With COVID-19 causing global economic uncertainty, the demands on a founder running a new business are greater than ever. This guide provides practical advice for strategically managing stress—guidance that is even more relevant for founders now.
Before I became a clinical psychologist, I was a small-town high school track star. My favorite events were the sprints. There is very little competitive strategy beyond mastering the starting blocks. Start moving. Don’t stop. Don’t slow. Go, go, go. Move fast and break things.
The 400 m (one lap around the track; about a quarter of a mile) is a different sport altogether. Now your running requires strategy. There are moments to ease off and moments to kick into high gear.
I ran my first 400 m like I was being chased by a lion.
A strange thing began to happen about 75 m before the finish line: My form began to collapse, my strong sprinting legs began to feel like dead weight, my arms began to swing back and forth, twisting across my upper body. I struggled to inhale. I stumbled over the finish line, leaned over, and vomited all over the track.
Throwing up in front of a packed grandstand was not my finest moment.
I was used to speed and competitive intensity, but I wasn’t used to running that fast for that long. I learned the hard way that failing to have a pacing strategy can lead to disaster.
We should stop treating our businesses like short sprints. Move fast; don’t break you.
Run smart, not just hard
You need a strategy for how you will approach the intense demands of starting a business.
I’m sure that you’ve worked hard before. You know what it is like to hustle. You know what it is like to put in long hours. You are likely beginning a business because you have experience focusing intensely on a problem until you come up with a solution. You’ve learned how to master your craft or area of expertise. You’ve realized that you have a product or service that people need and want.
As an online entrepreneur, you are what determines the success or failure of your business. You are the center around which your business emanates. Intelligence, creativity, ability to communicate, level of focus, perseverance, expertise, capacity to solve problems, decision-making skills, professional network: You will need all of these, but they are not sufficient for success.
You have drive, experience, and competitive intensity; you need coaching and practice on your pacing, just like I did.
Stress: life-saving and deadly
Starting a business is stressful.
Feeling stressed is appropriate. It is the natural response to doing something that is both difficult and important. The stakes are high. Good decisions matter. Trusting the right people is essential. Building a customer base, clearly communicating your brand and your worth, watching the budget, growing a network, hiring contractors or the first employee. All of these things are stressful because they are important. Stress and motivation go hand in hand. The sources of stress are often the things that we most need to attend to. The stress we feel is our own internal alarm going off to say, “Don’t forget, pay attention, think this through...”
Stress is often a good thing. It keeps us awake and activated.
Your body is built to experience stress. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in. When you come across a bear in the woods, do you run? Or do you grab a branch and fight? The instant the bear comes into view, your heart rate elevates, breathing speeds up, muscles tighten, digestion and other nonessential functions slow down or stop, and your heart begins to push blood into your extremities. Your senses become more acute, and your body becomes ready to respond. This stress response can save your life.
When that bear is a huge deadline, a make-it-or-break-it presentation, or a tough decision that has to be made, that natural fight-or-flight response allows you to react in a faster, more acute way. It is not in spite of—but because of—your innate ability to respond to stress that you are able to meet that deadline, to nail that presentation, to make that decision. The Yerkes-Dodson Law is based on a series of classic psychological research studies, which measured the relationship between stress and performance. The general finding is that the “right” amount—a happy medium—of stress contributes to peak performance.
Your stress helps you.
So why does stress get such a bad rap?
Stress moves from a life-saving to a life-threatening mechanism when it shifts from acute to chronic. A short-term, time-limited stressor (a bear, an important presentation) is what is known in the psychological world as acute stress. Acute stress helps you to perform at your best, to fight problems head-on, to run faster, to focus better, to be creative and in-tune with what you need to do. Our bodies are designed for acute stress, and multiple systems in the body work together to handle it. Our bodies know exactly what to do, and perhaps more importantly, our bodies know how to stop doing it.
The presentation. The board meeting. The decision. It happens. Your body’s mechanisms step up to handle it. You do. Then it’s over.
When the stressor goes away, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and your heart rate resets to normal, your muscles relax, the blood flow returns to your brain, your digestive system comes back online. And life moves forward.
Acute stress works to protect us when we’re threatened.
