Ben Horowitz summarizes the hardest job of CEOs as, “managing your own psychology.” Until recently, I believed that I was pretty good at this. After all, despite not taking more than a few days off since I was 15 — even after I sold my previous companies I would immediately start working on the next thing — I’ve never felt “burnt out.”
However, burnout isn’t the only sign of trouble. If you’re a founder/CEO/leader, you’re probably strategizing and worrying during almost every waking minute. This can lead to a condition called chronic stress, characterized as, the “response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period.”
Chronic stress caused me to be irritable throughout the day. For example, I would get into confrontations with shitty San Francisco motorists, when I wasn’t even in a hurry to get anywhere. It was absurd. But getting out from under a chronic state of stress is much easier said than done. It’s not as simple as “sleeping well, exercising, eating healthy, having sex, and having great friends/mentors.”
As such, I knew it was time to seek professional help. After seeing a psychologist and learning about the brain, I begun practicing “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is being aware of your present emotions, and choosing how to react, if at all. In other words, it’s “settling in the present.”
To make this tangible, here is an example: Let’s pretend that your biggest customer terminated its contract because of internal politics. You’re probably disappointed, stressed, and maybe even angry, and frantically start working on salvaging the deal. Before you react however, sit up in your chair, take a few deep breaths, then acknowledge and rate your emotions. If you’re stressed, say, “I am feeling stressed right now.” Take another deep breath. Then, rate the stress on a scale of one to ten, with ten being something really stressful, like having to terminate all of your employees next week. Chances are, most emotions are probably no more than a five.
Before practicing mindfulness, I knew that I was really stressed. However, I failed to make any strides towards improving my stress, because I wasn’t attentive to my feelings at the moment. Nowadays (though I am very far from being mindful 100 percent), I have realized that most things aren’t as dire as they may seem, and that stressing/reacting over even the serious issues often does not make it better.
But mindfulness isn’t just about mitigating stress. Even when things are going well, it’s important take a deep breath and live in the moment. Focus on how you are feeling right now. Maybe you are thankful that you are healthy. If so, you should tell yourself that you are thankful that you are healthy. Or maybe you’re grateful for the nice weather, if you don’t live in San Francisco. Think about it: How many pleasant things do you think you’ve overlooked while you stress about your company’s next financing round?
Mindfulness to the brain is like exercise to the body. If you don’t keep it up the benefits start to deteriorate, but starting is still the first step. I started the journey by designating a few times during the day (on my calendar) to take a “mindful pause.” Slowly but surely, I have become mindful even without the reminders, though I still have them to avoid slipping.
By respecting the moment, your future will respect you.
[Image Credit: Wikimedia]