Calming Your Obsessive Brain

...a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs and workaholics

‘I’m going to be a business mogul!’ I announce gleefully, jokingly, referring to my fledgling business of making and selling beeswax balms. My sister gives me a long, steady look.

‘You’ve been a business mogul since you were five years old,’ she says flatly, ‘give it three years and you can advertise yourself as an entrepreneur with 30 years’ experience.’

She’s exaggerating. I started my first business (selling gift cards to my Brownie pack) at the ripe old age of six. This was followed by selling cards and plants at craft fairs and church fetes. When I was fifteen, I was making fudge and coconut ice and selling it at school, until the tuck shop complained (at which point I offered them a trade discount and sold directly to them). My challenge has never been a lack of ideas of what I can do with my time – my challenge has always been sifting the wheat from the chaff (sorry coeliacs!).

After a night of getting only three hours sleep because my brain was bouncing around like an animated ping-pong ball, with all manner of ideas for my new balm business, I had a realisation. I become obsessive when I have a new project on the go. I mentioned this to a couple of friends, who both reacted in the same way: they looked at me incredulously and said ‘have you only just realised that?’ Clearly, they know me better than I know myself…

It’s true. Every time I have a new project, whether it is a new business idea, a hobby (pottery is a great example) or a DIY project (like the time I thought I could strip down, sand and re-paint four metal chairs and a table in 5 days, whilst working full time), I have at least one sleepless night where I obsess about it. I spend hours researching, reading articles, watching You Tube videos, and lying in bed calculating exactly how much sleep I’ll get if a I fall asleep right now.

Here are my musings about my new project:

  • I need to get started on it immediately. In fact, if I could get started on it yesterday, I would.
  • Not only do I need to get started immediately, I need to be finished in record time (one day to sand down four chairs feels like a good goal, right?)
  • I have to do it all myself, because no one else can do it as well as me (a variation on ‘it would take me longer to explain what I want done than simply to do it myself.’)
  • I do not suffer the base needs of lesser mortals such as sleep and food. I can, of course, work solidly for nine hours on a sausage roll and four hours sleep.
  • I can achieve all of the above much more quickly if I check emails/texts every three minutes.

If you are an entrepreneur, I know that you will understand this. If you’re not, I probably sound crazy.

One sleepless night is manageable. Several nights of less than five hours sleep is unhealthy and totally draining. Last week I realised that I needed to make some changes or I was going to burn out. This is still a work in progress; I don’t have all the answers, but I thought I’d share what’s working for me.

  • Prioritise good sleep. This is so important. It is tempting to sit up until midnight doing research or designing product labels, in the mistaken belief that the more hours I fill up with busy work the more productive I am being. Not true. Without good sleep, everything else will, sooner or later, come crashing down. Here’s what I do/recommend for better sleep:
    • Go to bed at least 30 minutes before my natural sleep-time (for me that means being in bed by 10 p.m., 10.30 at the very latest).
    • Do not keep my phone (or iPad, or tablet) next to the bed. This is key. If my phone is on the bedside table it is way too easy to give in to the urge to continue reading about different types of furniture paint or to check the cost of 200 small aluminium tins. If you use your phone as an alarm (as I used to), stop it. Get yourself an old-fashioned alarm clock (I got this one) instead. If you need to be able to see the time (so you can calculate how much sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right now) then get a clock that has a button which will illuminate the clock face. If you don’t have a landline and need your mobile phone close by in case your elderly relative calls in the middle of the night, set it on ‘do not disturb’ (you can set it to allow certain trusted people to be able to call) and put it on the other side of the room, preferably in a drawer, with wifi and mobile data turned off. These were among my excuses for keeping my phone next to my bed and none of them are good excuses.
    • Do not watch TV in bed (this isn’t something I’ve ever done but I know plenty of people who do). It stimulates your brain too much and is not conducive to good sleep.
    • If your brain is doing an impression of a ping pong ball, spend five to ten minutes writing down all the things you need to do, read, research etc so that it’s not all flying around your head. Once it’s written down it’s as if your brain says ‘ok, I can see that you’ve got all that, I’ll let go now.’
    • When you do wake up in the morning, don’t look at your phone in bed. Refer to previous point about phone. Get up, take a shower, get dressed and preferably have breakfast before looking at your phone or turning on wifi. I promise you will notice a huge difference in how you interact with your phone for the rest of the day, and you will probably be much more focused and productive.
  • Cut the caffeine until the obsession has died down. I really didn’t want to admit that I had become caffeine dependant, but the nights of poor sleep followed by days of trying to do it all meant that I needed a boost. It started innocently enough but ended with palpitations, rapid heart rate, and an inability to sit still and focus on anything. Once you’ve got your obsession/project under control, by all means re-introduce caffeine, but keep it to a minimum and don’t let it become a crutch.
  • Prioritise good food. Even if this means getting quality ready-meals, that’s better than living on sausage rolls from Greggs.
  • If you’re obsessing about a new project, sit down and make a list of every single ‘to do’ you can think of relating to that project. Work out what order these things need to be done in, and write them down again in that order. Now pick the top one to three things that you need to do today and make those your focus for the day. If feasible, get them all done before 11.00am. After that, you can re-visit the list if you have time that day. If not, check it over in the evening and decide on your top three tasks for the next day. This helps to set the intention for what you’re going to do, and when you’ve already got that intention it makes getting out of bed and staying on-track much easier.
  • Take at least one day off a week. This means no emails, no work/project-related reading or research. Your friends and family will probably be grateful if you don’t even talk about it for one day. It can seem a bit extravagant in this world, where worth is often related to being too busy to take a whole day off, but trust me on this. When you get back to work after your break, you will be much more refreshed and have a better creative capacity for completion of the project (without obsessing).
  • Take proper breaks throughout your working day. No screens, no background noise, just you and maybe a cup of something refreshing and a book or magazine. For me, 20 minutes of this can be more refreshing than a power nap. I learnt the importance of this from Angela Armstrong, who happens to have written a book on stress resilience. I highly recommend it.
  • Don’t sacrifice the things you love for your new project. It might be a hobby that takes the back seat, or your family, or close friends. If you aren’t still having fun and maintaining fulfilling relationships, you’re doing something wrong.
  • Delegate. You really don’t have to do it all yourself. I’ve used Fiverr to get my product packaging designed and safety reports done. It is one of the most liberating things I’ve done, handing it all over to someone else to do. If you want to know more about outsourcing, read the 4‑Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.
  • Don’t check your emails on your phone. Check them once or twice a day on your computer. If this feels scary, I refer you once again to the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss to learn how to do this.

This was only meant to be a short blog but it got away with me. If it's useful I may follow it up with another more refined guide in the future. Hopefully you can learn something helpful from my adventures in obsession. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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