I remember the rules my dad laid out for us kids growing up in a traditional Midwestern household: Eat everything on your plate. Finish your homework. Do what you say you’re going to do.
That last rule would inform some of the hardest decisions I made throughout my life, whether it was sticking out a whole high school football season as an undersized teen or beginning my journey as an entrepreneur. Now, don’t get me wrong, persistence is a great value to live by. But it has its downsides when you’re an entrepreneur. While a never-quit attitude can make you strong enough to overcome challenges that most people would avoid, it can also lead you to work too hard on the wrong thing for too long and hurt you in the process.
Entrepreneurs are 50% more likely than others to struggle with severe, lifelong mental health issues, as reported in a Wall Street Journal article. The line between overcoming adversity and overworking your mind and body is thin, and I’ve crossed it a few times in my career.
There have been times when I ended up crying on the floor of the shower or having a true panic attack. Not long ago, I was back in my home state with my better half, and we were heading to a bar to grab a drink before a night on the town. I never made it there. I got dizzy, couldn’t see, and collapsed. At the time, I’d been working stressful 100-hour weeks. That night, it fell apart. I realized then that it was imperative to my success—and my survival—to find a way to balance the hustle with my physical and mental health. Here are some of the habits that have helped me do just that.
1. Run through your day
Soon after my time as a high school football player ended, I fell in love with running and spent years competing on my college track and cross-country teams. As my entrepreneurial career took off, though, running took less priority. That changed this year, and running became my therapy. Now, if I feel like I’m losing control, I grab my shoes and hit the road. No music. No company.
I find running to be as much about reflection as it is about the cardio. It gives me the space to think clearly and freely without distractions. Exercise has the additional benefit of making you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but the same mental clarity can come from any activity. Cooking, cleaning, and other routine tasks can create the same opportunity to clear your mind and reflect on important decisions you made throughout your day.
Be deliberate about creating an environment free from distractions—whether that be email notifications or phone calls. Be consistent about taking advantage of that space. In the world of hustle—where each day is filled with a never-ending list of meetings, tasks, and fires to put out—you can benefit a great deal from taking time to process and reflect.
2. Say “no” more
Countless entrepreneurs struggle to say “no,” especially to younger people seeking advice as they embark on their own careers. Spending time with mentors and picking the brains of people with more experience than me were invaluable opportunities during my early days as an entrepreneur, so I felt like I needed to pay it forward. More than that, the possibility of meeting someone who could open doors for my career also kept me saying “yes” to every networking request that came my way.
Something had to give. Over the past year, I’ve stopped going to events and meetings that don’t directly benefit my business. The results have been freeing. Sometimes, I experience schedule creep, but I keep a close watch and remember that without a calendar cluttered with extraneous meetings, I’ve been able to schedule some time to reflect (see above) and actually get my work done during the day.
My mental health has improved dramatically. Coming home with a completed to-do list lets me focus fully on my time outside of work, rather than on the work I still need to do. On the whole, saying “no” gives me the ability to be more present at work and at home.
3. Vacation with purpose
You’ve probably heard the advice that vacation time should be about disconnecting, not working. I agree, but it’s not always practical. I tried to implement a personal policy of no emails during vacation—and watched that policy crash and burn in no time. Vacations can be stressful if you’re used to working all the time. They can be even more stressful when you know there’s a pile of work to be done, and you keep getting emails about it while you’re gone.
I believe in a compromise: I take one completely disconnected vacation each year. During any other time away, I’ll do a morning check-in and spend half an hour routing my emails. I don’t take calls, and I don’t tell anyone I’ll be available, but I can keep the necessary things moving and free my mind from constant panic about what’s happening at work. The very act of checking email causes stress, and no one has time for that when rest should be the priority.
My dad’s follow-through rule informed my hard work and success, but at times, I took it too far. Taking care of yourself while you hustle is a rule you should always follow. Trust me—it’ll pay off.
Zach Ferres is the CEO of Coplex, a nationally ranked venture builder that partners with industry experts, entrepreneurs, and corporate innovators to build the next wave of high-growth tech companies. Follow Zach on Twitter.