Hacking your brain - 4 strategies for founders to deal better with stress
September 18, 2012
Since I jumped into the deep end with crowdcademy, the feeling of being overwhelmed has become a constant companion of mine. Going from business guy to full-stack hacker while starting a company is stressful. And a constant feeling of being overwhelmed can easily lead to anxiety and ultimately depression. Since I have been interested in psychology for the better part of my adult life, I tried to come up with ways to hack my brain into becoming more stress-resilient. While these psychological tricks may not be a substitute for grit, I found out first-hand that they work surprisingly well.
First off, let me say that I believe pressure is a healthy thing. It forces you to leave your comfort zone and helps you grow both as a professional and as a person. If you’re not experiencing pressure in your work life, you're not pushing hard enough. On the flip side, if you’re experiencing the type of soul-crushing anxiety that early startups are infamous for, you’re probably pushing too hard. Here are my four main strategies that help me keep my cool and stay productive:
1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Be realistic in what you can achieve in a given period of time. Nothing is worse than having to add new worries to your existing list of headaches just because your planning was overly optimistic. And you are going to be overly optimistic otherwise you wouldn’t do a startup. It’s always going to take longer than you expect, so don’t make it worse by putting artificial pressure on yourself by committing to an unrealistic time plan.
2. Choose your battles wisely
The great thing is that you don’t have to solve every problem right away. I’m not saying that they’re magically going to go away by themselves (even though some actually do), but sometimes it’s just fine to acknowledge a problem and then ignore it until it really matters.
3. Keep your eyes on the road
Another strategy that I apply is to try to avoid non-work related stress as much as possible. Now this is not something that I’m particularly proud of because it leads to a whole bunch of eccentric behavior. But it reduces my overall stress level and helps me keep my sanity. Recent scientific studies suggest that our will power is a limited resource. So if I have to force myself to do something, there is less of my finite will power left to work on crowdcademy. Filing my Taxes? 3 months overdue. Finding a new apartment? I’ll do another short-term sublease instead. Doing household chores? I go grocery shopping once a week and you don’t want to know how often I clean my apartment. The so-called avoidance strategy works really well if you have to focus intensely on something for a short period of time. But it is certainly neither sustainable nor desirable long term.
4. Everything’s going to be alright
So even if you apply all of my advice from above you will still face plenty of stressful situations. I still do. And like everybody else, I tend to get nervous when I face a type of problem that I have never dealt with before. If it's a particularly nasty problem, I even feel the impulse to flee that is wired deep into our brains. Over the last couple of years I have learned to deal with it better. My experiences have taught me that there is always a way for me to figure things out. This gives me a healthy confidence in my capabilities and is usually enough to silence the little voices of doubt in my head. If it's a really nasty problem, it helps me to visualize past obstacles and how I successfully managed to overcome them. This gives me the vital boost of confidence and energy I need to attack the problem head on.
I hope these strategies will help you as much as they've helped me. Everybody has their own stress tolerance level, but that doesn't mean that you can't improve it over time.