The Entrepreneur’s Nerves are not Made of Steel

Building and sustaining a business is a day-in, day-out war between uncertainty and perseverance. Make few bad decisions or take your “eye off the ball” for just a minute, and it could be “game over.” As an entrepreneur, your ability to persist through prolonged times of risk and stress is as important to your company’s survival as it is your own.

Says one entrepreneur: “Running your own business takes nerves of steel.” [i] The trouble is that nerves aren’t steel, they’re nerves — and they can be broken. For many, the long hours and the stress of entrepreneurship have their costs.

Last month, a friend and colleague called me to say that his wife brought him to the emergency room after he experienced several days of heart palpitations. The diagnosis wasn’t a heart attack but high blood pressure brought on by stress. He was prescribed an SSRI (and is doing better). Others in his shoes are handling stress by self-medicating with alcohol, marijuana, or carrying a bottle of trusty benzodiazepines in their pockets.

Most of my columns are about lighting a fire and encouraging the hard work of entrepreneurship. This month we’re going flip the coin and talk about stress management and life balance. There’s a lot of advice available on the topic already, but here are a few strategies I’ve found to be particularly effective for the entrepreneur.


Everyone’s heard about the importance of sleep. But too often we think, “That’s for the guy (or gal) who’s NOT trying to build a business.” Not true. Sleep is particularly important for entrepreneurs. When you’re tired, your ability to manage stress drops through the floor, and you don’t think clearly or creatively. In sum, you make terrible business decisions.

While the effects of sleep deprivation are harsh, the benefits of sleep are impressive. One Stanford University study found that basketball players who slept about 10 hours a night sprinted faster and demonstrated a 9% increase in free throw and 3-point shooting accuracy. [ii]

While a typical recommendation is 7 to 9 hours per night, different persons need different amounts of sleep. To determine how much you likely need, ask yourself, “How much would I sleep if I didn’t have to work?” Try sleeping that much.


Exercise is important for the entrepreneur. Studies have shown that moderate exercise improves mood and creativity. [iii] If you’re new to exercise, try scheduling just 30 minutes of gym time into your daily routine. Be prepared that there will be days when it seems that just 30 minutes is going to rob too much time from your mounting workload.
And there will be some days when you’re so mentally pre-occupied with work that you just won’t be able to convince yourself to go. If you need to skip a day—so be it, just don’t skip a week!

On days when I’m crunched for time, I can still walk for an hour without losing any work time because there are always business calls that I can make while walking (also, I can sometimes find solutions to business problems faster during a walk).

Of course, if the idea of incorporating exercise into your daily routine makes you tired, first focus on getting more sleep.

Side Note: At my company, we’ve experimented with what we thought would be an effective work-exercise hybrid — treadmill desks. We found that it’s really difficult to get work done when on a treadmill desk: Graphic design is impossible. It’s difficult to focus when answering even simple emails. However, standing desks seem to work well as long as there’s also an option for a person to sit if he/she gets tired.

Create a Work-free Zone

There was a time that I would maximize my home for productivity. I built a home office, even though I had an office at work. Like many entrepreneurs, I told myself that having a home office would make my life easier (and more productive). I could be home more with family. I could get work done in the mornings, even before getting dressed. And I could work in the evenings. And the weekends (woo-hoo)! What a terrible idea. Doing work at home — in the proximity of family — is not the same as being home with family.

I’ve since turned my home office into a mini home theatre. Instead of having a dedicated space to work at home, I now have a dedicated space at home to not work. I still work at home, but my house no is longer a trigger to keep working.

Schedule Fun

As an entrepreneur, you have a vast amount of work to complete at any given time, so you train yourself on being productive every spare moment. While others are standing in line, you’re checking on the status of your new office. When others are listening to music while driving, you’re on a conference call. It’s a skill you’ve developed over time and it helps you keep ahead.
The dark side of this ability is that you’ve trained yourself — if there’s any gap in your schedule — to default to working. Because of this, if you don’t schedule your fun you’ll end up updating your website on Saturday nights, and sending business emails on Sunday mornings.

It might sound “un-spontaneous” or “not fun” to schedule recreation (common criticisms), but if you want to make sure your take a break — you better book that time. Also, there’s something therapeutic about having a packed daytime business itinerary and also a scheduled dinner with friends at the end of it.

No Guilt

Finally, let yourself off the hook a little. You are your most valuable resource, and like any other resource you need downtime and maintenance. Playing video games or reading gossip magazines, or whatever it is that you find frivolous or fun, is an important part of being productive.

These a few strategies I’ve found helpful for managing stress and finding balance. Strategies others (not me) have found helpful: yoga, meditation, specific diets, time in nature, music, limiting use of electronics, and there are many others. What stress-reducing techniques work for you?
These a few strategies I’ve found helpful for managing stress and finding balance. Strategies others (not me) have found helpful: yoga, meditation, specific diets, time in nature, music, limiting use of electronics, and there are many others. What stress-reducing techniques work for you?

[i] Dan McDade, founder and president of PointClear

[ii] Cheri D. Mah, ; Kenneth E. Mah, ; Eric J. Kezirian,; William C. Dement, (2011).
The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players, Sleep. VOLUME 34, ISSUE 07

[iii] Blanchette, D. M., Ramocki, S. P., O’del, J.N., and Casey, M. S. (2005). Aerobic Exercise and Cognitive Creativity: Immediate and Residual Effects, Creativity Research Journal, 17(2&3), 257-264.