To Switch Off, First Switch Off!
Stress is an ever-present worry for the small business owner, but a variety of simple techniques can help you get on top of it and refresh your mind. The simplest thing is something many entrepreneurs find the hardest - to sever the communication link with work.
Sometimes it seems that part and parcel of being an entrepreneur is having more than a passing acquaintance with stress.
That passion and control of your own destiny, the things that made you want to be in business for yourself, have been replaced by financial stress, professional isolation, long hours and poor work-life balance.
Small business owners are prone to stress
The inaugural Officeworks Small Business Wellbeing Index1, compiled in 2015, found that Australian small business owners were under immense pressure and risking their well-being, with almost half (45%) claiming their stress levels had increased in the past 12 months, and a quarter feeling “burnt out.”
The Index, based on research of more than 1,000 small business owners nationwide, revealed that 40% were struggling with trying to juggle everything themselves, and a further 22% were experiencing loneliness and isolation.
Despite these significant issues, only a quarter of business owners were seeking support for stress, while a slightly higher percentage (29%) said they were seeking help for the business issues causing their stress.
They are alarming figures – but something can be done.
The importance of downtime
The first thing is to “switch off” says executive coach and International Coach Federation (ICF) master coach, Belinda MacInnes, of Belinda M Master Coach. And that is not just a saying – she means it literally.
“The main thing is to get away from your technology – get offline, turn your phone off, don’t look at your computer or your tablet. Disconnect yourself. When you say that to an entrepreneur, it nearly kills them. They say, ‘I can’t, what if I miss this call, that call.’ When they say they can’t leave their technology, they’ve simply lost objectivity; they’re getting burned out,” she says.
MacInnes says an executive coach will negotiate: “What about half a day, what about two hours? Afterward, you ask them if they noticed what it was like not being online or connected. Once they do it and experience that relief, often they are able to think more clearly – and you can get them to do it again.”
The quickest and simplest way to start exploring mindfulness is through an app for your smartphone; whether you’re just starting out or experienced in meditation, these apps can help you learn to relax effectively. Good examples are: The Mindfulness App, the ideal beginners’ approach; Headspace, which suits those wanting to explore mindfulness independently; and Smiling Mind, a great Australian alternative that began with a focus on school children, but is now focusing on their parents, too.
Whatever the business owner chooses to do in their technology-free time is up to them, she says – as long as they’re not connected to the outside world. “Ideally, it would be to do nothing, but usually that doesn’t even compute. To switch off, a lot of the entrepreneurs I work with will sleep, or possibly binge-watch a box set of a TV program – but at least they’re not in contact with work. It could be watch a movie, get out in the garden, go for a walk, play with their kids or the dog – it’s really anything. We’re just trying to demonstrate to them that if they miss the phone call, or the text, or the email, that the world still turns and their business still goes on,” says MacInnes. We’re just trying to demonstrate to them that if they miss the phone call, or the text, or the email, that the world still turns and their business still goes on.
Topically, she says the analogy she uses is of Olympic athletes. “They’re not high-performing all the time, they have times when they peak, times when they rest and do nothing, and times when they’re building up their training. Most entrepreneurs have to be told and convinced and cajoled into switching off – that it works and brings them a benefit. If they can do it, they generally respond,” she says.
The Gym for the Mind
Beyond simply switching off is mindfulness training, which is all about focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness trainer, Gillian Coutts, Australian director at consultancy The Potential Project, says basic mindfulness techniques can be very helpful in combating stress.
Taking mindfulness further
There is a wide range of online courses that can extend your interest in mindfulness as far as you would like to take it. Check out: Future Learn, a great online 6-week program offered by Monash University; Soundstrue.com, which has an enormous range of self-paced programs available to download from leading experts around the world; and Potential Project, leading face-to-face programs designed to transform the workplace.
“Just focusing on taking deeper, longer breaths, for example – doing that for ten minutes – that sounds pretty trite, but we say it’s like going to the gym for the mind. The three core skills you’re developing are to hold something in focus, without distraction; second, to notice when your mind wanders; the third is the ability to let go – that moment when you notice that your mind wanders and you deliberately bring your attention back to your breathing.”
The three core skills you’re developing are to hold something in focus, without distraction; second, to notice when your mind wanders; the third is the ability to let go.
Those are the three metaphorical mental ‘muscles’ that you work on in the gym of the mind. And that third muscle is incredibly powerful at 3AM when you’ve woken up with something on your mind, that thought you can’t get rid of: you can literally train your brain to think, ‘I won’t focus on that, I choose to focus on something else,” says Coutts.
Taking a mindfulness retreat
Those who really want to switch off thoroughly, and learn to recharge the mind and meditate, may be interested in a mindfulness retreat. In this category, there is everything from hardcore silent retreats to more relaxed “mind clearing” style versions. Plug ‘mindfulness retreats’ into Google and see the wide range of options open up for you!
Building your own successful business was not meant to be easy; otherwise, everyone would do it. Nor does it have to result in crippling stress, with all of its possible mental and physical consequences. Learning to recognise when you’re stressed, and how to redress that, is a crucial business skill. Whether it’s learning to switch off, delegating, finding professional support through your accountant, insurance broker or other business adviser or talking to other small business people about common issues - help is never really far away.
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