How to Pull Yourself Out of a Mental Low Point

Because being an entrepreneur is hard. And low points are inevitable. Written by Mike Scott, co-founder and CEO of NONA, a software development studio based in South Africa.

I started my first business when I was 16, and as I write this I am 36. In my 20 years of being an entrepreneur, I cannot even begin to count the number of times that I have had bad days that could have been the beginning of the end for the business in question. But they weren’t.

There’s a lot of press about the overnight successes, but the reality is that being an entrepreneur and business leader is about the hard, often lonely, work in between the few moments of clarity and celebration.

Being able to thrive in those less-than-newsworthy periods in between the moments of celebration is what makes a successful entrepreneur. It’s about continuous disciplined execution—and that is not easy.

This is why I developed a process that I activate whenever I hit a low point. I wanted to share it because it has helped me so many times.

1. Meditate.

During those low points, the first thing to hit me is generally the feeling of complete defeat or anxiety. Often I can’t even articulate what it is that is causing it, but it doesn’t actually matter. The feeling is there and that is the challenge.

When this happens, I am in a state of amygdala-hijack and I am in full primal flight or fight mode, which renders me pretty useless at making good decisions and thinking sensibly.

So, I meditate. By meditating, even for 5 minutes, I allow my brain the chance to shift its energy away from the amygdala (fight or flight), toward the pre-frontal cortex (awareness, concentration and clear decision making).

Simply put, if I give myself the time to meditate I move out of panic and into calm. I like to use the Calm app to guide my meditation, but there are plenty of ways to meditate without any tools.

Then I do 25 pushups.

2. Improve my environment.

Now that I am no longer looking around for the saber-toothed tiger that is supposedly hunting me, I turn my attention to my immediate physical environment. I take a few minutes to properly tidy and clean my workspace. Here’s why.

We think that our feelings control our actions and, while this is not untrue, we do have the ability to flip this around and use our actions to change our feelings. Some call this brain hacking, and I believe it really works.

The thought model is a common and powerful tool used in coaching. Once I have identified what the feelings are, and therefore what actions I am likely to take, I look at how I can reverse this effect. Rather than let my feelings dictate my actions, I take action to change how I feel.

By taking the action (tidying up my workspace), I shift my feelings from being overwhelmed and anxious toward being calmer, clearer and ordered.

Then I do 25 pushups.

3. Reflect and be grateful.

Now that I am sitting at an organized workspace and feeling good about my physical surroundings, I stop to appreciate that I have taken difficult and deliberate action to improve my state of being—just this is more than most are prepared to do.

Now I reflect on some of the positive things that I have achieved and experienced in my life. By this stage, my brain is truly beginning to shift. My amygdala is losing its control to my good friend the pre-frontal cortex.

Here I often remind myself, “What got me here won’t get me there,” which always helps me to affect more change.

Then I do 25 pushups.

4. Set my intentions for the day.

By this stage, I am thinking more clearly. The world, while not perfect, does not seem to be burning down around me. I turn to my ever-loyal whiteboard and I write down my intentions for the day.

This will include how I want to think, what I want to feel and what I (realistically) can achieve.

My list might look something like:

  • Complete 10 Trello tasks (this will make more sense once you have read step 5).
  • 1 hour on learning.
  • 200 pushups.
  • 1 hour on quarterly offsite prep work.
  • Opportunity over worry.
  • Complete 3 x 48 min Pomodoros. (I have modified this, but basically, this is just focused work time with no distractions).
  • Complete book review on ‘x’.
  • Be OK with not being ‘busy’.
  • No screens after 8pm.
  • Trust that you have done the work.
  • Daily reflection.
  • In bed by 9 pm.

This will stay on my whiteboard (or whichever medium makes sense) throughout the day and allows me to tick things off as I go, further ‘hacking’ my brain into feeling like I am progressing and moving upwards.

At the end of the day, I complete a quick reflection to see how I did on each item. I also reflect on which items increased my energy and which drained my energy.

Setting intentions and reflecting is a habit that has become part of my daily life, and its effects have been astounding.

Then I do 25 pushups.

5. Make things smaller.

I use Trello to manage my personal tasks, goals, habits, etc. I like Trello because it allows me to make tasks extremely granular. At this point, I am generally in a better headspace and I am just about ready to start getting into the work and back to a mental state of progress, confidence and clarity.

The way that I go about this is that I make a list of the all the things that need to get done in order to move the needle on the areas that got me into this negative headspace in the first place.

I divide them into two groups:

  • Things I can change.
  • Things I can’t change.
  • This next part is crucial: The things that I cannot change, I delete and give them up to the universe. If I can’t affect change on an issue, it is nothing short of insane to worry about it!

    Now that I have released myself from the things that I cannot change, I focus on the things that are within my locus of control and I get to work. I break these items down to the smallest tasks that I can with the view to be able to move items across from “to do” to “done” in as short a time as possible.

    Each time that I complete even the smallest task, I get a little hit of dopamine and a sense of improvement which then incentivizes me to get the next one done.  So the upward spiral of positive action and feeling begins.

    Then I do 25 pushups.

    This entire process can take as little as an hour and the effects for me, every time, are transformational. The hardest part by far is getting started. If you can stop what you are doing (freaking out) and give yourself the gift of focused, mindful self-observation and disciplined action, the rest follows naturally. It’s pretty incredible how things begin to miraculously fall into place after that. Trust the process.

    The process has variations depending on the severity of the situation at hand but the above serves as a general outline which I hope is useful to you. My hope is that this gets you a little closer to being able to manage life as a business leader without the crushing stress that too often comes with it.

    And now I’m off to do 25 pushups…

    Mike Scott is a member of the EO Adelaide chapter and the co-founder of NONA. A serial entrepreneur, he is also a father, a blockchain enthusiast and an avid mountain biker, swimmer and trail runner. The original version of this article appeared on Medium.com. 

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