I have worked for myself for almost 20 years now, and the general (b)rule has been to work, work, work because it’s all about the hustle. And if you’re not hustling you’re not doing it right. Before that, I always kept myself busy: I had my day job and then my hobbies – like dancing – and other pursuits such as running role-playing clubs, or a side gig such as web design (which actually became my first solo business). I fill moments between activities with audiobooks nowadays, time I used to fill with music. It’s become more intense and I have succumbed to workaholism and the (b)rule of being always on.
Well, until my stroke.
I knew something was up before it happened and now recognise the symptoms for what they were: warning signs. Losing my balance randomly, burst blood vessels in my fingers leaving black bruises out of nowhere, sudden twinges in my head like a shooting headache, odd muscle spasms in my sides. I thought some were just because I was not fit (the spasms) or because I had lifted something too heavy (the burst vessels), but as I look back they were, collectively, signposts for what was to come.
After my stroke, I spent some time recuperating but my partner was pressuring me to get back to work as the restaurants needed me and, apparently, there was nothing wrong with me and I wouldn’t have another episode despite doctors telling me to avoid stress and reconsider my crazy hours and relentless push working 7-days per week every week for almost 5 years now.
And then along came the pandemic.
Although I had started to return to doing some work at the restaurant, I still didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to cope with it, especially when it was busy. I couldn’t carry things properly and had residual physical and mental effects as outlined by the doctors. So, we stopped for 6 weeks and closed as per most businesses. I rested, did some yoga and got back to exercising more regularly. I felt better and didn’t do much else apart from reflecting, a little training and jotting down some ideas alongside a little binge-watching Disney+ and Netflix.
In May, we re-opened for takeaway and delivery (guests were not allowed in the restaurant at this point) and I was back on-site 7-days a week. A lot of the time was spent sitting at the bar reading, writing, catching up with some administration, but it was back on the same old hamster wheel. I did a lot more reflecting.
Then July 4th rolled in and we could have guests indoors again. It started to get busier, but nothing crazy. Staff levels were low so we were often stretched and that meant pressure for me which I was advised to avoid. In August, the UK government ran a scheme to encourage guests back in restaurants by subsidising meals. It was highly successful and insanely busy. More stress and pressure.
I started taking a little time out, as per the doctor’s advice and, slowly, rediscovered an essential element of life – downtime and thinking.
I had been “always-on” for so long that it felt very strange. There was even a sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing something. But I realised that being “always-on” was what lead me to my stroke and that I needed to reboot the system and get off that hamster wheel.
I revisited personal development programs and started to take these seriously. And I realised I had been a personal development junkie or somebody who was looking for the next, temporary high from the experience. I read book after book, dipped into short courses, believing I was doing it to better improve myself, better understand myself, be better, become better. There was a grain of truth to that – I did need to learn new paradigms, better ways of living, better ways of working – and each book or course added new insights to how to do this (see Why Self-Help Books Don’t Work and How to Take in more Information from an Audiobook).
Ready? Fire. Aim.
There is an expression in entrepreneurial circles which inverts the ready-aim-fire model. Getting things done often requires you to start before you are fully prepared. You fire early and course-correct (aim) as you go along. If you wait to be ready you may never fire, or others may get to market ahead of you.
The problem is that, with most workaholics, you get stuck in the ready-fire part of the action and don’t take time to even think about why you fired in the first place, where you want to get to, or any of the really important aspects of life that you may sacrifice along the way, like your health (as in my case), your relationships, your values, or any of a number of other important things.
That’s why you need to STOP every once in a while. Course-correct. But not by doing, by thinking.
Just take time out and reflect on one problem, or let your mind wander about broader subjects that matter to you. And don’t do anything else. Don’t journal. Don’t get out a spreadsheet. Don’t. Just STOP. And think.
You can journal or take other actions after your pure, unadulterated thinking time. But for now, take time out to think. It’s amazing how much you can solve, how many challenges you can resolve, and how quickly you may realise you have been off-track for a very long time. What you do next may not be easy, but you will know, deep inside yourself, what is the right course of action.
How to Stop?
If you’re anything like me and suffer from “always-on” busyness, being a people-please or proverbial “yes man,” it’s going to feel strange taking time out to think. So I have listed below a few ways I do this which you may relate to. They are easy to do and you can start from as little as 5 minutes. But do start (er, stop) and you’ll thank me later.
- Take a walk in nature. Get away from distractions and shop windows where it’s quiet and just walk and let your mind wander. Maybe find a little spot to call your own on a bench or a tree stump and just relax and ponder your problems. Or even a certain time. I like the night sky and tranquility at the end of the day.
- Meditate. Preferably not a guided meditation as this doesn’t count! I like sound-bath style meditations as it simultaneously distracts my brain and allows me to quickly access a relaxed state (alpha) which is better for problem-solving. I have a few playlists on my phone ranging from 10-30 minutes (great for relaxation too).
- Get quiet. Turn off the distractions. Don’t take any calls. Make a cup of tea or grab a glass of water and sit on a comfy chair and watch the world go by. If you want to (or can) close your eyes, go for it. But don’t fall asleep!
- Go for a run or hit the gym. This is like going for a walk above but with a double-win of boosting your fitness. The challenge here is creating space to think. If you’re jumping from one piece of equipment to the next and looking to get new personal bests or listening to an upbeat playlist, you can be distracted by doing instead of thinking. Running is good (or any repetitive activity like rowing) as you’re putting your mind into a relaxed state.
- Take a shower (or a bath). It’s no secret that some of the world’s best inventions came out of the shower. You have time to think.
- Yoga. I find I have to concentrate during yoga – I’m still new at it – and need to listen to the instructions and the postures. However, I use the Down Dog app which allows me to customise the duration and type of the exrecises (I opt for Yin Yoga here – slower and more relaxing) and also the length of the Shavasana (corpse pose) at the end. The Shavasana is where you just lie still and relax after the yoga and, with some quiet reflective music from the app, get to drift into thought until prompted by the app to come back to your senses. The yoga is a good physical tonic and relaxes mind and body to prepare you for your “chill out” at the end. My default Shavasana is usually 5 minutes, but I have found myself lying there for 10-15 minutes if my thoughts are particularly interesting.
- Get an App. There are dozens of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation apps in the app stores, many of which are free. In most cases, for this exercise, a simple background track is what you are looking for and any apps such as Portal, Pause, Insight Timer, Headspace, Calm, Aura, , etc are ideal. You don’t need a subscription to access the free content.
You can see a pattern emerging here – it’s about the mental state you are trying to achieve. Ideally, putting your brain into an alpha state is where you want to be and you can tap into your inner wisdom and problem-solving skills. I have learned a number of techniques over the years to help the mind get into the alpha state more easily and, with practice, you can just switch this on but simple techniques like calming music, meditation, repetitive exercise, solitude, et al, all help you access this state. For example, sounds like Tibetan singing bowls (sound-bath meditation) stimulate a resonance in the vagus nerve in the body which in turn alters the conscious state to help access alpha and other states more consistently. You are using sound to create a beneficial physiological response in your body.
I recommend keeping a journal handy to write any insights you may receive. But keep it aside until you’re finished.
Remember. Just STOP and Think.