The Essential Technique That ‘Always On’ Entrepreneurs Should Use To Relax
If you’ve ever run a business knowing your own future and those of your family are depending on it, you’ll know the pressure this brings. Being able to “free your mind” is a laughable idea offered by people who have no idea what you’re really going through.
I’m speaking from experience, having run a few businesses over the last few decades and, in truth, not always successfully. In one particular case, I found myself running a company with 23 employees, three high street locations and an office that I’d grown far too quickly without the right checks and balances in place. It was a mistake that would cost me years to fix and a huge amount of stress whilst I was doing so.
The fact is that most of the time, even if you’re very, very organised, running a business is like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. You’re bombarded with information, decisions and priorities that all seem to be important at the same time. Clear thinking is essential, but seems impossible to achieve.
Unless, that is, you free up some mental power to focus with laser like precision on each issue. In my experience there’s only one way to do that and it starts with this logical assumption:
If we assume that it’s impossible to think about every problem that needs to be solved at the same time due to the sheer volume of them, then we need to create a way in which your mind can focus on each issue in turn.
It’s true that task lists, goals and similar techniques will help and should definitely be employed as a matter of course, but this is more about unleashing the mental power required not only to deal with issues, but preserve your mental health and give you time to recharge when necessary.
Fortunately, achieving this can be relatively straightforward using a technique called ‘compartmentalization’.
It’s interesting to note that the science of psychology defines ‘compartmentalization’ as no more than a defense mechanism or simple coping strategy and actually carries quite a negative connotation in technical terms.
However, the application here is a proactive one created by the will to do so, rather than a reactive one created by some unknown desire to create a mechanism for self-preservation. In short, the psychological and practical applications are really quite different, but just happen to share the same name.
The idea of compartmentalization is based on the idea of breaking down time, rather than problems themselves, into sections or “compartments” that are entirely dedicated to a particular task or activity.
Our brains like and understand this approach and work very well when focused on one issue at a time. Sure, many of us can multitask and often do, but that’s usually about doing particular activities rather than solving problems.
Worse, multitasking is a bit of an illusion in itself. A report by Scientific American entitled “The Myth of Multitasking” based on a report that appeared in the journal Neuron in 2009 concludes as follows:
“Studies show that the human brain can’t handle more than one task at a time. Even though we think we’re multitasking, our brains are actually switching rapidly between tasks.”
The Harvard Business Review agrees with it’s 2010 article “You can’t multitask, so stop trying” where it states:
“Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%. Long-term memory suffers and creativity — a skill associated with keeping in mind multiple, less common, associations — is reduced.”
Once you understand this, the logical conclusion is to switch to targeted thinking and use that “one task at a time” limitation to your advantage.
So, for example, you might set yourself a full hour to look at a particular problem between 2pm and 3pm. When that hour comes, that is your full focus. No email checking, no social media, no phones, no thinking of anything else at all except that problem, no matter the temptation or justification you might create — and believe me we’re all good at that.
But, it’s only an hour. You can do an hour, anyone can. You probably would have spent it worrying about a bunch of stuff anyway because it seems so overwhelming.
Go to a different room, grab a pencil and paper if that helps you (it works for me) and write a few notes. Then, sit and think, ignoring the voice that might creep in and say “Thinking? Shouldn’t we be doing something? What about x or y problem — that’s more urgent? AND you’ve go to call that guy back etc etc ...”
Ignore that voice, but do so by telling it that you’re happy to look at those problems too, perhaps between 4pm and 5pm, but right now this is the issue under consideration. Be firm and clear with yourself, almost as if you’re explaining it to someone else, but don’t berate yourself. Simply give yourself permission to explore the possibilities.
Use the time to muse different approaches. Wonder about odd-ball or unusual angles that you’d never usually spend the time on. Write down different solutions or actions.