When we face acute stress for a long period of time—chronic stress—we begin to push our bodies to do something they weren’t designed to do. Chronic stress can literally break down your body. It has serious and lasting health consequences. Research has shown links between chronic stress and almost every chronic health problem: heart disease, obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, asthma, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer. The software problem can become a hardware problem.
Additionally, chronic stress can cause major emotional problems. Unmanaged chronic stress shifts into anxiety—a prolonged inner battle with fears and negative or damaging thoughts. Chronic stress does not make for effective entrepreneurs, managers, or partners. Sufferers are constantly working hard to keep it together—to keep stress in check—and as a result, anxious folks can be impulsive, angry, and short-tempered. They make bad decisions. They may try to cope through alcohol or substance abuse.
As a business owner, chronic stress is a significant danger. Not only are you experiencing all of the normal stressors of human life, but you also have the weight of your business on your shoulders. There is always a deadline, always a decision to be made, always a presentation or a meeting, always a tricky customer or contractor to deal with. You can’t escape the stress—especially when you’re running a company—so you have to find strategies to pace yourself.
Coping with chronic stress
Coping with chronic stress is about figuring out how to run fast for a long period of time without losing your lunch in front of a crowd. There is no single right way to organize your life, but I’ll give you some research-based suggestions. You’ll have to do some customization to come up with a stress-management plan that really works for you. Even if you tinker and experiment, I assure you it is worth the effort to figure out a stress-management strategy that works well for you. Without exaggeration: Your personal well-being and the sustainability of your business may depend on it.
Recognize your individual stress signals
Suffering from chronic stress is a like being the proverbial frog in the pot with the slowly boiling water. The frog got in trouble one degree at a time. The negative consequences of chronic stress can creep in slowly. Perhaps your busy mind wakes you up at 3:00 a.m. several nights in a row. You’re tired, so you’re easily irritable with family members. You have a near-constant headache—perhaps caused by clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth. Your stomach is upset. You drink more caffeine to wake up. You drink more alcohol to try to sleep. It becomes harder to focus for significant amounts of time. Your decisions get more reactive, more impulsive. When did this water get so hot?
The magic trick of effective chronic stress management is to catch it early. You have your own early stress indicators. Your body is often the best early warning system that stress is beginning to take a toll. When I’m experiencing accumulating chronic stress, I stop sleeping well. Some people experience an upset stomach (nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea). Other folks get sore shoulders, headaches, or other kinds of pain. Perhaps your early warning sign is a harsh tone, irritability, or feeling extra “moody.” Maybe you find yourself craving sweets or salty food. Or turning to a glass (or three) of wine or scotch so that you can go to sleep at night. Perhaps you lose interest in sex and closeness with others. Perhaps your interest in sex escalates drastically. Certain aspects of your personality may become more prominent under stress. Perhaps you get more chaotic (lose your keys, run late, forget things, miss appointments). On the other hand, the “type A” parts of you might become more prominent—you may find yourself becoming more rigid than normal (going a little crazy with the spreadsheets or doubling up on procedural documentation). Under stress, introverts might become even more reclusive, and extroverts may have a hard time sitting down to work. Finding that you’re becoming off-balance, or a little “too much” of yourself is another good indicator that stress is getting the best of you.
Accumulating chronic stress affects everyone’s body and life differently. There’s not one specific thing that signals trouble in every person. Take a moment to reflect on your stress signals. When you’ve been stressed in the past, is there a part of your body that aches or an organ system that seems to stop functioning well? Or are there a set of behaviors that signal trouble?
Knowing your personal early warning signs is essential to your ability to be proactive and work against chronic stress before it destroys your health and wreaks havoc in your business and your relationships.
Problem-solve your pain points
What is causing your stress? Take an honest look at the main culprits behind stress. Start by writing a list of your stressors from all areas of your life, including work, home, family, and relationships. Find the specific pain points.
It may be that you feel stressed but not really clear about what is driving that feeling. By parsing out the specific causes of stress, it becomes possible to look at the list and problem-solve your stressors one by one. Some stressors are changeable or avoidable.
