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Typical self-care practices don’t work for startup founders. Here’s one thing that does

Entrepreneur and coach Kathleen Stetson says that like many founders dedicated to their startup’s success, she damaged her health by working too hard. Here’s what she learned about self-awareness to help heal.

Typical self-care practices don’t work for startup founders. Here’s one thing that does
[Photo: Allie/Unsplash]

I jogged regularly while building my first startup. I tried not to work right up until bed. I ate healthfully (with the exception of an embarrassing amount of Nutella for dessert). But like many founders who are 110% dedicated to their startup’s success, I still ended up seriously harming my health. I made the chronic migraine I’ve had since 2011 much worse, I lost so much muscle tone that I couldn’t even do a single sit-up, and I was depressed. It took a year before I started to feel better after my startup failed.

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My experience is far from isolated. The 24/7, hustle-till-you-drop attitude has been a problematic fixture of startup culture for years. And now, due to the pandemic, sustaining one’s health is even harder. “I don’t know a startup founder who’s not burned out,” a founder friend of mine told me recently. According to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56% of American adults say worry or stress has led to “at least one negative effect on their mental health and well-being.”

How can entrepreneurs feel good while building their startups? Self-care recommendations have proliferated across both traditional and social media over the past few months, with bread-baking and bath-taking all over our Instagram feeds. But I’ve found, both personally and in my work with entrepreneurs, that on their own, traditional self-care activities don’t move the needle.

Taking a bath doesn’t mean you stop beating yourself up for your startup’s stalled growth. One-off self-care practices can help reduce stress in the moment, but to maintain an even keel over the long haul, entrepreneurs need to put themselves first in a regular way, day after day. What helped me gain back my health and what I now help entrepreneurs learn is self-awareness: a daily understanding of what’s going on in their bodies and minds.

The ultimate self-care practice

It’s obvious to most entrepreneurs that in order to successfully run your startup, you need to understand the mechanics of building a business. What’s harder to accept is that to build yourself as your startup’s leader, you need to understand the mechanics of yourself. When you actively bring your attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations at any given moment, you are enabling yourself to see the information at hand more clearly. Then you can make decisions—both self-care choices and decisions for your startup—based on your current reality, rather than on how the past has gone or on an imagined future.

At MIT’s delta v accelerator program this past year, we created a first-of-its-kind self-awareness program to help 84 founders and their team members prioritize their individual well-being while building their businesses. We taught them the tools of self-awareness—meditation and mindfulness—and provided a confidential group coaching environment for them to vent about the challenges they were experiencing. By the end of the program, 93% of the cohort felt that having a self-awareness practice can help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses.

While only 21% of the cohort had a regular meditation practice before the program, by the end of the program, 88% of the participants had independently established their own regular, weekly meditation or mindfulness practice.

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And it worked. Participants were making more conscious moment-to-moment choices at the end of the program: 53% of participants were using an active technique to work through stressful situations, and 40% were choosing to feel their emotions, rather than push them away.

How to build self-awareness

The fantastic news about self-awareness is you can develop it right now, without changing your daily schedule or going anywhere. By simply bringing your attention to your experience of your life as it is right now, you can build self-awareness. This is because every time you bring your attention to what is going on in your body and your mind, you are working to train your brain to bring your attention to your body and mind the next time, and the next time. So soon, you can quickly and easily refocus away from, for example, the worries zooming around in your head to the important meeting at hand.

Here is a simple framework for building self-awareness:

  1. Noticing: Bring your attention to what you’re thinking and feeling right now, without judging it (this is simply the practice of mindfulness).
  2. Labeling: As your thoughts come and go, label them. For example, “Thinking about lunch” or “Feeling worried about the article I need to write.”
  3. Getting curious: Over time, you’ll start to notice patterns in your labeling, and you can reflect on the patterns you notice. For example, “I feel worried often about getting my voice out there. Why is that?”
  4. Active choice-making: Now you can make a more informed choice, based on your self-reflection. For example, “Rather than stewing in this worry any longer, I think I’ll chat with a fellow cofounder about how they work through impostor syndrome.”

Self-awareness in your everyday life

You can practice these steps at any time during the day by dedicating five minutes of a walk outside to noticing yourself and your environment, by taking a few seconds before a meeting to breathe deeply, or by free-writing about what you’re thinking and feeling while drinking your morning coffee. My favorite, however, I call “mundane mindfulness.” Mundane mindfulness is making a boring task you do every day—like doing the dishes—into a self-awareness practice.

Focus entirely on experiencing every aspect of the task: Feel the slipperiness of the soap suds and the warmth of the water on your hands as you wash a plate, for example. As thoughts appear in your brain, notice them, label them, and then go back to focusing on the physical sensations of the mundane task.

Is doing the dishes as relaxing as taking a bath? When you make it a mindfulness practice, it can be. You won’t just reduce stress. You’ll feel more knowledgeable about your own thoughts and reactionary patterns and open up a whole new level of personal choice. You’ll bring your whole self to your startup, and your team will thank you for it.

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Kathleen Stetson is an entrepreneur coach, the creator of the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication self-awareness program for MIT’s delta v accelerator, and the founder of Rational Confidence, a community for founders shifting the startup ecosystem away from burnout and toward healthier company cultures.

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