Several years ago, I started to hit the gym harder and train for greater muscle mass. I was powerlifting, enlarging my shoulders and especially my arms, and eating more and more, just to put on more muscle. I was getting in better shape – or so I thought — but for some reason, my body just didn’t feel good. I was constantly in pain, sore, and feeling like I was carrying heavy bags on my back (even though I wasn’t). The biggest blow came when I injured my lower back and had to go see several specialist doctors.
Ultimately, after a few diagnoses, a doctor told me something that has stuck with me for the past few years and made me much happier – mentally as well as physically. He said that while my exercises were building my “peripherals”, i.e. my arms, they were not strengthening my core, which had become at risk from all the heavy weights. The core muscles are in the neck, abdominals, lower back, and buttocks (the “glutes”). In short, while I was building up the parts on the outskirts of my body, I was ignoring and weakening the parts that were essential.
Core strengths for entrepreneurs
I’ve seen a similar phenomenon happen with the way that people live their lives — particularly entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs continually add more “weight” onto their lives, in the forms of more staff, more projects, and more small companies. At the same time, they increasingly ignore the core elements which have made them strong in the first place. When this happens, businesses start to spin out of control or just gradually lose steam.
So let’s look at these core “muscles” of the entrepreneur’s well-being:
- Health: I was once told that “The healthy man has a million wishes; the sick man has one”. Indeed, our health enables us to work, to build companies, and to enjoy life. Unfortunately, it is the thing that we are most likely to take for granted. Going through the day and eating one meal, sleeping for 4 hours, and getting little or no exercise means that you are ignoring your core health needs. There’s lots to say on what constitutes a healthy regimen for a busy person, but for now, a minimum of 6 hours sleep, at least two regular meals, and some form of walking or cardio three times a week are absolutely required.
- Being organized: As an entrepreneur, you don’t need to be reminded of the importance of efficiency and streamlining. But the Excel sheets and unanswered emails do pile up, even in our digital age. In some ways, our age is worse, as we don’t physically see how much of a backlog we have. So, strengthen your core by putting all of your spreadsheets in order, eliminating duplicates, getting back to people who didn’t seem immediately important, and dealing with any hiring (or firing) decisions. Take a morning or afternoon and delete all the computer files that you haven’t opened for a few years. Emails that are over 6 months old can be deleted or archived. If you have a messy desk, take an hour and make the desk bare except for your laptop, a pen, and a small notebook.
- Cordiality: No doubt that no matter how cutthroat and ruthless you can be, you also have good people skills — otherwise you wouldn’t have made it this far. In your devotion to building companies, the importance of giving people the time with you that they deserve may be slipping. Make sure to remind yourself how important it is to make each person you deal with — whether clients or staff — feel important and valued.
- Time management: This includes learning to say “No” to potential projects, simply because you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to manage them successfully. As with my weightlifting program, I had to take a step back and make sure that my body had regained its core strengths before moving on to heavier weight — otherwise, I was going to exacerbate the condition of my back. True, that thought of money being at the end of a tunnel is difficult to resist, but you need to guard against a mental and physical overload or the drawbacks will outweigh the benefits.
I saw the importance of core strengths and their revitalizing qualities when the last doctor told me to take a Pilates class. I didn’t know quite what to expect at first, but as the doc said it would be good for my core, I agreed.
It was a small class. After the first lesson, my instructor approached me with a stern look and said that I was “off-balance” and “stiff”. She was certainly right. My posture was bad, but worst of all, she said that I was “top-heavy” – that my core muscles, especially in the lower back and glutes, weren’t strong enough to support the upper body, where I’d spent all my time exercising and building.
Again, I saw a direct correlation to many of my entrepreneur friends, who spend such a great deal of time building and building, but who, in their pursuit of being in excellent financial “shape”, neglect their foundations.
I took my instructor’s advice, and devoted more time to my own physical foundations. I still went to the gym to build the “peripherals”, but since I only had a limited amount of time and energy, I decreased the weight training and often went to the Pilates classes instead. One aspect of the sessions that I really enjoyed was that strengthening my core created a feeling of “flow”, of the body and mind being in harmony. I’ll talk about “flow” in a future post, and will reference the book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, simply titled Flow, in case you want to get hold of it in the meantime. (Check out his TED lecture at http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en)
One step back, two steps forward
After a few weeks, my back had significantly healed, and overall I felt physically much better, without all the pain or soreness. And yes, I went back to lifting weights and found that despite not trying the heavy stuff for a few months, I was actually STRONGER and able to lift more — most importantly, without the pain and unpleasantness.
So, my advice to entrepreneurs who are starting to feel overwhelmed: Take a break from simply adding more weight onto your work life, and put yourself through a “Pilates” course by strengthening your core: health, organization, personal relationships, and time management. Sometimes you need to slow down for a short time in order to go faster!
–By Tom McKinley, author of Winning the Fight to Be Happy and Make the Right Decisions Early.
Facebook: Tom McKinley Self-Help