For example, perhaps you have a stress spike most afternoons when you are trying to wrap-up a prospective client call and then hurl yourself out the door so that you can pick up your child from school by 3:30 p.m. Perhaps you need to arrange afterschool care for your child two afternoons a week so that you can complete prospective client calls without feeling rushed. If you find yourself constantly stressed by the amount of emails sitting in your inbox, consider hiring a part-time assistant to make a first pass or respond to all nonessential emails.
The point is to systematically examine each pain point and ask, “What control do I have here? How can I eliminate or decrease this experience in my life?”
Make changes and collect data. Implement the changes that most directly modify the sources of your stress and then track your mood—pay attention to whether or not your changes are impacting the bottom line of stress.
Shift from passive thinking (“this stress is happening to me”) to active thinking (“I can take control of some parts of my stress”). Stress is no longer a villain, and you are no longer a defenseless victim. You have some control over how much stress you experience as you build your business. Use stress to your advantage. Let it fuel you for short bursts when you need peak performance and then return to your baseline for the long haul.
Manage stress in the moment
Not all stressors are “problem-solvable.” The year that my consulting firm opened, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and both my mom and youngest brother spent weeks in intensive care units for unrelated, life-threatening medical crises. My husband and I also took emergency guardianship of two children who needed a safe place to live. It would have been a challenging year had I not been starting a business. Because I was also starting a business, my level of stress was sky-high. And there wasn’t much I could do to eliminate these stressors from my life. They were happening, and they were completely outside of my control.
What do we do about stressors that we can’t problem-solve? When you can’t attack the problem (i.e., the stressor), you attack the stress itself. In order for you to function well, you must be able to have some level of calm control over how stress shapes your body and your emotions. I appreciate that this is easy to say and harder to do. However, like any skill, cultivating inner calm in the face of significant stress can be done.
When you notice your chest tighten, your breath become shallow or your palms begin to sweat—whatever your early stress signals are—it is time for a break, even a microscopic break. An emerging body of research suggests that the best tool we have to counteract heightened stress is slow, deep breaths. Here’s a brief, user-friendly summary; but, trust me, the research support is extensive. If there were one tool I could equip every new entrepreneur with, it would be the ability to breathe slowly and deeply.
To practice this, place a one hand with your palm over your belly button. Inhale slowly through your nose (aim for four to five seconds) and watch your hand rise as your belly “inflates” with oxygen. Exhale slowly through your nose (another count of four to five seconds) and watch as your hand sinks in toward your spinal cord as your belly “deflates.” Take four or five breaths this way, breathing through your nose into your belly. Breathing this way is simple, but it is also powerful. It signals the activation of your parasympathetic or “calm down” nervous system and lets your body know that there is not an immediate threat that requires an acute stress response.
You can breathe like this in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of a task. I’ve done it on stage without people really noticing. It is a fast, simple, highly effective tool for “in-the-moment” stress. In addition to practicing slow, deep breaths, here are a few other tools that night help you manage stress spikes in the middle of your work life:
- Take a three- to five-minute stretch break. Give attention to your shoulders, neck, and jaw.
- Put on calming music.
- Change work settings.
- Take a break and call a friend or family member.
- Get up and walk around the block.
- Close your eyes for 10 minutes.
- Meditate or pray.
- Have a healthy snack, or spend a moment enjoying a hot drink.
- Get up and splash cool water on your face.
- Take a moment to apply good-smelling lotion to your hands.
- Put a drop of essential oil on your wrist.
The stress reaction is about going fast and speeding up in order to respond. By doing the opposite and slowing yourself down, you counteract the emotions behind the reaction and thus the stress itself. By changing one or more sources of sensory input (sight, sound, scent, taste, and tactile sensation) you give your brain new data to compute. If that new sensory information is calming, it can be another trigger to activate the parasympathetic or “calm down” system.
These skills can be practiced as a calm-down mechanism in the midst of elevated stress. They can also be integrated into daily life as a way of building up your “anti-stress” muscles. A few minutes of deep breathing or meditation each day can work wonders to lower your baseline level of stress and anxiety. These practices also support increased attention and focus, improved sleep, and decreased depression. It is a great investment in you and your business.
