I often get asked for advice about handling the stress of business ownership. I used to rattle off a list of suggestions, but lately I've realized that I'd perform a far greater service by talking about how I failed to handle stress as a young entrepreneur.
I didn't even know that I had an issue until I experienced a couple of panic attacks a while back. A brilliant executive coach, Joanna Starek, informed me that these episodes were basically a grand culmination of 20 years of letting stress eat me alive.
Looking back, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache if I'd taken these three steps a long time ago:
1. Broaden your definition of what it means to be healthy.
I excelled at all-nighters as a fledgling business owner. I thought of it as a kind of superpower. If I got far enough behind on my work, I'd swear off sleep. As long as I had something to chew on--sunflower seeds, for example--I didn't get tired.
I didn't need caffeine. I didn't have to jump up and down and beat my chest and coach myself onward. I just soldiered through. I had friends who marveled over this and asked if I could really do it, and I'd always respond with a hearty, "Hell, yeah."
Cut to 20 years later, and I'm reading headlines that scientists are discovering that losing entire nights of sleep is a major contributor to dementia. Through reminders like these and Starek's guidance, I'm recognizing that there's much more to health than simply staying focused and alive.
A truly healthy person is balanced physically, psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally, and it's impossible to achieve this balance when you're robbing yourself of a vital tool like sleep.
Don't drive yourself too mercilessly. Sleep, eat your veggies, exercise, learn to meditate, and spend meaningful time with your family and friends. You'll still spend the lion's share of your time working your business, but making room for these other activities will increase your energy 10-fold, save you from burnout, and mean a much happier lifestyle when you're finally an old codger like me.
2. Surrounded yourself with superiors.
I once believed that I needed to be the best at everything. I even thought that I couldn't hire someone if they could do some aspect of my job better than I could. I thought that owning a business required me to be both a jack and master of all trades, because if the buck didn't stop with me, what was the point of trying to build my own business?
Again, cut forward a couple of decades, when I can confidently state that there's no greater reliever of stress than delegating crucial tasks to capable people. In fact, if I'm constantly the smartest person at my company, I'm doing something tragically wrong as an entrepreneur.
Don't just aim to be the best; aim to surround yourself with the best. Think of it as a heist movie, where every member of the team has a different specialty so that no aspect of the mission can be compromised for lack of talent in one area. You want the bomb-dismantler to be better than you at dismantling bombs; otherwise, everything will explode.
3. Make a greater effort to understand how you are perceived by others.
Early on in my career, I participated in an exercise called a 360 review. It was an anonymous survey involving my whole company, where everybody rated what I considered the fundamental areas of my professional life.
Was I a solid leader? How were my communication skills? My leadership savvy? I went into the test thinking I was a shoo-in to receive all this super positive feedback. I even made a wager with my then-business partner that I'd trounce him in five-star reviews.
I received mainly one-star reviews instead. It was shocking--an absolute gut check. It was a key moment in my career, because I learned to embrace the concept that other people's reality is their reality, end of story. As objective outsiders, your peers are equipped to analyze you in ways that you are not.
The sooner you can embrace that awareness and make a sincere effort to see yourself through the eyes of others--no matter how painful it is--the faster you'll learn and grow.
For those of you scared of negative feedback, rest assured that any feedback is a stress-remover. It erases the anxiety of perpetually wondering how you're actually doing, and that's by far the most draining activity for physical and emotional health.
If it's bad news, you can create an action plan and get back on course. If it's good news, awesome--everyone likes to be thought well of, and now you can stop sweating about how others perceive you. Start seeing yourself accurately, fix what requires fixing, and you'll feel stress slipping away like a bad dream.