Psychology and startup anxiety — tactical tips for dealing with startup stress.

Some close friends have an affectionate term for me when I go on about mental health. I’m commonly known as ‘the hippy’ because I often talk to people about their feelings, openly talk about my own and share my learning and processing publicly — just read through some of my previous blogs; I ask how people are feeling and emphasise a desire to understand how they’re processing thoughts, emotions and decisions right now, if they’re getting enough time to themselves, or meditating and give pointers on how to find “that 4 hours a week” that people need to just let their brain do it’s thing.

I pride myself in being the person that so many people want to talk through their problems with. Sure, while I have mixed success in my own life, I seem to do fairly well at putting people on a path edging back towards sanity — and this is why I wear my “hippy” tag with pride and love to study psychology.

Stress and negativity (such as negative self talk) places an incredible burden on the startup and it’s founders, can have lasting and resounding impact on your relationships with mentors, investors and your team and could very well be your undoing as a startup founder. While I don’t believe enough is done in startup accelerators to address these issues and while I’d love to solve that problem, that is something I’ll address in another blog post.

In the meantime, here are some tips I have for countering negativity and startup anxiety.

Meditate

Actually I’ll lead with the most ‘hippy like’ thing people give me grief about. Meditation is not just the act of sitting with yours legs crossed chanting ‘ohm’ over and over again, slowly building up your resistance to outside stressors — it’s an important activity for your brain to process and reset when done correctly and there’s loads of great psychological reports that cover the complexities and impact of meditation and mindfulness on cognitive functions, reduction in stress, recovery from depression and ongoing combat of anxiety.

The purpose of meditation and mindfulness exercises is not to ‘push out your negative thoughts or stress’, but to identify them, acknowledge they exist and teach yourself to be able to move them in and out of your conscious thought as you see fit allowing you to examine them in a non-judgemental way. There are plenty of examples, but I encourage you to try this one. It’s free, it can take as little as 10 minutes and you’ll notice the benefits.

Take 4 hours

I attack life at full speed, but ten years ago I nearly brought it all down around me when I had to spend a lot of mental energy helping a loved one. In a primary support role (like in a startup) you’re not always in complete control of the level of stress, type of problem or circumstances in which you have to deal with them. Being prepared is paramount to dealing with these issues effectively and efficiently.

Taking 4 hours to yourself, out of the context of the problems and situations that are putting you in stress, but also away from other people, distractions and noise, including television and reading, gives your brain some time to attack problems and relax. Much like mindfulness which can be done in this 4 hour window, the approach of taking 4 hours to yourself is about resetting and preparing your brain for problem solving. While it’s not processing or dealing with existing problems, so make sure you take yourself away from work, home and critically the stressor itself.

Some people use running or riding to take 4 hours, and while physical exercise is important (see below), it’s not entirely useful if your brain is chock full of noisy cognitive distractions like listening to music, or talking to friends while walking. Personally I use kayaking, cycling and motorcycling as my outlets.

Please remember, taking 4 hours to yourself is not a selfish act of indulgence. It’s a selfless act of mental preparedness for any crisis your startup throws at you.

Get regular sleep

Cliche and straight forward. I’m not advocating you get huge amounts of sleep, surely the plight of startups could be traced to too much sleeping, the mortal enemy of the startup founder, however it’s important to have regular sleep that are not just naps. There are loads of scientific studies into sleep and it’s effect on cognitive function, personality traits and your ability to remember.

Sleep is weird, the brain is weird and adding these to things together leads to interesting and terrifying results. It’s easy to dismiss the effects of long term absence of sleep as the extreme end of the scale, but the short term effects of even just poor sleep are just as bad. Poor to no memory formation, irritability, reduced problem solving and the inability to solve new problems with information that would usually be passed to existing cognitive skills.

Get regular sleep. It doesn’t always have to be decent.

Learn what you don’t know

I think the one thing I can never get enough of, or get good enough at, is taking the time to learn my limits in skills. Confidence will only get you so far and while it’s good to have the confidence to tackle things you’ve never tackled before, it’s also good to go in with a plan, from someone who has done it before, or with an amount of stop, measure, re-assess if you’re totally going it alone.

These two skills are paramount if you’re going to be doing things outside of your comfort zone. Either going in with good advice and a solid plan, or adapting as you go will save you from getting too far down the pipeline and having to fix major problems. Ego and overconfidence will be your enemy here, as everyone likes to think that you’re incredibly good at all the different things that will make your startup successful. Sure, the more things you can be good at and handle yourself, the better. However if you take a quick look around at other successful people you’ll see that they’re not gifted across the board but they are surrounded by people who can do all the things they’re not good, or don’t have time to do.

Use your mentor networks, rely on people with experience, approach problems tactically if they’re rapidly changing and you’ve got no other choice.

Have a good social outlet

Have fun. Seriously. Don’t get so involved in everything that is happening that you can’t take some time to relax, unwind and spend some good social time with friends or family. (Or neither if that’s what it takes). It’s important to not feel like you’re disconnecting from your “real life” or alienating the people who ultimately need to support you through this process. It’s good to have a healthy balance but critical to have good social outlets. Again, this is something that can be easily wrapped up in your 4 hours to yourself.

Some tips here from my time travelling — go solo on a group activity and ask to join another group (like go-karting, paintball or brain game). Get on meetup and join a random social group — I go for social motorbike rides. You can also do charity work a few hours a week, the charity will be thankful, you get some downtime and you get some social time.

In conclusion

While I’d love to see a psychologist with a startup bent embedded in every accelerator and incubator — it’s never going to happen, but in the meantime I think it’s important to look out for each other as startup founders, investors and employees. It’s not just for the sake of the people — but also the community. We want strong startups with great mental health, who are open to talking about improving themselves and their culture.

So next time you’re talking with a startup founder, ask them — how THEY are doing, what they’re doing to get downtime and how are they processing / feeling right now.

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