Live a stress-savvy lifestyle
The first year of your business may be the most important time to live your life in a way that allows you to cope with stress in a healthy and proactive way. This statement is counter-cultural to the “hustle” of the startup. Contrary to popular opinion, working more is not always working better. The habits you build into your business (and, by extension, your daily life) will continue for years. Choose habits that counteract chronic stress before it accumulates. This will contribute to the long-term sustainability of your business and make your life more enjoyable during the early years of intensity.
You are the expert on yourself. If you give it a little reflection, you likely have some insight into what needs to be in place for you to live a stress-minimizing lifestyle. Thankfully psychologists and other medical professionals have researched the most effective buffers against the negative consequences of chronic stress.
Take care of your body. Much of the damage that stress causes is due to the cumulative effects of cortisol on the body. Taking care of your body can help you optimize your capacity to counteract stress. This means sleeping well, fueling your body with nutritious food, and moving your body (elevating your heart rate) for at least 30 minutes three times a week. These three things are essential to optimal stress management and optimal neurological functioning. Your brain doesn’t work well without basic care and maintenance. Eating, sleeping, and moving are the basic building blocks of self-care that fuel your body well. It is going to be very difficult for you to be excellent at your business without taking care of your body.
Keep connected. If you’re going to go through something difficult, the one resource that will best predict how well you manage is the quality of your relationships. Relationships protect us from the mental health problems associated with extreme stress. Do not neglect your relationships while you are growing your business. If you are successful, you will want folks to celebrate with. If you fail, you will want a community of loved ones to prop you up again.
Celebrate success. The early years of a business can feel like a blur. There are very few moments of “arrival.” There are never moments when the to-do list is done. It is hard to ever feel “done.” However, our brains benefit from the neurological boost that comes with the satisfaction of completion. Building a business is a long slog. It is important to celebrate the completion of specific goals: your first paying customer, your first bulk order, your first viral post. Whatever small goals are guiding your business “to do” list. Find ways to celebrate them. My friend Phil made a list of five goals he wanted to complete in a year, and then he selected a special bottle of wine for each of those five goals. Each bottle was labeled with a sticky note: “Sell WordPress Plugin” on the Edna Valley Pinot Noir, and “Launch Onboarding Automation” was attached to the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.
We hard-driving entrepreneur types are often biased toward what is undone. We finish one thing, and we jump right into the next thing. But good stress management demands that we counterbalance the unending to-do list with micro-celebrations along the way. Tell the truth about what is being accomplished just as much as you tell the truth about what needs to be done. Your brain needs the endorphins. Your friends and family need the opportunity to celebrate you. Your co-founder, employees, or team members need to see you celebrating so that they feel safe throwing some high fives around. And you need to be reminded of all that is being accomplished.
Make time to play. Starting requires tremendous effort, perseverance, focus, and good old-fashioned hard work. Resist the temptation to roll your eyes when I mentioned that part of ensuring your success is making time for play. Play activities are things you choose to do because they spark joy. Play lets your brain and body enjoy a different speed—a break from the intensity and hard work of growing a business. Play should be immersive and stimulating. These are things like archery, playing in a soccer league, chess, snowboarding, building with Legos, making a quilt, cycling, playing in a band, painting, roughhousing with kids, or rebuilding a classic car. Playing video games and watching TV or movies are certainly common ways to relax. These aren’t at the top of my list because they tend to be cognitively and physically passive. The best forms of play involve all parts of you: your body, your intelligence, your emotions. They cause you to lose track of time and create a feeling of delight. They allow you, at least temporarily, to forget about your stress.
A stress-savvy lifestyle is one in which you counteract stress with proactive and emotionally and physically healthy choices. You do this to train for the stress. You do it in the midst of stress. You do it because you realize that you can’t afford to sacrifice your wellness to the altar of hustle.
Intensity and speed without strategy may cause you to lose your lunch or leave you feeling burnt out and anxious.
Mastering the ups and downs
The ups and downs are inevitable. As an entrepreneur, you will have moments when you are killing it. You will experience elation when you are flying high with excitement about the success of a new product, customer growth, partnership opportunities, connections to influential people, big contracts, or income. Those are glorious moments. And in those moments, it will be hard to imagine ever doing anything else. It feels so good to see your work welcomed into the world. The moments of excitement and pride are the reward for the hard work. The moments of momentum give hope that your business will grow and flourish and give you a great lifestyle and the opportunity to make a significant impact on the world.
