How Not to Let the Crazy In

A friend of mine is starting a huge new project.  She told me that 2015 is going to be the craziest year she's ever had.

I suggested to her that it will certainly be the busiest, but that she didn't have to let the crazy in.

We throw around the word "crazy" but in all seriousness, mental health is something that doesn't get much discussion in the startup world.  There seems to be a blog post, book or boot camp for just about everything you could hope to learn as an entrepreneur, but no one really seems to focus on how to mentally survive entrepreneurship.

It bothers me that we just take stress as a given.  Why does fundraising have to be stressful?  You know the possible outcomes.  You're either going to make it or you're not.  You know what happens when you don't.  You could go out of business.  You won't die.  You're not likely to become homeless.

Disappointing for sure, but does it need to twist your head into such knots that you get physically sick over it?

I can't say I stress out about anything.  That's not so say that I don't care about things.  I do care--deeply.  I just don't get into the habit of experiencing anxiety or mentally locking up in the middle of the most uncertain or difficult times. 

That's the key--it's a habit.  I fully believe that habits and training can meaningfully impact your physical experience.  They say that entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint, but it feels like few people marathon train for it.  If they did, they'd be a lot more focused on enduring--being able to last the daily wear and tear--than going as hard as they can all the time.  That includes mentally.  The more mental defenses and best practices you built up, the easier it will be to survive the journey over the long haul.

Here are a few things that have helped me:

1) Take care of your physical self. 

Your brain lives in your body.

It's been proven that exercise, eating well, and getting sleep improves your mental state.  It's simply something you have to make time for--and if you're not, you're doing a disservice to your investors, your employees and your company.  It improves your ability to deal with stress.  When you're feeling good, it takes a lot more to bring you down--so start out each day with a natural physical high as a barrier to stress.

2) Consider the worst case scenarios and have a plan for them.

I was talking to an entrepreneur yesterday who was very confident that two huge enterprise customers would come through in the first quarter--and so the small add-on round they were doing now would be more than enough to see them through.  I asked what happened if they didn't come through--or just got delayed.

Life doesn't always happen they way you plan it--and knowing what your options would be in the worst of all cases ahead of time helps you deal with them better.  Don't push it off because you don't want to think about it, because at the moment that it's happening to you, you're going to feel so stressed out about it that you'll be less able to deal with it.

3) Always try to do your best work, but know and accept your limits.

I try to walk away from every situation knowing that I did my best work.  If that wasn't good enough, I have a clear conscience.  Maybe I just wasn't good enough then.  I'm not perfect.  It's alright. 

Nine times out of ten, it feels like bad situations are the result of something you did half assed that wound up going off the rails.  It's something a little more time and effort upfront could have saved you a lot of headache later.  Compound that with pangs of regret, where you feel like this is something that was your doing or you came up short and the whole thing is going to hang over you bigtime.  Doing stuff right the first time and walking off knowing you gave your full effort (which does not mean bloodshed or giving up your firstborn--reasonable effort) is the best way to go.

4) Try to think as linearly as possible.

Things seem to happen all at once, and if you have eight thoughts in your head, you're simply not going to be able to deal with them all.  We convince ourselves that we are multitaskers, but we're really not.  Try and focus on one thing at a time, do what you can, and then put it away.  Move on completely to the next thing.  If you're doing this thing now but focused on what you have to do tomorrow and then next day, you're going to get stressed out.

5) Don't accept other people's timelines as your own. 

You can only go so fast for so long.  You have natural output limitations.  Other people rarely consider that when they ask for stuff and set deadlines.  In fact, they rarely consider anything.  Most times, I find the expectations that other people have around time are arbitrary.  They don't *really* need that thing right now--and if you gave it to them tomorrow, the world will go on.

Don't be afraid to say, "It's not going to happen by that time.  Here's when I can have it for you." 

There's really no way to argue against that. If you draw lines and say no, they're just going to have to figure out an alternative and accept. 

6) Be extremely protective of your time.

The best schedulers can fit a lot of things in.  Stop in to your event?  Sure.  I can make that!  Meet so and so?  Yeah, if I come into the city early, we can do an early breakfast.  It's tempting to fit all the people, opportunities and events in.

The problem is that it leaves little time for yourself--and for other more appealing activities.  If you don't build in some flexibility, you'll wind up finding out about more appealing ways to spend your time, and then you'll really get stressed about needing to move things, miss things, or reneg on commitments.  Don't try to say yes to everything.  Know your priorities and make time your most stingy investment.

7) Get an assistant. 

There is no reason anyone should have to deal with the insanity of back and forth scheduling, signing up for stuff, filling out forms, ordering supplies, paying things off, etc etc.  Free yourself up from as much administrative overhead as possible because it's not what makes you happy and you'll need that time for other things--like taking care of yourself. 

8) Reverse engineer the life you want to live.

Sometimes, it seems our goals are always "Do the next bigger thing."  It's all about more, faster, next--just this continual, upward climb.  When does it stop?  When can you look around and say, "This is what I actually want."

This happens a ton in the venture capital world where bigger always seems better--but maybe it's not.  If you picture the business and life that would satisfy you, does it require having 300 employees and raising a ton of money to get there?   What else is really important to you?

There's a scene in Wall Street where Charlie Sheen says he wants to make a lot of money so he can motorcycle across China.  The reality is, you hardly need any money to do that.  Realize that many of your dreams and goals are a lot closer at hand than you think--and if you aim for them versus the hamster wheel of bigger, better, faster, stronger, you might actually get to enjoy them sooner.

9) Let other people in.

No one expects you to be perfect.  Have a consistent dialogue about what you're feeling with people you trust who care about you.  They can often provide helpful perspective--and, if nothing else, the exercise of just talking things out yourself can do you a lot of good.

10) Get rid of the people and relationships that drain you.

Some people improve your life, others drag it down.  Addition by subtraction when it comes to your social circle can be a very powerful thing.  There isn't any single person who can be so impactful on your life that you absolutely must have them around, despite the fact that they are emotionally draining and stress inducing.  Move on.  Find some other way to get there without them.