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Sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, and the constant stream of incomplete yet highly punctuated thoughts… All the while, I was lying in bed thinking, “It’s 0200… GO TO SLEEP!” Which provided exactly 0% help for the situation.
Here we were with another one in a string of sleepless nights where it’s not an uncooperative child or a specific argument that’s got me all ‘riled up’ and thus not sleeping. Nope… What’s happening is an accumulation of 1,000 tiny stressors over the course of an extended period of time all compounding to produce what seems like immediate proximity to the breaking point. Whatever that means… I didn’t know how to characterize that point, just that it was near. And what seemed present on the other side didn’t sound so appealing.
I felt unhealthy and I needed to do something about it. But I really didn’t know where to go or what to do. So I pressed on.
It had been a year-plus of overextension to the point of exhaustion. I had balanced it all so well for quite a while, but all it took was a rough week to push me up to the line… If you’re a regular reader, you have an idea of what’s been happening lately, but let me catch us all up to speed:
Day job, wife and daughter, CEO of our family’s new business (5 employees with annualized 6-figure revenue and not my ‘day job’), a brand new office for the business and all the costs and logistical stressors that come with it, shorter, lamer, and less-frequent workouts, trying to grow the blog (it sounds like a gross misuse of time at this point but I get so much joy out of writing), and now the sleepless nights…
My juggling act had been pristine until Monica called me one Tuesday right before lunch. It was about three months ago.
She had the flu. The next 7 days consisted our team needing to change her patient’s appointment times, trying to take care of Clara and Monica after the day job, working on the business at night, selfishly writing blog posts, and one mind-occupied and sleepless night after another. I cracked on day 7 when I got some tough health news after a recent check-up…
It wasn’t anything terminal or urgent, but the news hit me like a sledgehammer to the chest. “Ding, ding, ding!!! Down goes MikedUp!!” I pride myself on being a healthy guy but my mental condition three months ago was anything but healthy. Pull-ups won’t save you from that freight train. I sat down with Monica and we had a heart-to-heart with her telling me that I can’t expect to literally do everything and remain normal. I made an appointment to talk with a therapist the next day…
I am thrilled to report that three months later (present day) things are much improved!
The resting pulse is back down in the 50s, I’m more productive than ever, and ohhh I’m sleeping like a baby again! So what’s changed? It’s no magic pill. There are no pills at all, actually. But what I did do was take inventory of how I spent my time, broadened my horizons, did a ton of research, and came up with a plan. I had never been to therapy before in my life, but that process has been incredibly helpful.
What’s below is a result of my research, conversations with Monica, and multiple brainstorming sessions with my new therapist (very weird to say still).
I call this my ‘How not to have a stress-induced heart attack before 35’ 10-Step Plan.
1) Have a “Do-Later” button. And use it
My To-Do List was exploding with items. To the point that each day I’d seemingly add more than I accomplished. Then, all would carry over to the next day. Wash, rinse, repeat. The one constant was that each day I’d feel like a failure. That wasn’t constructive.
I had to change my mindset. Everything on my list didn’t need to get done each day. In fact, some things didn’t need to get done at all. So I limited myself to no more than 10 items each day. If something came up during the day and needed to be added to my list, that meant that something else got bumped to tomorrow with my “Do Later” button. By prioritizing my activities and efforts I was able to complete 80-100% of my tasks each day. That meant I was winning again. And the act of victories, no matter big or small, can’t be understated.
2) Meditate for 12 minutes each day
This one was courtesy of the therapist. I had heard of the benefits of meditation many times via Tim Ferriss’ podcast but I wrote it off as something that “wasn’t for me.” Honestly, I didn’t even know the mechanics of how to meditate. So I ignored the activity altogether.
When my therapist explained how simple it was to try, and urged me to do so, I gave in. The result can be explained with an analogy:
If water boils at 212º Fahrenheit, then I at the constant high-stress level would hover near 175º throughout the day. It didn’t take much to send me up over 212º. After meditating for a month or so, my normal temp is back to about 70º – room temp – and the daily stressors have much less of an effect.
Here is a great article to help you get started. And another – focus on their Step 4. I chose 12 minutes because I haven’t yet found time for 15 and I’ve read that you need between 7-8 to actually change brain pathways.
3) Exercise regularly
You need to decide what “regularly” means to you. For me, that’s 4 or 5 workouts lasting 30-50 minutes each week. I’ll have a specific post coming out soon to really dive into what I’ve been doing for this. For now, I’ll say that I’ve been working a combination of barbell workouts with cardio and abs. Jocko Willink’s recent book, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual has a phenomenal section at the end that highlight’s Jocko’s workout plans. He starts with stuff for beginners, moves onto intermediate, then ends with the advanced level workouts that Jocko completes each day.
I’m in the intermediate section and struggling very nicely! I recommend this book to anyone looking for a new workout plan that’s flexible and adaptable to your current fitness level. Oh, and the workouts are just an appendix. There’s a ton of other great content in the actual book!