But there will be the other moments too. The moments when you feel discouraged, embarrassed, fearful, or angry. There will be moments when you want to quit. The moments when someone betrays your trust or a client stops using your service. There will be moments when you aren’t sure if you’ll be able to make payroll and moments when you aren’t sure if you’ll be able to keep the business alive. Some of these low moments will be fleeting thoughts. Some of them will stretch into months of agony. These moments will test your fortitude, wisdom, and patience. They will be very, very hard.
First and foremost, the highs and lows are a normal part of starting a business. You are not alone in the ups and downs and the highs and lows. The internet is not always honest. Many info-marketers tout their sure-fire strategies to sail your way into a seven-figure business. They might as well be selling snake oil for eternal life or ocean front property in Las Vegas. It’s an intriguing story. But it belongs in the fiction section. There is no easy way to success. It is a grind and a risk and an outpouring of time, energy, resources, and emotional capital. It won’t happen smoothly, and it won’t happen in one day.
People tend to underestimate the emotional toll of starting a business. Many new entrepreneurs prepare for the time investment and the financial investment. I’m sure you’ve made a business plan and done your research about taxes and incorporation. You’ve prepared for the nuts and bolts. But you also need to plan for the emotional investment.
As an entrepreneur, your business is an extension of you. It is your livelihood. It is the mechanism by which you will feed your children and the entity that decides whether or not you’ll be taking that trip to Cancun this year. The well-being of your business determines your financial well-being. That means that your emotional state is linked to its ups and downs. However, the connection between you and your business goes deeper than livelihood. Your business came from your mind and represents your unique way to solve a problem or view the world. Your business is a result of your skills and expertise. It is something that exists because you exist. Unlike a work setting where you clock in and clock out, building your own business is deeply tied to your identity.
When you offer something in public, you make yourself vulnerable, and you put yourself out in the open. There’s an emotional intensity to that. When you’re behind the wheel or when you’re holding the ball, you are on display for all the world to see. That is an adrenaline-fueled, all-on-the-line kind of experience—in both a good way and a bad way.
This makes business mistakes particularly difficult. They often happen in public. And they can take on much greater significance than “Oops, that link was wrong.” You will make mistakes in your business. A typo, an incorrectly sent email, or a plane ticket for the wrong date. It will absolutely happen. The question is how low you go in response to those experiences. How well can you brush it off? How much do your business mistakes derail you?
Achieving healthy boundaries
You are not your business. And your business is not your baby.
I recently read a research study published in Human Brain Mapping that compared brain scans (fMRIs) of fathers thinking about their children to brain scans of entrepreneurs thinking about their businesses. It may not shock you to learn that the regions of neurological activation were very similar. Both fathers and founders experienced activation in the part of their brain that releases dopamine. This is a reward center—we feel good when it is activated.
Like parents gazing at images of their sweet young children, entrepreneurs experienced a little swirl of reward—a little dopamine hit—when gazing at images of their company. At the neurological level, entrepreneurs have a lovey-dovey, affectionate relationship with their company.
In addition, the entrepreneurial brains, like the fathers’ brains, demonstrated a suppression of the parts of the brain that are connected to critical social processing. These areas of the brain are important to social assessment or the ability to read and evaluate the intentions of another person. (This is the part of your brain that was active last night at a cocktail party as you scanned the room and unconsciously evaluated who you wanted to talk to.)
When these brain areas are offline or suppressed, people are unable to accurately connect with and relate to others. The founders in this study were essentially unable to critically assess their company as a separate entity. Instead, the business was encoded in their brains as an extension of the self. (And just like romantic love and parental love, founder love is blind.)
On the one hand, this research explained some things about founders to me. Some of it is good. This finding demonstrates the sacrifice, the drive, the craziness that comes from being a founder. Parental love brings forth the best and worst in human beings. I never knew how patient, self-sacrificing, and strong I could be until I had children. And I never knew how selfish, short-tempered, and crazy I could be until I had children.
The same goes for being a founder: Sometimes, you feel obsessed and on fire. Other times, you are passionate and creative. Often, you are a little irrational about all you’re doing to grow your business, and now we know there’s some science behind that.