The truth is, how you use the time is actually less important than the understanding that the hour allocated to it is entirely dedicated to it to the exclusion of literally everything else. A short, laser-like focus is always far more powerful that days or weeks of interrupted, stress driven thinking.
In formal recognition terms, this concept is actually relatively new. The term “Deep Work” is sometimes used to describe this state, an expression first coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, as recently as 2012 in a blog post. He went on to expand upon this idea in his 2016 bestselling book titled Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Another user of the technique, the renowned leadership coach Robin Sharma, calls it his “Tight Bubble of Total Focus Strategy” which is a considerably wordier name, but nonetheless works on the same principle. That is, shutting out all distractions, turning off his phone and going to a quiet place where no one will disturb him.
But whatever you preference in naming it, the results can often be spectacular and certainly far beyond what any broader, looser thinking will produce.
Even so, I believe this approach actually has a much more powerful application, especially for ‘always on’ entrepreneurs.
‘Switching off’ using compartmentalization
Once you have the concept of dedicated compartments of time that are entirely impervious to other influences, you can use them in all sorts of ways.
Let’s say, for example, you realize you need to take some time out, completely away from your business and all the worries it brings you. How do you do this, if you can’t free your mind from the pressures?
The great thing is that this does not need to be physically away, it only means mentally away. Your job for the next, say, three hours you’ve set aside is to enjoy time with your husband/wife/partner etc. If you have kids, it might be a family thing, but, in any case, your task is to relax and enjoy that time.
Notice I have used the words “task” and “job” in the paragraph above — this is not an accident. Entrepreneurs tend to have very task driven minds which is a huge advantage in most situations but it’s also a disadvantage when trying to unwind. Unless it’s a task helping your goal, it seems counter-intuitive to do. It’s just the way we’re wired.
This simple “re-branding” of the objective of relaxing and switching off actually helps an obsessive entrepreneur focus on that time by viewing it as something that must be done and ticked off the list. And, being an entrepreneur, they will attempt to do it to the best of their ability.
In other words, since you can’t (and probably don’t want to) change that part of your brain that is wired in this way, approaching the problem using a method your brain relishes will actually work to your advantage. That time you have set aside — that very specifically defined amount of time — is entirely dedicated to that one task only, in this case relaxing, to the exclusion of all others. It’s “deep work”, but with a different objective.
Of course, I understand that there are things that won’t wait and it seems that pressure is perpetually high, so it may be that at first you will find your mind wandering back to issues and problems from time to time. Like we did in the task solving example above, you can promise yourself that you can worry about whatever you like as much as you like later on — just not during that time you’ve allocated.
Making that reassurance in that particular way is important because, for all sorts of psychological reasons, your brain is much more likely to accept this answer than a hard-line “you must not think about this now” approach. Your brain has nowhere to go with this stonewall approach and will simply try and break it down with continuous bombardments as a result.
Think of that pressure of deal with other things outside the scope of the compartment you’re dealing with as like a young child bothering you constantly to go to the park. Once the promise is made with a specific time to be acted on, that child is much less likely to keep interrupting you until the agreed time when you must keep your promise, assuming, of course, that child still wants to go to the park at that time.
You’re not saying “no”, you’re not saying something vague like “in a minute”, you’re saying “at this exact time and not before.” The difference is subtle, but very important.
When first starting to do this, I suggest an immersive experience that necessarily removes all distractions and communications, lest you are tempted to take a sneak peak at the phone. A simple cinema trip employing these guidelines, for example, can tick those boxes very nicely.
Try it, perhaps in a small way and over a short period of time at first. Use it to learn how to move different pressures to different areas while not allowing them to spill over to times when they shouldn’t be there.
The good news is that it isn’t especially hard, but it does take a little discipline, especially at first.
Extreme and Advanced Compartmentalization
This technique can also be used for extreme and distressing situations, and is arguably most effective in those circumstances if you can apply it correctly.
