As the owner of a company with a decentralized business model, my days are chaotic, never lending themselves to a simple pattern or system that I could easily follow for organization, predictability, or even knowing when some of my days will start—or end.
I may be dealing with an unexpected website issue first thing in the morning or I may need to make an unexpected 2-3-hour commute to meet with an important client, all the while having the burden of some ongoing contract negotiation looming overhead. Sound familiar? This is a complaint only as much as I know that entrepreneurs and business owners everywhere are dealing with the same set of problems.
This chaotic, hard to systematize lifestyle lends itself to very high levels of continual stress. Fortunately for me, my line of work is in athlete development. As a sport scientist, I work with a variety of athletes and high performers to help them take their game to the next level; one of the big pieces of this is stress management. So, in the pursuit of building better athletes, I’m constantly at the forefront of the science of stress-reduction strategies.
The stress an athlete will accumulate during intense training, anticipating a big competition, or while locked into battle with a competitor utilizes the same biological pathways and is based on the same set of hormones that an entrepreneur is exposed to. Because of this, the strategies for dealing with stress–regardless of the cause–can be mitigated by the same set of scientifically-backed techniques.
Though there’s plenty of gimmicks, quick-fixes, and products all touting their ability to reduce stress, I’ve AB tested dozens of theories and variables. Some of these strategies do, in fact, work while others may not.
Here are three time-tested strategies for reducing stress, regardless of the cause:
1. Get Adequate, High Quality Sleep
I know this is boring and you’ve heard it a thousand times by a thousand people. This doesn’t need to mean 8+ hours for busy individuals that can’t make it happen. At the very least, you should be sleeping long enough that your executive function isn’t adversely affected the following day. Mid-day yawns, lethargy, and caffeine cravings means that your current volume and/or quality of sleep isn’t getting it done.
Just as in sports, caffeine is definitely a friend of the boardroom, corner office, or fledgling garage-based start-up. But ultimately less is more, and you’ll want to minimize consumption as much as possible. Caffeine creates a vicious feedback loop of poorer sleep quality leading to greater volumes of coffee, repeating day after day. Strive to keep caffeine consumption more than 9 hours away from bedtime. This will facilitate more restful, higher quality sleep, even if the duration isn’t as long as you might otherwise like.
But remember, though you may be successful at work, if you can’t afford 8 hours of sleep, you may be time-poor.
“Happiness consists of getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.” – Robert A. Heinlein
2. Pay Attention to Your Response to Food
As an entrepreneur, you may have dozens or more causes of stress: deadlines approaching, payroll, burn-rate, personality conflicts, etc. But one more source of stress that you don’t need is through the food you’re putting into your body.
60% of the immune system is found in the gut. This protective mechanism is so entrenched in the gut because of the very permeable structures that allow for the diffusion of nutrients and waste products into and out of the blood. But our current food system is not designed with this in mind. Rather it is designed for stimulating the reward-pathways of our brain through systems that have served us well in the past, but are now our undoing in a world of readily available calories.
Contrary to the findings of industry-backed research, all calories are not equal. Differences in the thermic effect of food, fiber content, processing agents, and more all have an effect on the body. And with each body having a different set of genetics and gut microbes, the ways in which each food affects each body is going to be different.
Ignore the adversarial findings and dogmas spouted from competing health authorities. There are some basics to follow which can get you 80% of the way to a great diet. More vegetables and less liquid calories are two concepts to start with.
Beyond that, you’ll need to pay attention to your body and you need to recognize the massive implications of food on health. Try relating back any abnormal deviations in health to your diet, if the variables match up, you may want to eliminate that item from your diet.
Abnormally fatigued? Rash or itchiness seemingly out of nowhere? Unexplained jitteriness or anxiety? These may be an autoimmune response to a food that does not agree with your physiology. These deviations to your health may be hindering your higher-order thinking and can cause even more stress than your job requires.
3. Active Recovery
After intense bouts of physical training, one would think that complete rest and relaxation is the best tool for recovery and stress reduction, but this is only part of the equation. Intense training brings about stress, as does running a company, and as we’ve explained, stress is stress regardless of the cause or causes.
We are fortunate in that we have in-built processes for lessening the damage stress does to the body, but a complete cessation of stimuli—even in the case of something as valuable as mediation is incomplete in its ability to reduce stress.
Active recovery is an extraordinarily powerful tool for stress reduction. This can be accomplished through brisk walks, recreational sports, yoga, or low-level cardio work like a light bicycle ride or row. This works in a few different ways; by engaging the muscles, you’ll better engage the lymphatic which pushes lymph—a carrier of waste products brought about by stress, this concurrently elevates the heart rate which similarly circulates byproducts of stress for uptake and reutilization by the muscles.
Light exercise can also down-regulate the production of stress hormones; this is a biochemical switch which is hard to trigger in the absence of active recovery.
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” – Maya Angelou
Stress is stress, but it does not need to be the permanent fixture of your life that you might think it to be. By treating your body like you’d treat a company and allowing for sufficient employee vacation days (sleep), examining and adding only positive inputs (diet), and utilizing appropriate logistics and supply chain management (active recovery) you’ll be better equipped to lead your business to the next level.