Every time I've gone heads down (working weekends and nights) in my business for a period of weeks or months, I've regretted it.
After an initial jump in productivity, my mood and energy plummet. Near the end, I wake up semi-depressed on a daily basis and am exhausted by the mid-afternoon. I get sick more often, and my relationships with my wife and kids unravel. One 'heads down' period in 2012 nearly cost me my marriage.
After a recent fruitless heads down period, I reflected on the root cause. It was a faulty belief that I never challenged: I need to work during every free moment. If I don't, my business may go under.
In retrospect, if I had a tough business decision I was avoiding, the whole period could have been avoided!
This got me wondering. Are there unconscious, faulty beliefs that entrepreneurs often hold that damage their health?
To find the answer, I interviewed 20+ entrepreneurs, and found the following 7 beliefs come up over and over.
These erroneous beliefs lead to chronic stress, which can cause major health challenges including: headaches, anxiety, increased weight, and high blood pressure.
The goal of this article is to share those beliefs so you can be aware of them, then reframe them to be empowering and to reflect reality.
Faulty Belief #1: All stress is bad.
Reframe: The stress of many situations comes from how we interpret what's happening.
Hack: Do a daily "comfort zone challenge".
Emerson Spartz is founder and CEO of Dose, a digital media company that owns a network of sites with 50+ million visitors per month.
As an ambitious home-schooled teenager, Spartz realized that avoiding stressful situations was holding him back. So he reframed stress as something positive that should be embraced rather than something that should be avoided.
More specifically, he started doing daily 'comfort zone challenges' that turned stress into a game. He still does these challenges to this day.
Here are a couple of his favorite comfort zone challenges:
"The goal is simply to condition myself for uncomfortable (i.e. socially awkward) yet harmless situations, so that when tough things happen, I can easily face them head on without hesitation," says Spartz.
Research backs up Emerson's approach; how we view stress shapes its impact on us.
Studies done by Alia Crum, a Stanford psychology assistant professor, on 'stress mindsets', showed that viewing stress more positively encourages people to cope in ways that help them thrive, whether it's tackling the source of stress, seeking social support or finding meaning in it.
On the other hand, viewing stress negatively encourages people to cope in more harmful ways; getting drunk to 'release' stress, procrastinating to avoid stress, or imagining worst-case scenarios.
Faulty Belief #2: If I achieve my goals, I'll feel grateful because I made it.
Reframe: Achievement and gratitude don't have to be related. I can always feel gratitude now if I practice gratitude everyday.
Hack: Have a daily gratitude habit.
Even as he hit major milestones like earning over one million in revenue in his early 20s, Jason Duff still felt behind.
In an effort to achieve more faster, the founder and CEO of COMSTOR Outdoor, slept 4 hours a night, drank a six-pack of soda to stay energized, and didn't go on a date for 4 years.
In his mid twenties, Duff's health began to decline. He had to go on medication for acute acid reflux and had surgery as a result of the damage.
The experience made him reexamine his health habits. Even more importantly, Duff realized that some of his thinking patterns needed to change:
"I realized that no amount of business success was going to ever make me feel like I had done enough," Duff says. "The problem with being so wrapped up in goal setting is that you constantly focus on what's wrong now and what could be made better. I realized that I needed to create space in my day where I was focusing on gratitude rather than goals."
Activities that cultivate gratitude dramatically shape our well being. In a study of 201 participants, individuals who used a journal to reflect on things that made them feel grateful reported 25% more quality sleep and spent 19% more time exercising.
Now Duff spends most of his hour-long car ride to and from work in quiet contemplation; no music, no podcasts. He uses that time to reflect on what he's grateful for. Among his other gratitude habits, Duff now spends time volunteering by giving talks to students at local high schools. This helps him feel grateful for what he has and find contentment in life.
Faulty Belief #3: I must grab on to every opportunity, or the business will fail or miss out on something big.
Reframe: If I say 'no' to less important opportunities, I can take advantage of bigger business deals and invest in my health, friendships, and family.
