Do you know what the one thing that ALWAYS comes up in every single conversation I have with another entrepreneur is?
The more I explore the mental cost of owning a business, the more conscious I’m becoming of all the internal elements that hinder progress, like how fatal the combination of overwhelm and anxiety can be.
We make an average amount of 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day, and that’s just for the average adult. We probably partake in like triple that amount as business owners (maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but still).
As a business owner, you never know what complications the day is going to throw at you. How am I going to deliver on the insane task of my client? How am I going to get the products for this massive order together in time? How am I going to make enough to pay rent or to hire someone else to help me? How am I going to get ALL THE THINGS done today? What the heck am I going to work on first? Should I take this deal for the money even though it’s not the best fit? Is this marketing opportunity worth investing in? How do I launch this? The list goes on and on. Every decision seems to either put out a fire or prevent another one from starting.
You’re with me, right? So, on top of that, there’s so much freedom with being an entrepreneur and creating your dreams that we don’t even know if we’re asking ourselves all the questions that need to be asked. I seem to be in a constant state lately of, “what decisions am I forgetting to make?” I’m trying to live a more fulfilled life and every time I sit down to put my computer aside and live life, all I can seem to think about is not only all the things I forgot to do, but all the stuff I forget to make choices on.
I mean, what am I supposed to do? Write the decisions I need to make on my to-do list? Maybe that’s the answer. If so, I’m going to really need to stock up on these Post-it lined pads.
Unfortunately, no one has made an outline yet of all the decisions we’re supposed to be making when you start a business (maybe that should be my next business product?). In reality, I probably just need to get used to the never-ending run of choices thats comes with this career path. It’s crazy that I can have so much freedom – no one is forcing me out of bed, I get to work in my yoga pants, when something isn’t working, I have 100% of the deciding power to change it – and yet, the freedom is so limiting, so overwhelming. To the point where sometimes I’m so fed up with making so many decisions that I just stop making them and hit the “go through the motions” button, which was exactly what I thought I would be avoiding by being my own boss.
At least I’m not completely crazy though… Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. “As the number of options increases, the costs, in time and effort, of gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increase,” says Schwartz. “The level of certainty people have about their choice decreases. And the anticipation that they will regret their choice increases.”
I dare you to go and find one business owner who doesn’t suffer from anxiety at some level (even if they do hide it on social media). I mean, how can you not? When you’re an entrepreneur, every single decision lies on your shoulders. Every baby step could inch you closer to your goals, but it could also inch you backwards, which has the potential to fling you into a downward spiral of degraded self worth.
A recent study from the University of California Berkeley revealed that people prone to high anxiety (like anyone living the startup life) are more likely to make poor decisions because they have a tougher time reading the environmental cues that could help them avoid a bad outcome.
“An important skill in everyday decision-making is the ability to judge whether an unexpected bad outcome is a chance event or something likely to reoccur if the action that led to the outcome is repeated,” study senior author Sonia Bishop, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and principal investigator of the study.[Try this: 15 easy to work through, impact making pages designed to give the tools, exercises, and perspective you need to combat overwhelm and make better decisions]
Your working memory is responsible for calculating the pros and cons of a situation in your brain. It just so happens that this is the same place occupied by worry. In those stressful, pressured situations, when making a decision is vital, overthinking is literally damaging your ability to make a decision.
As explained by sports psychologists Martin Turner and Jamie Barker in an article on Entrepreneur.com, “Because worrying takes up vital space in the working memory, no longer can the person efficiently process the information needed to make that all important decison. Instead, he or she tries to grasp every little component part of making that choice and break down the skill of decision making into a mechanical process. Just like the driving example, however, this isn’t how the person normally makes accurate decisions.”
The more anxious you get about making a decision, the cloudier your judgement becomes, leading to more time wasted, and more worry taking up valuable space in your brain. You want to make the right decision so much that your over thinking literally slows down the mental processes that are responsible for decision making.
Plus, choice overload and constant decision making is freaking exhausting. No matter how much you absolutely love what you do, too much of a good thing will take a toll on you. When you work 7 am – 11 pm, by choice, and invest so much of your heart and soul into each and every client or customer, you are tired because you’ve invested so much of yourself into your day. Then, you walk into the kitchen to make dinner (because let’s face it, you probably got so caught up in working that actual meals seemed like a bottom priority). Are you going to then invest yourself into cooking yourself a delicious 3 course meal? Um no, you’re going to opt for yesterday’s pizza or popping a frozen meal in the microwave. Why? Because you don’t have any energy left to invest and your brain wants to take the easy way out. We are far more likely to make poorer decisions when we’re exhausted than when we’re refueled and rejuvenated.
As if managing all the things isn’t enough stress (while striving to uphold and nourish our creativity), we’re also constantly plagued by the fear of making the wrong decision, which also happens to be the source of the fear of failure. I’ll argue to even say all that time spent deciding on which decision to make, often eats up a lot more of our time than making a wrong decision and having to correct it. Keep in mind: there is no learning in contemplation, but there is knowledge within each and every failure.
Unpredictability sucks. Not only do we have to invest ourselves into making all these decisions every single day, but we also really have no clue if they’re going to work out in our favor or not. The only guarantee in life is that tomorrow is never promised (well, that and taxes -_-). One recent study actually found that as the uncertainty of a scenario increased (meaning less information was provided to base a decision off of), the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated.
As Travis Bradberry, Co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and President at TalentSmart, explains, “This brain quirk worked great eons ago, when cavemen entered an unfamiliar area and didn’t know who or what might be lurking behind the bushes. Overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival. But that’s not the case today. This mechanism, which hasn’t evolved, is a hindrance in the world of business, where uncertainty rules and important decisions must be made every day with minimal information.”
Business far too often feels like a gamble where we’re praying that we’ll hit enough dollars on the slot machine every now and again to hopefully pay our bills. There’s this illusion that we can start a business to take back control of our life, but really, every choice results in a wider exposure to unpredictability. When we act out of our need to control, lack of control facilitates a huge amount of tension between our desires, reality, and goals. What’s the point of all these decisions if we really don’t have control of the outcome? This is where burnout happens. This is where you get so stuck in spur of the moment decision making (because you can never catch a break to even think about your overall game plan) that any hope for strategy or reason completely falls to pieces.
There are two types of decisions we make as entrepreneurs: tactical decisions and strategic decisions. Tactical decisions are the fires you likely spend each day putting out. They are the decisions you need to make here and now. “Although they appear to be the best decisions in the moment, tactical decisions easily derail your business and result in lengthy, costly detours,” explains Jackie Nagel, founder of Synnovatia, a strategic business coaching and consulting firm .
When you are constantly fighting fires, you don’t have room left in your brain to think strategy, but those strategic decisions are vital to your growth – they prevent the fires from growing and even some of them from occurring all together. Strategic decisions are your map, your game plan. They provide reference points to guide you through the tactical decisions quickly and efficiently.
You have to accept that you’re going to drop the ball sometimes. The harder you push away from the fact, ironically, the more balls you are certainly going to drop. Unpredictability breeds new opportunity and failure fosters an insane amount of knowledge. While our brains are these incredible, amazing things that are capable of more power than we can even begin to grasp, they make mistakes, too. We’re hardwired to think in worst case scenario terms where every choice was a matter of life or death. Do I try to hunt this animal or run away from it? In some ways, we mentally haven’t caught up with modern times where the complexity of our decisions now impacts not solely the state of our being (and by that I mean either alive or dead), but also our quality of life. Decision making is a dynamic process, an art form if you will, that is an elaborate dance between your mind, your gut (instincts), and your heart (your passion or spirit).