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What “self-care” really looks like for an entrepreneur

I remember coming out of my first-ever launch feeling like my body and mind had been a piñata at a five-year-old’s birthday bash. Things that used to excite me — exploring new restaurants, responding to messages, or even working out — instead made me feel apathetic … and just blah.

It was clear to everyone else but me: I was burned out.

Worse, I pretended that burnout was the default state of being an entrepreneur. We all know we need to “hustle” to make things happen, but do we actually need to put ourselves through that?

It took me a long time to claw myself out of my hole. The experience left a deep impression and a lesson: I knew that if I was going to do this entrepreneur thing long term and not be miserable, I had to actively let myself rest, aka focus on self-care.

And the very FIRST thing I learned about self-care is that…

Self-care does not make you weak

We’re taught to celebrate the entrepreneur who works 18-hour days. We’re made to feel guilty that they’re doing all this work on three hours of sleep.

Oh, you’re sleeping four hours? What a slacker!

This is why the hustle-and-grind mentality of entrepreneurship makes people susceptible to depression, ADHD, substance abuse, and bipolar disorder. The occasional high-stress situations to meet deadlines and do product launches may be necessary, but no one could sustain going 100 miles per hour, all day, all the time, without experiencing serious ramifications to their health, work, relationships, and life.

“Many entrepreneurs are also leading teams, setting an example for everyone else. If you are burning out, chances are that your employees are burning out too,” says Cherry Rose Tan, a speaker and coach who specializes in mental health and emotional resilience for entrepreneurs.

I like to think of my mental energy as a health bar from a video game. Everything I do — writing sales pages, checking and double-checking our funnels, talking to customers, even thinking about work, etc. — will steal a little chunk from that bar until it gets completely depleted, at which point it’s “game over.”

So rather than looking at self-care as this optional luxury that makes you think “it’s nice to have but not now, thanks,” think of it as the magic potion that helps replenish your health bar and gear you up for the emotional and mental strain of sustaining your chaotic entrepreneur life over the long run.

Self-care is NOT simply “taking a break” from work

Self-care, or a recovery period, is one of those words everyone sort of “gets” but doesn’t really know what it looks like — kind of like healthy eating. Vegetarian? Paleo, dairy-free blueberry muffins? Eating nothing but boiled chicken breast and sad-looking broccoli for three meals per day?

The reality is, what constitutes healthy eating isn’t universally the same for everyone. Same with self-care.

I didn’t know it at the time: my idea of self-care was anything but. In-between whatever work I could manage at the time, I’d sleep (or try to … insomniac here). I’d work out. I’d eat nutritious foods. And I’d spend time with friends to decompress. But something was wrong. For whatever reason, I was still exhausted.

It turns out that merely “stopping” work doesn’t count, especially when you’re already feeling drained. As this Harvard Business Review article points out:

“Mustering your resources to ‘try hard’ requires burning energy in order to overcome your currently low arousal level. This is called upregulation. It also exacerbates exhaustion. Thus the more imbalanced we become due to overworking, the more value there is in activities that allow us to return to a state of balance. The value of a recovery period rises in proportion to the amount of work required of us.”

In other words, rest and recovery are not the same thing.

Just because I’m not actively working doesn’t mean I am actually recovering. I know because I’d try to step away from my laptop, thinking that I’ve stopped work — only to have my mind drift back to thoughts about what I have to do later; or I was wrestling with solutions, ideas, and my anxiety over how “unproductive” I’m being.

So if stopping work is NOT recovering, then what is?

This is what self-care REALLY looks like

“There are many misconceptions to self-care. Oftentimes people associate it with larger actions, like taking vacations,” says Cherry Rose.

But that’s, ironically, a small part of what self-care is. At its core, self-care is any intentional act and decision that places you and your needs at the forefront. You get to focus on YOU and what YOU want to do, without compromising because you feel like you have to for someone or something else, including your business. For most of us, including myself, this is something that you’ll probably resist at first.

Maybe because you feel a pressure to please others. Maybe because you have something to prove. Or maybe because you feel you don’t “deserve” it.

First, realize that self-care isn’t taking ridiculously extravagant vacations, where you are hand-fed grapes in your silky bathrobe. There are other, less involved forms of self-care, like:

  • Maintaining a daily gratitude journal to help you celebrate your wins each day
  • Eating a meal without your phone
  • Going for a run each morning

That’s not all. People overlook these other forms of self-care:

  • Getting a massage just because (not waiting around until you need one)
  • Hiring an assistant and delegating tasks as needed so that you’re not overstretched and stressed out all the time trying to do everything yourself
  • Saying no to social engagements or opportunities that you are not excited about but would otherwise agree to because you want to please everyone

Essentially, the idea of self-care can be anything that makes you feel good and happy. If you want to order a gluttonous buffet of foods from four different restaurants on Uber Eats, by all means go buck wild, champ. (But maybe also do this sensibly and in moderation…)

Self-care turns the compass’s needle toward yourself, for once. Most of us are so good at taking care of others and things other than ourselves. We tend to neglect our emotional and mental needs in the pursuit of greater conversions, more leads, one more blog post, and a five- or six-figure launch.

It’s time to change that and think about what’s good for us in the long term.

Leave a comment below and tell me: What’s the easiest thing you can do for self-care right now?

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There Are 17 Comments

 

Good to see more articles on this topic, the easiest thing I think “entrepreneurs” can do for themselves is to learn basic mindfulness, self-awareness and emotional self control skills.

