Awhile back, I took my team to an offsite at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival in Lake Tahoe. They had been going super hard in challenging circumstances, so it was very well-deserved. It was also an opportunity to walk my own talk about how rest can interrupt the intense demands we place 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 white board 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 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 the session, and trucked up to Tahoe. There were only 3 rules for this offsite:
- We had a farm-to-table dinner as a group, and a lunch the following day.
- We’d all check in with each other via text throughout the weekend.
- The festival is your playground. Get after it.
That’s it. I was more focused on creating a no-pressure two-day cocoon of rest and recharge than on trying to get substantive work done on the trip. The teammate who wanted to do 7 hours of workshops and a hike before dinner could do that. (And she did.) And the one who wanted to lie by the pool for 7 hours before dinner could do that. (And she did, too.)
I myself went to a yoga workshop, a meditation and writing workshop one day. I stopped checking email. I sat down and just talked with my team. We talked about life and love and work and play. And we ate. Then we ate some more. And we slept the sleep of the tired tech team in Tahoe: dark, silent, deep and dreamy. The next day, I went to another two yoga and meditation workshops.
At the end of day two, something really weird happened. I went to sign up for the meditation/yoga workshop leader’s email list. And as I did so, I watched my hand move across the page, almost as though it was someone else’s. Perfectly neat, round, fluid script came off of my fingertips, with no effort to make it so. I watched in amazement. For years, I’d believed that decades of an all-typing, all-the-time 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 of my nervous system. And I’d more or less accidentally done this after just 4 or 5 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.
As my hand moved with precision and flow, without my conscious bidding, I realized that my ability to create, lead and innovate while living in joy and fun all depend on my nervous system. Our nervous systems need to be deeply tuned-up on occasion—not just worked and wringed out and released.
The entrepreneurial life is a delicious one. But it places intense loads on the nervous system, many beyond what we even realize consciously. We are on all the time – ruthlessly focused. Ruthlessly engaged. We have to make fast, hard decisions and engage in intense, hard conversations, all the time. We have to create, to innovate, to compete. We have to switch contexts constantly, addressing issues from accounting to research to leadership to product design to marketing, all in a day.
Sometimes all in a meeting.
I proceeded to write about 5,000 words in the following few hours. And I wrote maybe 15,000 words in the couple of days thereafter. Down-regulating your nervous system is not optional fun thing to do: it’s necessary, especially if you want to live out to the edges of your possibilities.
Here’s how you can do just that:
- 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, with the result that we live on high alert. Hanson advises adopting a practice he calls “taking in the good,” 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.
To take in the good, Hanson says we must do these 3 steps:
1. “Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences” – look for at least 6 positive facts or experiences a day, either on the fly, as they come about or during reflection, like right before bed.
2. “Really enjoy the experience” – sit with the sensation that each of these 6 good experiences is filling up your body, for at least 20 or 30 seconds in a row.
3. “Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you” – Hanson provides a few vivid visuals to imagine, like the feeling of the good experience is spreading through your chest like the warmth of a cup of cocoa, as you drink it.
- 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.
- 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 feel powerless against the pull of checking your Facebook feed at 2 am. Accept the reality that screen-staring is damaging to your sleep and your energy.
Personally, I wake up early, read something powerful, pray and meditate, then walk my dogs and do Morning Pages, a daily free-writing practice. It takes time, definitely. But by 9 am my most-prized tool (my brain) is primed and ready. I’ve already used my writing as an emotional windshield wiper, and I’m eager to start the day.
- 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 mate, 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.
- Deal with your substance abuse issues. I’m talking about caffeine. Some people can drink coffee all day and night, with no problem. I am not one of those people. At one point, my nervous system had a real-talk intervention with m. Every day, I was 6 shots of espresso in, on fire, full of ideas and in love with life, by 10 am. Then around 1 pm, I was curled in the fetal position under my standing desk.
So I stopped coffee. I lost that faux spike of energy, but now I’m good to go all day. And I do drink the easier-to-handle caffeine in green tea. I also have found adaptogens like Chaga mushroom extract and MCT oil to help support a creative, high-energy brain in a more sustainable, less crashy way.
If you have this same reaction to coffee, don’t fight it. Dare to be different. Give it up, if it’s not working for you.
- 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.
My friend Heather Fernandez, Founder of Solv. Health and Board Member at Atlassian, used to have a practice of 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.
- 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 un-obligated 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.