4) Sleep >6.5 hours every night
This step is perhaps the simplest but it has definitely been the most impactful. Find out what you need nightly and make no excuses. Turn off the TV, put the screen down, and close your eyes. I’ve found that my busy schedule in combination with the challenging workouts and lower stress level lends to a quick-to-sleep situation for me nightly.
I use the Bedtime feature on my iPhone’s clock function. You can set your wakeup and go to bedtimes so that you’re 100% sure to get your required shut-eye. This app notifies you 15 minutes before bedtime. Now all that’s needed is to have the discipline to close the eyes.
This is a pass/fail for me. If I pass (get 7 hours or more) I feel energized and happier throughout the day. If I fail… Not so much.
I have not historically been an effective delegator. Too proud, very high bar, and honestly not very trusting. I knew that was one thing that had to change for me to feel less stressed. As Monica put it to me bluntly, “You can’t expect to do everything and remain normal.” Have I ever said that she’s an incredibly smart lady…?
When we first bought the dental practice, I felt like I needed to take care of everything non-clinical. Credential with insurance companies, create every new patient form, determine how we would accept credit card payments and reach out to those vendors… It truly was crazy but, hey – all of those tasks (and more!) fell under my domain. In retrospect, yes, I needed to determine the credit card processor and yes, the forms turned out great! But staying up till 12:00 writing emails to insurance companies…? It didn’t have to go down like that.
The process lasted for months.
We’re moving to a new office pretty soon which is an act that requires changing our information with those same insurance companies. This time around, I asked one of our employees to gather the relevant updates required and contact information for each insurance and report back. She got back to me in 3 days with a spreadsheet. Five days later the project was 90% done. By delegating this task, not only did it get done faster but also I gave one of our employees a chance to surprise me. And guess what…? She did!
The big picture benefit to generally being well and less stressed out is that I’m not constantly checking my To-Do list or grabbing my phone. I’ve been able to leave the notification machine in different a different room or on silent during family time on weekends and after work. It’s an amazing feeling to open the blinds in the morning, sip a warm cup of coffee, and play dollhouse with Clara as the sun comes up. I am now soaking in all of these moments without a distracted mind. …And yes, Clara likes to get up before the enemy.
7) Care less. But don’t be careless
The mental change I get after meditating is the feeling that external stimuli seem to pass through my brain with less friction. What do I mean? I’m able to detach and see the stressors for what they are, as passing inputs from the world around me. This detachment allows me to have some perspective and thus not react in a ‘from-the-hip’ manner 100% of the time.
I am then able to easily evaluate whether something should require immediate attention or if it can be shuffled off to tomorrow with my ‘Do Later’ button. Even better – some things just get ignored altogether. The truth is that not every input requires your full mental capacity. For some things, you should just care less. And by detaching and evaluating every-day stimuli for what they are, I can care less without being entirely careless.
8) Get a check-up
I don’t play a doctor on the internet and I’ll say that severe stress is nothing to joke around about. Maybe there is an underlying issue? I went in for a checkup and I’d recommend you consult your doctor to do the same.
In the not-so-best-case-scenario: you’ve now started your path at least one day sooner than you would’ve without the checkup.
If you’ve been through a stressful time lately and especially if you haven’t been to the doctor in a while – Get the peace of mind. Schedule an appointment.
9) Slow-paced Saturdays
We use ‘em and we love ‘em. Unplug, sit on a chair, go to the park, … Whatever the event is, we’re just not in a hurry to get there. If we miss an event, it’s no big deal. We use at least one Saturday each month to live the day on our terms. And we go where the day takes us. No plans, no rules – just right.
Slow-paced Saturdays have done a lot to take away the constant frantic buzz of sticking to a schedule. It’s Saturday. I don’t need no stinking schedule!
10) I use Todoist to keep track of my daily goals
This app has done wonders for my mental state. No more shuffling between Google Calendars, post-it notes, and my mental space. Todoist has the ability to set tasks for a certain date, schedule recurring activities, and even pats you on the back for a day well done. I’ll check tomorrow’s tasks the night before, make sure I’m under 8 total and prepare myself for the day ahead. I love it.
I can’t take all the credit for uncovering this gem. One of my favorite podcasts of 2017 (ChooseFI) recommended Todoist as a service they love and can’t do without. Now that my To-Do List is centralized in this one location, my life is simpler. And I love everything about that!
There you have it.
I’m living proof that you don’t need to quit cold Turkey or make huge drastic changes to get ahold of acute stress. Nope. I made 10 simple but incredibly effective changes that drastically improved my stress level. What’s better than that? I’m getting more out of my free time with my family because when I’m working, I’m so much more efficient and focused.
You, too, can get to the other side of stressful situations. Take ownership. Make small changes. Live intentionally. Then take a deep breath and enjoy the moment – you’ll never get this one back!
I want to know if you’ve had any experience with stress, anxiety, or burnout… And what are some tools you’ve used to fight back? Do you agree with my 10-Step Plan or do you have something different in mind?
I’m all ears either way! Please let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!
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