There’s no point in burning out or grinding down until your numb. You are better off taking time each day for yourself to stay in your optimal window.

Staying positive is critical in this business and that’s hard to do under stress for long.

I’ve been enjoying flotation tank sessions (sensory deprivation tank) about once a month or so. It’s a great way to be with (or away from) your thoughts for a while. Also it lets your skeleton escape the pull of gravity for a while and sometimes can feel just as good as a massage.

I know you mentioned your struggles with insomnia (and I do hope it gets better!) but sleep really is one of my favorite parts of self-care. Just last night I was too stressed out to go rock climbing (which makes me sad because I usually love rock climbing) but instead I stayed home and went to bed early and slept 8 hours. And now I feel a LOT better.

Also eating guacamole. Guac is amazing.

I’ve such a difference when I prioritise my most basic living things- eating right, getting enough sleep, and getting some exercise.

Of course, mindfulness and self-awareness help, but without those basic things, that are, honestly, the first to go, I find more techniques don’t make much of a difference.

So true, Stella! The basics make a HUGE difference. Get your eat, sleep, and exercise routines in order and the rest will follow naturally.

Sometimes I literally need to stop and do a body scan and ask myself how I’m doing/what I need. Sometimes the answer is “I need to pee” or “My back hurts from sitting” or “I’m hungry” Sometimes self-care means eating the salad and other times it means eating the ice cream. I find I’ve been socialized to feel selfish when I take care of myself. >_<

“Sometimes self-care means eating the salad and other times it means eating the ice cream.” Hah, I love that. Well said!

Lexi Holcomb

Reading fiction is one of my favorite things and I’ve found I sleep better if I read it before bed because I’m not thinking about work the next day so I can relax instead of keeping myself awake imagining different scenarios playing out the next day and what I might have to do. Occasionally, I’ll get too into the book and end up staying awake an extra hour or two, but I’m usually too tired for that to be the case.

This is a great tip, Lexi! I’ve found the same to be true. Something about fiction really turns off the problem solving part of the brain.

I do the same thing. I think I heard Tim Ferriss (is that right?) recommend that. I gave it a try, it worked like a charm, and it’s been part of my daily routine ever since.

(Another trick that helped was reading with a very dim, amber light. Just barely enough to read comfortably by. When I would read with a brighter, whiter light, I’d run into that problem of staying up for hours enthralled in the book.)

As a busy entrepreneur, so much of this resonates with me. One thing I have found to be particularly challenging, though, is making these activities (like going for a morning run, keeping a gratitude journal, or meditating) a part of my daily routine.

I stumbled across research by a scientist at Stanford that I’ve been able to apply to make “habit-izing” anything simple.

The biggest mistake people naturally make is not starting REALLY small (in both frequency and duration of your habit). For example: if your goal is to run 5 miles every weekday morning – in your first week, start by waking up when you normally do, putting on your running shoes, and going for a jog around the block. Do it two times in your first week.

It almost feels silly, but it works. Start small, and slowly grow your habit over time.

I’ve heard that of that same research, and I don’t know what to make of it. James Clear recommends a similar approach in his latest book, Atomic Habits.

I run a weight gain program for skinny guys, and I’m always trying to find ways to increase the percentage of people who successfully complete the program, so I love reading research like this.

The problem is, if someone is trying to build muscle, doing a minimalist workout might be great for habit formation, but it won’t be enough to get them great results—at least not right away. When they don’t get results, they get discouraged, they give up.

How many weeks will someone do a 10-minute workout if it’s not helping them gain weight, you know?

So we generally tend to prioritize getting our members great results. If they gain 1–2 pounds per week during their first month, it’s harder, yes, but they’re often so motivated by their remarkable results—their clothes are tighter and people are complimenting them—that they keep going.

I’m torn between aiming for gradual habit formation or just recommending that people jump right into it, combining all the habits needed to get them the results they want: 3 hourlong workouts per week, calorie surplus, enough protein, plenty of sleep.

Anyway, this is all to say that I suspect you might be right… I just can’t figure out how to tie it into getting shorter term results.

I work with teachers and help them reduce their stress and improve their self-care. I emphasize silence and stillness, qualities that our culture/society doesn’t value, but that are gifts we can give ourselves.

I recently started going to hot yoga every single day. It stops me from working non-stop and not seeing time fly by.

At first, it was difficult to mind myself to go when I was behind on some work, but I decided that my health is non-negociable.

I couldn’t agree with this post more.

As part of my regular lifestyle, lifting weights seems to really help.

I also take a daily walk with my wife, newborn son, and dog. We chat and watch the sunset, then come home and give our little guy his bath.

And then every once in a while, to take a break from obsessing over my business, it’s nice to totally 100% obsess about something else.

Sometimes that means taking time off to obsess over a video game, playing 14 hours a day for a week. (I’m taking a week off when Sekiro comes out.)

But it doesn’t need to be a video game. Sometimes I’ve taken a week off to write and record a song, work on writing a novel, make a huge illustration—anything sufficiently creative that it fully occupies my brain, clearing away all the thoughts of business.

I think I’d go crazy without those breaks.

Roxie Walker

Thank you for this, Richard. i`t’s glaringly obvious, and I somehow keep forgetting it and instead jumping in whole hog – guaranteeing failure.

Back to basics it is!

The easiest thing I can do for self-care is to perform the most basic technique of meditation. I sit in total silence for 20 minutes and totally relax my body, helping to release tension, stress and trapped emotions. It’s glorious!

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