Hack: Have a non-negotiable time that you stop work everyday.
Brian Scudamore, the founder and CEO of O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional) Brands, which includes 1-800-GOT-JUNK and other companies, grew up watching his dad (a liver transplant surgeon) work endless hours.
One memory stands out: on a rare family vacation, he watched as his father was whisked away on a learjet when a patient was in need. Based on this experience, Scudamore made the decision to never let work take over his life once he became a father.
As a result, Scudamore, who is the father of three children, stops work everyday at 6pm and takes 6 weeks of vacation per year where he goes 100% dark. He does all of this in light of the fact that he runs four rapidly growing companies.
For those who say they can't contemplate putting work away, Scudamore gives two pieces of advice:
Faulty Belief #4: Being a workaholic is OK.
Reframe: Workaholism is a real addiction with real consequences that should not be accepted.
Hack: Learn from 12-step addiction programs. Everyday, look yourself in the mirror and do two things: admit that you have workaholic tendencies and commit to healthy habits.
At Cameron Herold's lowest point, he had a panic attack on an elevator and was warned by his doctor that he would likely experience major health complications if he didn't dramatically reduce his stress. Despite this harrowing experience, the author of Double Double and a CEO coach to high-growth businesses, realized that he still would occasionally fall into old workaholic tendencies.
Herold now realizes that work addiction is a real addiction and should be treated like one. In fact, it needs to be treated everyday.
"I have friends who are drug addicts and have been clean for 20+ years. The reason they stay clean is because they wake up every morning, say they're addicted, and do their daily habits," says Herold. "Most entrepreneurs I know are work addicts, but they don't admit it to themselves. As a result, they constantly go through damaging cycles of overwork."
Emerging research has found that serial entrepreneurs show symptoms of behavioral addiction (i.e. obsessive thoughts, withdrawal-engagement cycles) just like gambling and internet addicts. Furthermore, academic research on work addiction shows that it has scary consequences:
"The cycle starts off slowly," says Herold. "Putting pressure on yourself to complete all your work for the day, no matter the toll. Sleeping fewer and fewer hours. Then needing a glass or two of wine at night to decompress. And a shot of espresso in the morning to get energized. Finally, you end up turning away from family and friends in favor of work."
To break the cycle, Herold takes an honest look in the mirror. "If you keep yourself so busy that you never look inward, you aren't going to see your problem areas," he says.
"Like addiction programs, you have to have some level of accountability; a spouse, a friend, or a coach. Many of us use work to escape because no one has actually held the mirror up to us, or has kicked us in the ass, or has gotten us to really confront it." Herold explains. "When we do confront it, all of a sudden, we cry. Then, we're ready to get better."
Faulty Belief #5: Success requires 100% commitment, which leaves no room for a balanced lifestyle.
Reframe: In order to be 100% committed, I must be 100% healthy.
Hack: Make healthy habits part of your business culture.
In 2007, Rohit Anabheri, founder of the firm Circa Ventures ($10M+ revenue), committed to an unrealistic timeline with one of his major clients. Rather than reset expectations, he and his team went all in for 6 months.
The long hours he and his staff worked caused morale to plummet. About a fourth of his employees quit. On a personal level, he was shocked when his doctor informed him he was at risk for developing type 2 diabetes after gaining 20 pounds in a short time.
As a result of this experience, Anabheri realized how health is more important than anything else: "Nothing is worth compromising your health for, not even a billion dollars."
Since then, he created a culture of fitness and health at his company with many new rituals, most notably:
Research shows that making health part of the culture does more than improve the culture. It also increases employee productivity (reducing 80% of lost work days in one study) while reducing healthcare costs ($6 healthcare savings for every $1 invested according to another study).
Faulty Belief #6: I can do it all.
Reframe: I need to give myself the space and downtime necessary to recharge. Time away from work will add value to my business and lead to a better life.
Hack: Put 'Time Bumps' into your day.
