Quick Takes:

  • Life is filled with stressful situations
  • Some stress is low-level and easy to combat, other types of stressors are life-altering
  • However, it’s easy to deal with stress, as long as it’s attacked methodically
  • Work the problem to reduce the stress

Life is stressful, is it not? Ah, it feels good to write that. A lot of times we try to be martyrs, no? We bite off more than we can chew and bear it like a badge of pride, hiding our stress underneath a layer of alcohol, weed, TV, and sugar. But our stress remains, regardless of how thick a layer we apply.

In fact, we might always be stressed, in every situation. It really comes down to our physiological makeup. Fight or flight, right? Well, we’ve constructed a society around ourselves that irritates that evolutionary mechanism so that we’re always in a constant state of low-level stress, and then, when shit really hits the fan, our stress levels spike up to mammoth levels.

Now, the reduction of that low-level stress is possible, through meditation, gratitude, community, and general mindfulness, but that’s not what this article is about. If you want to learn about the power of presence, check out this article, or, even better, check out The Power of Now, by Echart Tolle.

But no, this won’t be addressed here. What I’m more interested in are those spikes, those acute stressors that can throw our lives into a tailspin. You know the feeling of this stress, the slight depression when you wake up, wishing that it was already 5 o’clock, grumbling to yourself as you get into the shower, “is it only Tuesday??”

The kind of stress that won’t let you sleep at night. The kind of stress that wakes you up at 2am, disoriented, thinking that you forgot to do something, only to realize it isn’t any one thing at all, but your entire life situation that’s throwing you off.

In essence, its the type of stress that presents itself any time we make a life-altering decision, or don’t make one when we know we should. For readers of this blog, those of you who take life into your own hands, this type of stress can be an every day occurrence. But, like the ability to reduce low-level stress with mindfulness, there has to be a way we can combat this type of high stress, but how?

Work The Problem

When faced with a spike in acute stress, it’s normally due to a specific problem that has life-changing ramifications. The first step to reducing your stress is to identify that problem. It’s amazing how long people go without ever trying to identify the genesis of their stress, or lack thereof. How can we create a solution to a problem we don’t know we’re having?

High-level stress is a byproduct of a life that’s heading toward an unknown result that can end up in “massive” failure. Now, we know that failure is an event, but try telling that to your psyche. Our monkey minds project every potential pitfall into the future, and causes us to worry about the trajectory of our lives. So, in order to outsmart ourselves, we need to identify that acute worry, and then work to avoid it.

Reflecting on my life, starting a cash flow business is stressful. Starting any business is stressful, I’m convinced, but since I’ve only started companies of the cash flow variety, I’ll stick to what I know. Stepping out into the unknown to pursue business ownership full-time normally results in a reduction of income, sometimes to zero.

While my income wasn’t reduced all the way to nil (we did have a client or two from the very beginning), it was greatly reduced. Stressfully so. And then, as I’ve mentioned before, the business took a lot longer than we expected to gain traction. In fact, it’s still in the process of gaining traction, probably always will be. So, that meant that my income was taking a long time to increase to the level I used to earning as a corporate drone.

Which, let me tell you, was very stressful. It caused me to wonder if the company would ever work. It made me think I might have to leave San Francisco in search of a city with more reasonable cost of living. It forced me to second guess my passion for entrepreneurship; I didn’t want to be the guy who couldn’t afford to pay rent, while all his friends were putting down payments on houses.

But I knew deep down that I wasn’t cut out for the normal 9-to-5 lifestyle. I’d tried it. Didn’t like it. Sure, I could quit my whining and rejoin the corporate ranks, reapply my shackles, but even using terminology like “drone” and “shackles” affirmed my belief that business ownership was my path, however bumpy it might be.

So, what to do? I was faced with a real problem where I might run out of money before my business ever became successful. That problem caused a lot of stress. I knew, however, that the acute problem that was causing my high-level worry was my financial solvency.

Work Back From Z

When faced with a stress-inducing problem, it’s normally something that you’re worrying about in the future, i.e., will I be broke? If this is the case, it’s best to also clearly define your goal(s), along with your problem. Often, it’s the pursuit of the goals themselves that manifests the problem in the first place. Therefore, it’s important to know whether or not you’re heading down your intended path. If not, it might be possible to avoid the problem all together.

But be honest with yourself, for your sake. Don’t stop down your path just because there’s a boulder standing in your way. However, that doesn’t change the necessity to define your goal. Define your ideal life, really. What does it look like? What would make your life an absolute success, to you? Well, there are your goals.

Then arises the problems. The first problem is mustering the courage to actually pursue your goals and write your own script, but really, that’s easy, and let’s assume we’ve passed that paradigm. So, as you journey down your intended path, you’ll surely face pitfalls, problems that were unseen from your starting perspective.

What are those problems? Define them. Start thinking of them as situations or puzzles to be solved. Some will be small and easily circumnavigated. Others will be large, and present themselves as single points of failure on your journey.

For me, the easy problems were things like: I don’t know how to make a sales call, or, I miss having coworkers. Simple solutions. All I had to do was rent a coworking space, make more sales calls, sprinkle in a little time and a little common sense, and voila!

Hard problems, however, were much…well, harder. Like, how will my company ever be successful? How can I afford to live in San Francisco? Potentially life-altering problems.

But, problems, no matter the size, by definition, have solutions. All you have to do is find that solution.

Taking my example again, I was worried that my financial runway would diminish before our company became solvent. The situation consisted of two problems: how can I extend my runway to give myself more time, one, and two, what steps do I need to take in order to build a successful company?

The first was easier to solve than suspected. I write finance articles for Investopedia on the side, paid, and if I treated it more like a side job, I could supplement my income fairly well. While I couldn’t focus on it for hours (my number one goal was still to run a successful company), the side job, coupled with my savings, investments, and retirement, gave me a runway of one year, assuming I worked on my company as my full time job.

That’s also assuming my company made zero dollars. Hey, I was preparing for the worst. But, given my belief in myself, I knew that the one year estimate was very conservative, which, as a finance guy by trade, makes sense.

So I was able to solve the first problem in that I had a year to figure out the second problem, which would naturally solve the first problem. Next order of business, then: how to build a solvent company? well, I started at point Z (one year in the future, when I will have zero dollars), and mapped my way back to present.

Compounding Results

I figured out very early on, that what I was doing to build my company was working, the only issue was that the sales cycle was taking longer than expected. But as long as the sales cycle is less than a year (which it was), and I can sign more than one client (which I could), than I’d have a successful business and also an “infinite” financial runway prior to running out of money.

Which meant I had to keep making those sales calls, keep getting rejected, keep learning, have better sales calls, sign clients, and then deliver the value. Which meant I had to wake up every day and put in the work, believing I was either heading down the right path, or that I was perceptive enough to see a good pivot when it presented itself.

One year, huh? I can do that. I can figure it out.

Do I admit that at the time I didn’t really solve the problem? Yeah, I guess so. I had given myself an end date and a roadmap, but not an instant solution. But did it reduce my stress and make me feel in control? You bet your ass it did.

So, when faced with a high-level worry, figure out the problem, define your constraints, and work your way back from the upper bound of that constraint. What can you do today, that will give you a jump start on tomorrow, that will make you more successful on that third day, so that one year from now, you’ll have the goal you desire?

Puzzles are never stressful.