On the other hand, I’m a little bit troubled by the implications of how deeply a business can become integrated with our very being. Just like in any important human relationship, too much fusion, too much enmeshment, and too many connected emotions can be dangerous. Giving your whole heart to a business is psychologically dangerous.
Entrepreneurs can get so emotionally attached to their business that they come to relate to the business as if it were another person. Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, businesses do not make good romantic partners. They are erratic and demanding, not good listeners, and they never, ever take out the trash.
A business can take over everything. It can take over your time, your energy, your thoughts, and your emotions, and with that comes a weightiness that is always there, no matter what you do. At that point, it’s so easy to start telling yourself that you’ve got it handled, you’re doing fine, and you don’t need anyone or anything. From there, it’s a slow progression to letting yourself be more and more consumed by the work. Soon, you wake up, and that’s what you think about; when you’re with friends and family, that’s what you’re thinking about; when you go to sleep, that’s what you’re thinking about.
This is a misplaced identity—the job or the startup or the idea has become both who the founder is and what the founder loves. But your business simply can’t carry the weight of who you are—it will never be your full value or your purpose. Nor is it a good love outlet, because it just can’t love you back. Your startup doesn’t have the shoulders to bear that weight, and it shouldn’t. So that misplaced emotional attachment has to go if you want to be healthy and strong for yourself, for your business, and for your family.
The key is to have a bit of emotional distance. It helps to be able to separate who you are from the business that you’re building. The highs and lows will happen, but your identity, emotional life, and relationships don’t have to bear the brunt of the gravitational force.
How to ride the roller coaster
What do we do about these high highs and low lows? What do we do about the intense entanglements between our business and our identity? How can you found and grow a business without getting emotionally torn up? Let’s talk about specific strategies.
Track your highs and lows. One of the most important activities in my life comes down to two sentences. Every day I write the high point of my day and the low point of my day. It is simple data collection. The power of this data is not so much in the daily moment. Although there are many psychological benefits to journaling, the power in this practice happens when you review the sentences that you amass over time. Having three months, or three years, of highs and lows helps you see patterns that you’re unable to see in the day-to-day of your life. When you have longitudinal data, you can identify the parts of your life that are your “sweet spots.” You can also see the parts of your life that leave you depleted, stressed, and unhappy.
This data can help you in a few ways. First, it can help you optimize for the sweet spots—the parts of your life that you find meaningful, enjoyable, and engaging. These are the parts of your life where you have the highest likelihood of influence and sustainable energy. Tracking your lows gives you information about what you should hire out, eliminate, or avoid. Seeing the data over time can help you identify ways in which your energy is not being well-utilized. The second way this information can help you is that when you track your highs and lows over time you inevitably see the power of passing time. This too shall pass. The mistakes, criticisms, low points, and failures don’t last forever. Eventually they are replaced by other feelings, by other experiences of success and joy.
That is one of your most life-saving abilities as a founder: to know that no matter how low things are, the lows won’t last. The moment will pass. The situation will change. All roller coasters, no matter how wild, are time-limited.
Diversify your emotional portfolio. You can’t only be emotionally invested in your business. Maintain your friendships and your relationships with your family members. Let romance be part of your life. Let yourself enjoy hobbies and exercise. Fight the urge to eat, sleep, and breathe the business every moment of your day. Let yourself experience the emotional ups and downs of other parts of your life. When you, the entrepreneur, are in a dip, the other parts of you (your life as a parent, an Italian soccer fan, a microbrew aficionado) will provide emotional counterbalance.
Adopt a growth mindset. How you choose to see the lows is the difference between having a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” These terms were originally coined by Stanford University professor of psychology, Dr. Carol Dweck. According to Dweck’s theory, the fixed mindset assumes our character, abilities, and intelligence are fixed within us—we’re either smart, or we’re not. We’re either capable entrepreneurs, or we’re not. Meanwhile, the growth mindset assumes that our skills and abilities are always a work in progress, merely the high water mark for our development and education thus far.
An entrepreneur operating from the growth mindset thrives on challenges and sees failures as opportunities for growth that stretch existing abilities. A growth-oriented entrepreneur has a self-esteem that is tied to effort and learning, not the outcome of any one project. Any one skill, any one success, any one email sent with the wrong link, or any one failure is a starting point for the growth that is cultivated throughout life.
