Last week my startup had the final interview for YCombinator, the world’s leading startup accelerator and a prolific venture capital investor. The 10 minute interview felt like one of the most important opportunities of my life, and the stress during two weeks of preparation was relentless.
Success meant a 3 month stay in Mexico, an immediate multi-million valuation boost, and membership of the most prestigious entrepreneurship club in existence. Failure meant back to the grind of fundraising zoom meetings and breaking in to silicon valley from the outside (Europe).
This contrast of outcomes led to two weeks of intensive preparation by our team, and 12-14 hour days for me, no weekends, and visceral anxiety which began and ended every day. We achieved an amazing amount. And it was exhausting.
Thanks to a wide range of self-care activities and habits, I could sustain hard work and productivity without enduring harm to me or my relationships. In fact, the team emerged stronger and more focused than before, and I grew in grit considerably. I’ve never been fitter or had a better routine, despite the pressure and shortness of sleep.
Actions not thoughts
Stoicism argues that we can manage our reaction to world events through rational reflection. But neuro- and social science has shown that we can’t change our thoughts and behaviours just by thinking about them – brains don’t think objectively in times of stress. At such times we first need to change our physiological state before thinking will again be helpful.
Below is a list of activities that effectively soothed my nervous system during the worst times of stress, and can do the same for you. Soothing is necessary to return to a state where clear-headedness is again possible. When you find yourself under emotional bombardment during your entrepreneurial journey, use them to get closer to your baseline, and leave the fight / flight mode which is more likely to escalate problems instead of solutions.
How to use them
These activities are short term fixes. When performed regularly as a habit, they can change your personality, and your destiny. But forming habits from within a foxhole is unrealistic. When performed in the heat of battle, they provide temporary relief; directly, by changing brain wave frequency and patterns of thought, and indirectly, by evidencing self-compassion and self-respect.
Try them out and see what works for you. Mix and match. Some will resonate more than others. Best of all is to try them when things are going well, so you can see how they feel when your mood is at baseline, and develop positive memories associated with them, independent of the stressful times when you’ll need them.
If you do them, and you still feel anxious, then do some more. Not feeling fine can mean you need more soothing, not that they aren’t working.
The activities, grouped by potency and mental state
- Singing – use belly breathing and an upbeat tune. Try Trololololo karaoke.
- Energetic dancing – alone or with a friend. High BPM. Strong rhythm. Try Mundian To Bach Ke.
- Exercise – Try jogging with abandon, skipping with a USB cable, or a short guided-workout.
- ‘Focus’ or ‘breathwork’ meditation – use them if you can (even 5 mins). If you can’t: learn.
- RAIN meditiation – an approach to calming your deepest fears. Watch Tara Brach.
- Default to “no” for everything – let others’ needs wait. Give yourself max. time and headspace.
- Write a letter to your future self – provide reassurance from the future. “This too shall pass”.
- Do a stretching routine. If you don’t know what works for you, try a guided session.
- Sex, if it’s an option for you, puts your whole body and mind to work digesting stress.
- Get a good massage – vigorous treatment reconnects you with your body.
- Take a warm bath – immersion is powerful. With: incense, tea, low-light, music, meditation.
- Read a graphic novel – they’re easy and immersive. Try The Sandman, or harder: Introducing …
- Make concrete plans for future rewards. Plan a holiday. Book a concert. It’ll remind you that you’ll still be alive to enjoy it, and connects you with part of your identity that’s beyond work.
- Call up a trustworthy mentor – a big problem means a big opportunity to help.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals – anxiety kills appetite, but you need nourishment.
- Break with convention – start late, eat on camera, take breaks. Needs over etiquette.
Low level anxiety
- Call a supportive friend – social engagement aids relaxation, and helps reframe challenges.
- Change your narrative by journalling – rewrite the stories that determine how you feel.
- Get lost in a magical audiobook – Try Robinson Crusoe or Mythologies of the World.
- Mindfulness meditation – this can be done passively, all the time. Keeps you grounded.
- Drink good herbal tea – Roobios, Raspberry leaf. Use loose-leaf. It’s hot, ancient, and healthy.
- Take a nap – event 5 mins sleep is restorative. Combine with audiobooks, graphic novels.
- Walk to the grocery store – a change of scene changes your mind. Having a purpose helps.
- Stay hydrated (with water) – obvious but easy. Drinking is good for just about everything.
- Share with your team – disclosure lets them help and share. Feel understood.
- Eat special foods – pomegranate, oysters, ginger juice – whatever works for you. Savour it.
- Experience nature – ideally trees or water, with a view. Watch and breathe in vivid life.
- Cook something unusual – get creative. Enjoy the results. Demands focus and the senses.
- Look at holiday photos – remember being relaxed and carefree; the sights and smells.
Compound the benefits
While we’re most motivated to reach for relief in times of extreme stress and associated suffering, making time to try these activities before you’re in crisis is considerably more effective.
- They work more effectively if your subconscious already has positive associations with them
- Trying a wide range means you’ll have backups when your preferred activity isn’t an option
- Being familiar means you can meaningfully recommend them when others are in need
- Whatever your baseline, you will likely perform better as a result of doing them, even once
- Modelling self-care by using them is an important part of leadership of others
- You never know: one of them might click perfectly and become a life-changing habit
- There’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it!