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This is a guest post by Steve Costello, head of membership and co-founder of The Oracles, a mastermind group composed of the world’s leading entrepreneurs.
In 2006, 30-year-old self-confessed “know-it-all” Craig Ballantyne checked into the emergency room of Toronto General Hospital with “heart attack” symptoms — twice.
In reality, the hard-charging entrepreneur was suffering debilitating anxiety attacks triggered by his lifestyle: 12-hour workdays with no boundaries or structure, and partying until 3 a.m. several nights a week.
More than 40 million people suffer from some type of anxiety. “You’re confused, overwhelmed, reactive, and operating at 60 percent capacity, at best,” says Ballantyne. “But if you have the right tools, you’ll be okay — and be back to 100 percent as fast as humanly possible.”
In his book “Unstoppable,” Ballantyne outlines coping strategies to beat anxiety and become a consistently high performer. Here are 12 of them.
1. Identify areas of misalignment.
Avoid “comparison syndrome,” when you believe you need to follow what others do, especially if it’s misaligned with your values.
Ballantyne learned this the hard way, losing over $250,000. At the time, his business focused on health and fitness. Many of his competitors offered free cookbooks to customers for a small shipping and handling fee; so he partnered with a chef and hired five people to produce a book. It took him 12 months to realize the project wasn’t aligned with his values, mission, and goals (he didn’t even like cooking!). “I cut my losses and laid off five people in one day. It was the worst day of my career,” recalls Ballantyne.
Positive reinforcement can also cause misalignment. “Your peers may join in your binge drinking or praise the long hours you put in at work,” he says. “But those behaviors are pulling you away from higher priorities — such as dating or having a family.”
2. Audit your anxiety triggers.
Ballantyne recommends making a list of all the people in your life and next to each name putting a positive mark if the person reduces your anxiety, or a negative mark if the person increases it. Then list the 10 people you spend the most time with alongside your top five goals and values. Are the lists congruent?
“My business partner, Bedros Keuilian, has nearly 100 blocked numbers on his phone,” says Ballantyne. “That may sound harsh, but the result is he doesn’t lose precious minutes dealing with ‘energy vampires,’ negative people, and gossips.
“Un-follow, de-friend, mute, or block any negative influence on social media,” he adds.
3. Structure your day.
Ballantyne says that entrepreneurs crave freedom, but having complete autonomy can lead to bad time-management decisions that add to your stress.
“Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day, seven days a week,” says Ballantyne. “And never hit the snooze button. As my friend Bedros says, when you choose to snooze, you’re telling your hopes and dreams that they can wait.
“Next, read or listen to something positive. Then get stuff done (GSD) on your most important task (MIT) before even looking at email or social media. If you focus on other people’s urgent requests or ‘emergencies,’ you will never achieve your own goals.
“After a productive day, plan your next day. Begin with a 10-minute brain dump, prioritizing everything from most to least important. Remember: if you’re making a to-do list in the morning, you’re already too late!”
4. Have daily introspection.
“Self-reflection is one of the best tools to identify ‘cause and effect’ connections between your behaviors and problems,” says Ballantyne.
“One hour before bed, review your day. Ask yourself, ‘Why was I so anxious?’ Maybe it was too much caffeine. Perhaps the glass of wine you drank the night before to ‘relax’ actually interrupted your sleep and made you wake up late. Maybe checking email or social media first thing threw you into a reactive mode and sucked one hour from your day.”
5. Breathe properly.
“When stressed, most people hunch over and take short, shallow breaths which resemble mild hyperventilation,” explains Ballantyne. “Instead, sit upright, breathe through your belly — in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds — then repeat. This technique will calm your body and mind in just one to three minutes.”
6. Practice gratitude.
“It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking your life is a failure because your friend’s business did $10 million last year while yours ‘only’ broke one million,” says Ballantyne.
Practicing gratitude helps you realize how much you really have, he adds. “Most of the things I’m grateful for are inexpensive — the gym, chocolate-covered almonds, my dog, Bally, who recently passed, and now my new dog, Daisy Mae.
“Start with being thankful for daily accomplishments, like closing a deal, writing 500 words of content, or finally having a difficult conversation. Soon, it will be easier to recognize all the positive things and people in your life.”
7. Take time to thank others.
Ballantyne sends cards to friends, family, and colleagues every day. He estimates it costs him over $1,000 a year in materials, writing time, and postage.
“As I put each card in the mailbox, I say ‘thank you’ out loud. Start with sending one card each week. This small habit might be the therapy missing from your life.”
“Hard-working entrepreneurs, especially those from humble beginnings, think they have to do everything themselves,” says Ballantyne.
“You can’t get rich doing $10-an-hour jobs like laundry, administrative tasks, and meal prep yourself. Make the short-term investment of hiring and training someone to help. You’re not living in the same era as your parents, who did everything themselves. You have permission to let go of the guilt and focus on what matters.”
9. Say no.
“Run opportunities through the filter of your values,” recommends Ballantyne. “For example, if your family is your top priority, set a boundary that you don’t work or travel for business on Sundays, or commit to a ‘device-free family day’ to be fully present with your loved ones.”
10. Clean up your diet.
“It’s scientifically proven: what you put in your body causes physiological effects that quickly change how you feel and perform,” states Ballantyne. “For example, caffeine is a stimulant which increases adrenaline, and subsequently anxiety. Alcohol can dehydrate you, and also increases anxiety.”
11. Get outside.
“Historical greats from Charles Darwin to Charles Dickens solved problems and created masterpieces while walking,” says Ballantyne. “Slow down, put away your phone, and take a walk in the sun. Your days will be transformed.”
12. Talk to someone.
“Avoid isolation at all costs,” warns Ballantyne. “Suffering in silence exacerbates anxiety; talking to someone eases your fears and calms you. I think everyone should also see a therapist. Something insignificant might be one hundred times more influential than you think.”
Bottom line: “Your choices and actions either move you closer to or further away from your goals,” says Ballantyne. “If you don’t know where to start, remember: Action Beats Anxiety. Motion Beats Meditation. Work Beats Worry.”
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