A fixed mindset entrepreneur believes that if she doesn’t have a skill today, then she just doesn’t have it. Period. This perspective doesn’t consider change over time, doesn’t acknowledge the value of trying, failing, and trying again. The fixed mindset entrepreneur sees only the present moment in time—not the natural (or intentional) acquisition of skill that comes over time. Turn your lows into learning moments, and turn your highs into celebrations of all that you’ve learned. Be willing to try new things, to attempt new ideas, to push beyond the boundaries of what you know and can do right now.
Take meaningful breaks. If you spend too much time on roller coasters, you’ll get sick and sore and disrupt your equilibrium. Human bodies aren’t made for prolonged intensity or prolonged acute stress. If you want to make entrepreneurship a sustainable lifestyle, you have to take breaks. Yes, even in the first year. Yes, even when you’re growing and busy and overwhelmed.
There are three kinds of breaks that I think are important:
1. Technology breaks: I have a friend who pays for two iPhones simply so that she can have one for work and one for personal use. She keeps her work contacts and her personal contacts on separate phones. She keeps her work email and personal email on separate phones. And when she finishes work at the end of each day, she plugs her work phone into a charging station and leaves it at the office. Her reasoning is that she was finding herself completely chained to her work, even when she was at home eating dinner with her family or watching her kid’s soccer games. An inbox notification would pop up, and she felt like she had to answer it. While this option may be too extreme for you, it’s good to find a way to escape from being accessible 24 hours per day. This may mean leaving your phone in the office or putting it in a drawer when you’re not working or even turning off notifications. Whatever you decide, make an intentional effort to leave your work communication for your work hours so that you can focus on your family, friends, and nonwork activities.
2. Vacations: Taking a vacation from your everyday life is the best way to give yourself a reboot. A week off helps your body reset from the buildup of chronic stress. It can also give you a refreshed outlook on your life and business and increase your motivation to achieve more. The dividends often pay off right away. Sure, you took a week or two off, but when you come back inspired and refreshed, you’re likely to be more productive than you were before.
Nearly every founder I talk to balks at this idea. And I get it. I own a business, as does my husband, and I understand how anxious it makes a founder to step away, especially in the early days when don’t have processes or a team to cover for you. It’s hard to disconnect, especially because you are an essential (and irreplaceable) part of your business. I know that for me, the idea of leaving and disconnecting from everything often feels more stressful than the idea of staying home and just keeping on.
You need to go on vacation anyway. Research has shown again and again that people who give their minds and bodies a break from the grind are better able to think creatively, to solve problems, to step away from the robotic just-get-it-done mindset that often comes with months and months of stress. When you step back and go on vacation, you re-energize and come back raring to go and stoked about the things you thought of while your mind was on a break.
Going on vacation also gives you time to focus on those relationships and activities that can be easily ignored during the day-to-day slog. Making memories, having shared experiences, or getting time for unhurried conversations are great investments in the freedom, relationships, and joyful experiences that lead most of us down the entrepreneurial path to being with.
Consider this permission—no, a prescription—to go on vacation. If the idea of completely disconnecting makes you all-out panic-attack anxious, don’t completely disconnect. Bring your phone along and check email a few times a day, or call in for scrum meetings. Make it work for you and your personal situation. But make sure you make it work. Go. Get away. Find the time. It will pay off for you in the long run. Doctor’s orders.
3. Retreats: A vacation is a time-out, away from work. A retreat is a time-in, a deep-dive into your business.
I believe that every entrepreneur needs to take a three-day retreat at least three times each year. A retreat is the time to reflect, refocus, and consider the big picture of your business. It is where you set your goals, evaluate your progress, and assess the health and direction of your business. It’s easy to find the business on a path that seemed right a year ago, but is no longer correct; or a path that represents a drift away from your goals; or a path that is right, but needs some tweaking. A reflective retreat can help you double-check your business direction and help you to refocus your business to be even better.
