How to pull yourself out of a mental low point. Because being an entrepreneur is hard.
I started my first business when I was 16, and as I write this I am 36. In my 20 years of being an entrepreneur I cannot even begin to count the number of times that I have had bad days that could have been the beginning of the end for the business in question. But they weren’t.
We read about all the ‘overnight successes’ and celebrations of business around us but the reality is that being an entrepreneur and business leader is about the hard work and often lonely work, in between the few moments of clarity and celebration.
Being able to thrive in these less than newsworthy periods in between the moments of celebration and social media worthiness are what makes a successful entrepreneur. It’s about continuous disciplined execution and that is not easy.
This is why I developed a process which I ‘activate’ whenever I hit a low point and I wanted to share it because it has helped me so many times.
If I could only pick one thing, meditation would be it. Generally the first thing to hit me is the feeling of either overwhelm or anxiety. Often I can’t even articulate what it is exactly that is causing it but it doesn’t actually matter, the feeling is there and that’s the challenge. When this happens I am in a state of Amygdala hijack and I am in full primal flight or fight mode, rendering myself pretty useless at making good decisions and thinking sensibly. By meditating, even for 5 minutes, I give my brain the chance to shift its energy away from the Amygdala (fight or flight), towards the pre-frontal cortex (awareness, concentration and clear decision making).
Simply put, if I give myself the time to meditate I move out of panic and into calm.
I use the calm app for this and there are many more out there to choose from.
Then I do 25 pushups.
2. Improve my environment.
Now that I am no longer looking around for the sabre-toothed tiger that is supposedly hunting me, I turn my attention to my immediate physical environment. I take a few minutes to properly tidy and clean my work space and here’s why:
We think that our feelings control our actions and that’s not untrue but we have the ability to flip this around and use our actions to change our feelings — some call this brain hacking and it really works.
The thought model is common and powerful tool used in coaching. Once I have identified what the feelings are and therefore what actions I am likely to take, I look at how I can reverse this effect and rather than let my feelings dictate my actions, I take action to change how I feel.
By taking the action (tidying up my workspace), I shift my feelings from overwhelm, anxiety and confusion just a little bit towards order, calm, confidence and clarity.
Then I do 25 pushups.
3. Reflection and gratitude.
Now that I am sitting at an organised workspace and feeling good about my physical surroundings, I stop to appreciate that I have taken difficult and deliberate action to improve my state of being — just this is more than most are prepare to do. Now I reflect on some of the positive things that I have achieved and experienced in my life. By this stage my brain is beginning to shift and my Amygdala is loosing it’s grip to my good friend the pre-frontal cortex.
Here I often think about a phrase “What got me here wont get me there” which always helps me to effect more change.
Then I do 25 pushups.
4. Set my intentions for the day
By this stage I am thinking a little clearer and the world, while certainly not perfect does not seem to burning down around me. I turn to my ever loyal whiteboard and I write down my intentions for the day. This will include how I want to think, what I want to feel and what I realistically can achieve.
This might look something like:
Complete 10 Trello tasks(this will make more sense once you have read step 5).
1 hour on learning.
1 hour on quarterly offsite prep work.
Opportunity over worry.
Complete 3 x 48 min pomodoro’s. (I have modified this but basically this is just focused work time with no distractions).
Complete book review on ‘x’.
Be OK with not being ‘busy’.
No screens after 8pm.
Trust that you have done the work.
In bed by 9pm.
This stays on the whiteboard (or whichever medium you like to write on) throughout the day and allows me to tick things off as I go, further ‘hacking’ my brain into feeling like I am progressing and spiralling upwards.
At the end of the day, I do a quick reflection to see how I did on each item. I also reflect on which items increased my energy and which drained my energy.
This intention setting and reflection habit has become part of my daily life and the effects have been quite astounding.
Then I do 25 pushups.
5. Make things smaller.
I use trello to manage my personal tasks , goals, habit creations etc. I like it because of how granular I can make it. At this point I am generally in a better headspace and I am just about ready to start getting into the work and back to a mental state of progress, confidence and clarity.
The way that I go about this is that I make a list of the all the things that need to get done in order to move the needle on the areas that got me into this negative headspace in the first place. I divide them into two groups:
- Things I can change.
- Things I can’t change.
This next part is crucial — the things that I cannot change I delete and give them up to the universe. If I can’t effect change on an issue, it is nothing short of insane to worry about it!
Now that I have released myself from the things that I cannot change, I focus on the things that are within my locus of control and I get to work. I break these things down to the smallest tasks that I can with the view to be able to move items across from ‘to do’ to ‘done’ in as small a time as possible. Each time that I move even the smallest task across I get a little hit of dopamine and a sense of improvement which then incentivises me to get the next one done and so the upward spiral of positive action and feeling begins.
Then I do 25 pushups (by now I’m sure you see what’s happening here).
This entire process can take as little as an hour and the effects for me, every time are transformational. The hardest part by far is getting started. If you can stop what you are doing (generally freaking out) and give yourself the gift of focused, mindful self observation and disciplined action the rest follows naturally. It’s often pretty incredible how things begin to ‘miraculously’ fall into place after that. Trust the process.
My process has a bunch of variations depending on the severity of the situation at hand but the above serves as a general outline which I hope is useful to you. My hope is that this gets you a little closer to being able to manage life as a business leader without the crushing stress that too often comes with it.
And now I’m off to do 25 pushups…