Ryan Blair, winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 and various other high level business accolades, talks about using the technique in great detail in his 2012 Forbes article “5 Steps of Compartmentalization: The Secret Behind Successful Entrepreneurs.”
At one point ion his life he was facing the simultaneous loss of his stepfather unexpectedly, his mother having an accident just a few weeks later and being left on permanent life support, being a father to a son diagnosed with autism, and running a company with “extreme growing pains”. He used the technique extensively to navigate the emotional and financial quagmire he was facing and found a way through.
For me personally, I can think of at least two occasions where this technique made the difference on a scale it is hard to put into words.
The first was a situation where I found myself in a difficult legal position with a supplier over a large sum of money. It was large enough to destroy the company and it was clear that it could go either way. The pressure was real.
However, the problem was more that it was affecting my sleep and therefore my ability to focus on solving the problem in the first place. I had to find a way to fix that first — and urgently.
The answer was simply to use the technique above and allow myself the luxury to sleep between certain hours. During that time, that was my only “job on the list”. I promised myself that the next morning I would wake up at the allotted time and get right back to worrying, if I still wanted to.
Strangely, I found this really quite easy, possibly because I’d been using this technique in one form or another for years. Even so, I still had to formally recognize it and go through the process of agreeing it with myself. It was very much like making a deal with my subconscious mind and, if a thought popped into my head when it wasn’t supposed to, I’d remind it that this conversation wasn’t due until 8 am.
For me this worked, and while the days remained stress filled as I did my best to resolve the situation, the nights were filled with deep, restful sleep that allowed me to recharge. It has stayed in my mind ever since as the best personal application of this technique I have ever used.
The second example was even more extreme and this time it concerned someone else.
My partner’s best friend for most of her life was diagnosed with a particularly nasty cancer and ultimately she would not survive, passing away at the age of 44. Shortly after diagnosis, my partner took her out for a “girls night” at the local posh spa.
As you can imagine, this was not going to be a standard visit with the uncertain future looming ahead, but remembering how this technique can often help free the mind, especially for short periods, I decided to try and share of what I’d learned in a subtle and indirect way.
When my partner’s friend arrived at the house and they were chatting in the kitchen, I added some items to her bag that I’d secretly prepared. They were a small box that could be closed and sealed, some small pieces of paper, a pen and set of instructions.
The instructions required that when getting changed ready for the evening (the point at which she would discover the box), she was to write down the worries that she now faced, place them inside it and close the lid thereafter. During the time at the spa, she was not to worry or refer to them, only focus on enjoying the time with her friend. At the end, she was allowed to take them out of the box again and carry on worrying about them if she chose to do so.
The box and message fulfilled all the requirements for compartmentalization, and provided props to speed up the process and provide a physical act to reinforce the effect, both in terms of locking them away, but also the reassurance (to the mind) of retrieval. There was no way to change what she was facing, but it made it possible, just for few hours, for her to relax and enjoy time with her closest friend.
When my partner returned, some hours later, she was clear that it had made a huge difference to their evening — all by changing the psychological approach and locking different challenges into different time compartments.
Even though this article is quite long, it is no more than a mere introduction to the concept of compartmentalization, skimming the surface of a subject on which entire books have been written.
Since discovering it many years ago, I have used it consistently, even (and especially) in situations of extreme stress or anxiety allowing me to remain calm and look at things objectively. My partner and I sometimes joke about how I refer to something being “future Jason’s problem” allowing me to focus on something else until I do, ultimately, become that future version of myself.
However, since this article is necessarily basic, I’d encourage you to not be disheartened if you struggle with your first few applications of the technique, especially if you are, for example, an ‘always on’ entrepreneur who struggles to relax.
It’s an incredibly effective approach using minimal mental power, but it can sometimes take a bit of fine tuning to find that sweet spot where it most effectively works for you.
But you’ll get there. After all, you’re an entrepreneur, and all you have to do is make sure it’s on your task list!
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