Amy Shah, a successful physician with her own medical practice and online wellness brand, took pride in the image she projected of being a "supermom" who was able to juggle multiple commitments, all with a smile.
Underneath her 'supermom' identity, Shah faced the pressure of creating a business, studying for a medical exam, taking care of her children, and her body image. "I just had too many deadlines, too many things riding on me to slow down...I didn't want to just be a good mom but a good mom with a GREAT career, hence a supermom," she explains.
Shah ignored her exhaustion. She felt she was weak if she couldn't balance it all.
Everything changed one evening when she was rushing from work to pick up her children. She made a left turn on a yellow light and collided with another car. The airbag deployed in her face. Her car was wrecked.
Shah's first reaction was not to make sure she was okay herself. Instead, she asked passersby, "How can I get to my children on time?"
After the car accident sidelined her for three days, she had time to re-assess her situation and make changes to her diet and daily routine. The most important thing she did was to put 'time bumps' into her day.
Like speed bumps on a busy street, time bumps force her to slow down, especially in the morning and in the evening. When she first wakes up, instead of checking her phone right away, she walks to her backyard to stretch and do yoga.
In the evening she takes time to workout and reflect on her day. These routines give her space to feel relaxed and grateful for everything in her life.
Being an involved mother and having a career she cares about are still important to her, but now she is keenly focused on her own mental and physical health. Shah says: "Don't let the ideal of a 'super mom' or 'super woman/man' take your focus off of your mental and physical health."
"Now I realize that the more time I spend on the internal responsibilities - the more I excel at my outward responsibilities," Shah says.
Faulty Belief #7: When work gets busy, I must go all in. I have no time for healthy habits.
Reframe: When I get busy, it's ok to scale back the intensity of my health habits as long as I stay consistent.
Hack: Follow the one day rule: you can't miss more than one day of your healthy exercise and diet habits in a row.
Adam Gilbert, founder of MyBodyTutor, who has coached thousands to have healthy eating habits with daily accountability, discovered a simple mental rule that stopped his unhealthy habits 10 years ago.
At that time Gilbert worked at a big four accounting firm, often putting in 15 hour days during the busy seasons. His company ordered in unhealthy food like pizza and ice cream and Gilbert fell into eating them regularly. As a result, Gilbert's eating habits outside of the office also started to unravel.
When reflecting on what had happened to him and what he sees all the time with his clients, Gilbert identified one root cause: 'all-or-nothing' thinking. This is the cognitive distortion (irrational thought pattern) that causes us to think in absolute terms (i.e. If I can't do my normal routine, it's not worth having a routine at all).
"Chasing perfection is futile. All or nothing leads to nothing every single time," Gilbert concludes.
In one academic study, black and white thinking about health habits was the "the most important predictor of weight regain". When weight losers have rigid mindsets, they are much more likely to fall behind with their weight loss efforts because they can't reach their unrealistically high standards, according to the study's researchers.
To avoid all-or-nothing thinking and maintain healthy habits, Gilbert created a mental guideline he calls the One Day Rule: you can skip one day of exercise or eating well but no more. After you miss a day, the next day you need to find some way to exercise, even if it's doing 20 jumping jacks instead of a full workout. This is important because it becomes much harder to regain momentum if you stop your habits completely.
Research supports his claim: one study shows that missing one day of doing a new habit does not affect long term habit formation, but in another study missing one week greatly reduces the chances of keeping the new habit.
Special thanks to Rachel Zohn, Sheena Lindahl, Jessica Newfield and Ian Chew who volunteered their time to edit this article and do research.
Also thank you to Amber Tucker, Antonia Donato, Austin Epperson, Conor van de Wetering, Dmitrii Anakin, Erika Poletti, Julie Klukas, and Natasha Shukor for reviewing the article and providing insightful feedback.
Disclosure: Some of the contributors featured in this article are members of Seminal, a selective council that distills research-backed, actionable insights from world-class entrepreneurs and leaders.