has to be part of a broader system in increasing performance and dealing with burnout.
Does it ever feel lonely when you spend weeks working on your business with minimal human interaction? Are you happy about it? What have you tried?
When working on our business goals we often isolate ourselves and don’t pay a lot of attention to social interactions. We spend most of our time working. The rest of the time goes to errands and downtime (downtime usually ends up being TV). We don’t find time for our friends or social events as it distracts us from our goals. The few social events we go tend to have a purpose and be business related. We don’t seriously consider events that are just fun and have no particular purpose behind them.
This intense focus on business goals makes us disregard the fact that we need people around us. We need mentors to guide us and help us grow. We need advisors to ask difficult questions. We need partners to play competitive sports with. However, it can’t be just functional interactions. There have to be more meaningful and personal relationships as well. We need significant others as they help us stay sane. We need friends that understand and support us. We need close business friends who keep us rooted in reality.
With a lot of work, pursuit of high achievements and the need for a large bank account we tend not to attribute a lot of weight to social interactions. When the society around us values hard work and personal achievements, individualism increases. People compare themselves and their achievements to others and that leads to more distancing and concentration on personal development.
Additionally, with all that work we don’t have enough time for friends. This puts is in a disadvantaged position since when we start a business we often have to make new friends. If you’re working all the time then how do you find time for your new friends? They are not a priority and only receive minimal attention.
The lack of developed social interactions is very noticeable when comparing European cities to North American. In the middle of the day on Tuesday coffee shops in Paris are full of people chatting with each other. So many people have lunch with friends in a park. During the same time Toronto presents a completely different picture. Most people are in the offices working towards their goals. And lunch is often eaten in front of a computer.
While this focus on working will get a bank account bigger, it will not contribute to wellbeing and mental health. Science linked loneliness to depression and anxiety. When there is no one to cheer you up or support you during stressful times it becomes much harder to keep going. Similarly, it is harder to continue when no one understands you. This is how anxiety, self-doubt and loneliness develop. Having supportive friends and making time for them will make things easier. As an added bonus, strong social relationships positively contribute to our longevity.
There are many ways to introduce social aspect into the entrepreneurial life. The most basic form would be meetups and networking events. Yes, I know, some of them draw boring people. However, this is your opportunity to develop communication and listening skills – almost everyone has something interesting to share. When you learn how to listen to people you become a more understanding and social person. Better listening skills will also allow you to make friends easier.
However, if there is a purpose behind every social event it will start to feel like work. This is why more personal experiences should also be present. Board games night is a fun way to relax and catch up with friends. Playing in a park with friends is another great way to unwind. Joining a mastermind group is a great way to interact with smart people, get support and talk about your problems. Finally, you can find a sports activity involving groups of people: rock climbing, volleyball, dancing or cross fit.
Our lives should be filled with a variety of experiences. They will help preserve the excitement in our life. It can’t be just about achieving goals all the time. There should be unproductive things too. Things like traveling, learning a new skill or playing in a park with friends are essential to the productivity and positive mindset. Such experiences can roughly be categorized under personal growth which is equally, if not more, important that professional achievements.
Personal growth is needed so that 5 years later, having built a profitable business, you don’t find yourself not having accomplished anything else in life. Trying different things, learning new skills, learning about different cultures are some of the fun things that keep life exciting. It can’t be just about serving more people or additional revenue goals all the time. If your weeks and months are the same your life becomes a blur. Work becomes something that keeps you occupied from boredom. If nothing stands out in your life then you won’t remember much about it.
Personal achievements can sometimes be more valuable than business achievements. Learning charisma or leadership skills will definitely be helpful across all spheres of life, including your business. Learning a new language sharpens your brain and also allows stress-free travel in more countries. Playing in competitive sports can lead to great friendships and networks.
Getting out of your routine doesn’t have to be complicated. You can schedule new and fun activities in your calendar. This will keep your life exciting and take the effort of organizing it off your shoulders. Internet is full of great ideas on how to spend time while away from work. You don’t even have to think about it!
Instead of a “to do” list you can start a “fun things to try” list. Spend 30 minutes each week finding and adding things to that list. Things like making waffles, babysitting a fluffy dog, roller skating or scavenger hunting are some of the great things that can be on that list. When you find yourself not working (or seriously unproductive) you can always pick something from that list. This list will make you happier than any other lists you have. And if you think that those things are silly then you’re taking yourself too seriously (are you tired of it yet?).
Another aspect of enjoying your life is allowing your inner child to come out. How amazing would it be to jump into a ball pit and not care what others think of you!? How tired are you from all the rules you have to follow: you can’t draw this way, you can’t dance in this way, you have to be strong at your work and business. There are so many roles that we have to play as adults! There are so many things that we are not supposed to do that it’s becoming annoying. During play time you can allow yourself to be silly and enjoy yourself without the need to follow all the rules all the time (cheating in board games is mean but can be so much fun).
There are several major spheres in our lives: mental health, physical health, financial/business, family, social and personal growth. It is the combination of all of them that makes our lives enjoyable and memorable. If any of those spheres is compromised, our lives would not be complete. There will constantly be a feeling that something is missing.
Similarly, stress and anxiety are complex issues. They never exist in just one sphere of life but affect several of them. They take time to develop and don’t appear out of nowhere. They also don’t appear just because you work for 10 hours per day or worry too much. If that was the case you would be simply tired. There would not be self-doubt, perfectionism and overthinking. You would not have any energy for that.
Work anxiety and stress develop with time and influenced by so many things around us: school, parents, friends, media and so on. The fear of failure is primarily developed in school. Constant need for achievements is reinforced in the university and at work. The need for immediate gratification is affected by social media. All these and other notions like the role of money or the definition of success heavily influence the development of stress and anxiety. Such broad influences result in the stress and anxiety affecting a number of different spheres of life.
In dealing with stress and anxiety it is not about fixing one broken thing in your life. It is about addressing everything that influences stress and anxiety. It’s not just about sleeping more, eating better or meditating more. Any of those will definitely help and make things easier. But it will not solve the whole issue. Only when things are dealt with in a comprehensive manner the results would be much more effective and long lasting.