Awhile back, I took my team offsite to the Wanderlust Yoga Festival in Lake Tahoe—an opportunity to walk my own talk about how rest can interrupt the intense demands we place on ourselves, clicking us back into our natural state of flow, creativity and productivity.
We left straight from the office one afternoon after an intense group work session. At one point during the session, I’d gone over to the whiteboard to add my thoughts. I turned around and realized that the rest of the team members’ eyes had grown big and their brows had furrowed.
They had absolutely zero idea what I’d written. Except for one woman, with whom I had worked with for years. She took over, erasing my scrawl and rewriting it legibly, all the while explaining to the group’s laughter that she even has a pet name for my handwriting: “Tara-glyphs.”
We got a good laugh out of it, wrapped up the session and trucked up to Tahoe. Except for two group meals together, the festival was everyone’s playground for two days of rest and recharge.
I went to yoga, meditation and writing workshops. I stopped checking email. I sat down and just talked with my team. And we ate. And we slept the sleep of the tired tech team in Tahoe: dark, silent, deep and dreamy.
At the end of day two, something weird happened. I went to sign up for the meditation/yoga workshop leader’s email list. As I did, I watched my hand move across the page, almost as though it was someone else’s. Perfectly neat, round, fluid script came from my fingers, with no effort to make it so. I watched in amazement. For years, I’d believed that decades of an only typing lifestyle had simply destroyed my handwriting.
Apparently I was wrong.
What I realized in that moment was that I’d been missing something, despite my best efforts to manage my body and my mind with quality food, fitness, relationships and recreation. I’d forgotten to down-regulate my nervous system. And I’d more or less accidentally done this after just four or five hours of yoga and meditation, an evening of deliciously deep sleep in a place so beautifully dark and quiet, and the company of people I love to work and play with.
Our ability to create, lead and innovate while living in joy and fun all depend on our nervous systems.
The entrepreneurial life is a delicious one. But it places intense loads on the nervous system, many beyond what we even realize consciously. Our ability to create, lead and innovate while living in joy and fun all depend on our nervous systems.
Our nervous systems need to be deeply tuned-up on occasion—not just worked, wringed out and released. Here’s how you can do just that.
1. Practice taking in the good.
Psychologist Rick Hanson talks about how our brains are wired to take in the bad, as a matter of evolutionary defense. This can cause us to perceive daily stresses with the same fear as we would life-threatening situations. We live constantly on high alert. Hanson advises intentionally stopping and encoding our bodies and brains with the pleasurable feelings of happy, calm, relaxing moments as they arise in the course of daily life. This practice of taking in the good brings down our resting levels of nervous system arousal and cultivates a mindful, fear-free experience.
2. Wrap the uncomfortable areas of your life in a cashmere blankie.
This is my way of explaining why I invest so much of my time and money in restorative experiences. When I’m working, I go very, very hard, and am constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone. So I stack my precious spare time with long walks and fun workouts, beautiful dinners with friends, cozy movie nights at home, spa days, wellness and writing retreats, and trips to gorgeous places. My home is very comfortable, and I choose clothes and shoes that are both beautiful and very comfortable. Cashmere ranks high. I need to be comfortable with productive, expansive discomfort at work. So I stack the rest of my life in comfort, where possible.
3. Create a restorative morning and evening routine.
Get intentional about how you start and end your day. Learn about the practices that other creative people and great role models of productivity found helpful, and experiment with a routine that works for you. Don’t fight it, because you want to stay in bed or you don’t feel like breaking your unhealthy habits (e.g., face on the phone, checking email at 2 a.m., etc.). Accept the reality that screen-staring is damaging to your sleep and energy. Personally, I wake up early, read something powerful, pray and meditate, then walk my dogs and do Morning Pages, a daily freewriting practice. It takes time, of course. But by 9 a.m., my most-prized tool (my brain) is primed and ready. And by 9 p.m., I’m done with screen time most days, doing another leisurely dog walk and preparing for a good night’s sleep.
4. Explore therapy or coaching.
We all have old emotional wounds, triggers, ancient wrongs and blocks we could stand to work through and let go of. It’s amazing how much these things collectively contribute to a high-running state of arousal, even when we’re at rest. Investing in therapy made me a better person and a better mother, but it was extraordinary the level of unintended impact it had on my work life. I’m a substantially calmer, more conscious leader, and the fun I have in every single area of my life is way up.
5. Eliminate the frictions of unnecessary decisions and “switching costs.”
This is why Steve Jobs wore a uniform: Even the tiniest decisions you make “cost,” in the form of a little energy drain, a little friction on the nervous system. If you can eliminate the need to make small or inconsequential decisions, you’ll add energy back into the system. I have my own version of a work uniform: A-line dress, cashmere cardigan, metallic sandals. Period. I have healthy meals delivered by a service. My friend Heather Fernandez, a board member at Atlassian and The Boardlist, used to have a practice of just asking any team member who was heading out to lunch to bring something back for her. And here’s the kicker: She was always happy, no matter what they brought back.
6. Seek out places where you can create margin, every day.
In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson meticulously makes the case that most of us run on empty, most of our lives. He advises getting intentional about creating margins of unobligated resources in our calendars and bank accounts. No matter how impossible you think this is, it is not. It is excruciatingly powerful. I’ve gotten religious about Sundays off for church and family, and about holding certain days meeting-free, just to allow for the nervous system unfurling and resulting creativity that happens in the margins.