A retreat can mean a lot of things for different people, depending on what will truly give you the solitude, space, and time to think, reflect, and grow. For me, I find a hotel room with a view of the ocean and pack a roll of butcher paper and a box of markers. One of my founder friends goes to her family’s cabin in the woods and then retreats even further into nature on hikes so that she can really find a quiet place to think and jot things down in a notebook. My general guidelines: Go somewhere out of your normal day-to-day life, unplug as much as possible, spend time alone, spend time thinking and writing. Leave with some actionable items.
Now, I know that the mere thought of taking a few days off to do nothing but think and reflect sounds terrifying to many of you. You’re already considering the logistical nightmare of stopping work for a few days, of finding someone to cover a storefront or to lead a team, of canceling meetings or rescheduling events. And I get it: Life at a business can be daunting and fast-paced. It may feel like you can’t afford to take the time for a retreat, but I will flip that on its back and say you can’t afford not to.
Being an entrepreneur is an incredibly rewarding way to live life. The high highs and low lows are part of it—they’re what make it exciting and rewarding. And they’re what make it painful and occasionally overwhelming.
You are not alone
This guide has been full of practical information to help you promote your mental health. But the most important “tactic” of all is not based on you as a lone individual. The most important action that you can take as an entrepreneur is to build up your community of relationships.
One of the most common things I hear from founders is that the people in their lives don’t “get it.” The spouse, neighbors, college roommate, siblings, and parents don’t understand the pressures and challenges of being an entrepreneur.
“No one else gets what it’s like to be running my business.”
“No one understands my day-to-day life and telling them would be a long, arduous process.”
“No one else could possibly understand what I’m feeling right now.”
“Other people don’t have the combination of pressures and responsibilities that I have.”
Your brain is playing a trick on you. Everybody—literally, every single human—has experienced frustration. We’ve all felt sad. We all know what it’s like to be uncertain or scared. Every one of us has felt unmotivated or burned out. All of us have experienced doubt or lack of confidence. All of us have known the joy of success or the thrill that comes when the pieces of life come together in just the right way.
You’re not alone.
I’ll repeat that: You are not alone.
It’s as easy to get into the habit of thinking you are alone and living in isolation as a founder as it is to overcome those thoughts. You just need to get into the habit of saying yes to people. “Yes, I can have coffee just to talk. Yes, I would love to tell you about my day and see if you have any thoughts. Yes, I do want some advice.” Yes, yes, yes.
Talk less and listen more, even (especially) to the nonfounders in your life. Listen to their heartaches, annoyances, and fears. Listen to their joys and celebrations. Careful listening will help you to build a bridge between your situation and theirs. Whether you want to connect with your stay-at-home-dad husband; your wife who is an emergency-room doctor; your tween-aged daughter; or your retired, golf-obsessed dad—you’ll find the point of connection and understanding if you listen well.
Listening isn’t a way to don your superhero cape and fix everyone’s problems. You have needs, too. Listening is a way to help others help you. Help your family and friends understand your founder’s life by listening for common emotions and worries in the stories of their lives. We are all human, so the best way to connect with others is through those very real, very human emotions.
Deep relationships bring mutual health
Our well-being is contingent on having healthy, deep relationships. Our bodies need physical touch. Our minds crave language. Our hearts are delighted when we are loved by someone. Our minds thrive when we are able to help others. We are a social species. Relationships bring comfort and companionship. The people in our lives can serve as sounding boards as we solve problems, escape routes when we need to get away, unifiers when we are struggling to connect, humor when we need a fresh perspective, and the foundation on which we build our businesses.
It is impossible to be successful in business or life, and it is impossible to be healthy without meaningful, deep relationships. People have to be the first thing we invest in, and our priority over other tasks. (You count as “people,” too.)
As a final note, I want to make a quick plug for having a relationship with a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor is trained to listen for problematic patterns and may be able to help you prevent negative spirals or relationship implosions. Many of us also have pretty good ideas about how to manage stress. And if the worst happens—if you fail, feel absolutely alone, fall into depression, have painful thoughts, go through a divorce, experience a bankruptcy—you have an expert in your corner to help you put the pieces back together. For some founder-specific tips on why and how to connect with a mental health professional, check out this podcast episode.
My sincere hope is that you will figure out a personalized strategy to make entrepreneurship a sustainable, meaningful, satisfying, and lucrative way of life. If you think you need someone to talk to, you do—reach out to a local mental health professional or get in touch.