It is 3 am, I am lying in the dark after I woke up for no reason. I try to go back to sleep, but I cannot. I stare outside the window, not that I can see anything, it is pitch-black. And then it is starting: thought after thought, the spiral is slowly building. What if the meeting tomorrow does not go well? What if my supplier decides to suddenly disappear? What if nobody is interested in my content? What if the products do not come up to customer expectations? What if, what if, what if?
This beautiful negative thought spiral can go on and on, in my case sometimes for hours. Some people call it a domino effect, because it starts with one tiny thought which kicks off a whole line of thoughts which constantly become bigger and worse. Sometimes I feel that my thoughts do not just equal one line of dominos, it is “Domino Day”. Have you ever seen that show? It was a Dutch production and every year, they aimed at breaking the record in falling dominos. It was an entire event hall full of artworks made of the tiny stones. (I have linked a video here.) If you want to know what my domino-spiral can look like, watch that. It starts with a tiny thought – something like “I have to do XYZ tomorrow”. It can even be something completely unrelated to work. Nevertheless, it triggers this Domino Day in my head – the thoughts become worse, I try to find solutions for everything, immediately and all at once and I imagine dragons the size of mountains and try to come up with not only Plan A but also the rest of the alphabet on how to fight them.
Worrying – and unfortunately the related spiraling – is part of what we signed up when starting a business. It is perfectly normal to have anxiety or be scared sometimes – starting something on your own is a big risk. It is like walking into a dark cave armed with determination but not knowing what obstacles you will face: There may be a fork in your path – which branch should you choose? There might be a big rock blocking you from moving on, how to overcome it? You may have reached a dead-end and need to go back again and find another path. I think it would be delusional to say that entrepreneurs do not know what we sign up for. We do. It is just sometimes really hard and it is also a lonely battle that you have to fight – even if you have a team working for you, the big issues are up to you as the founder to solve.
So what to do when you spiral? I learned that just lying in bed and not doing anything does not help. I then just give in and let the negative thoughts do the rest. Similarly, being on the phone and scrolling through social media certainly does not help either. Sometimes, it just helps to take a breath and tell myself that nothing of this is worth losing my sleep over. I tell myself that it is in the middle of the night, I cannot do anything about it immediately, I have to go back to sleep and solve it tomorrow. This is a good case. But if I am already going down the spiral, I need something more effective to get me out of there.
I recently remembered Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advice: “Be useful”. His father used to say this to Arnold when he was a teenager in Austria. Whatever you do, you have to be useful today. Needless to say, Arnold grew up after the war and the end of the Nazi regime where drill and a certain way of being “useful” were demanded from everyone. Nevertheless, Arnold kept this advice and says in his documentary that if he is “useful” and his day is very busy and productive, he does not have time to think about negative things or have emotional thoughts to stop him. Hence, I tried the following: I noticed that I usually spiral when I am not busy – it happens at night, or when I take a day off, when I relax. This is not a surprise, because my brain finally has time off. When the spiral starts, I try to refocus. I do something “useful” – I reply to some emails, change something on my websites or social channels, I go on Pinterest and make moodboards for future designs. It does not have to be something overly complicated, I just need a trigger to reset my thoughts. Now you will probably think – well, that means she never takes off and always runs away from her thoughts by working. I thought the same before I tried it. But actually, I realized when I tried it that I did not need a long time, sometimes it is 10-15 minutes. Our brains work fast and I think we can get out of a spiral as fast as we can go down it. The spiral is similar to a migraine – if you catch it at the right time, it can go away as fast as it started.
This morning, I listened to a podcast run by an entrepreneur and she recommended having a list of wins from the past to exit the negative spiral. She compared it to having “to-do-lists”, just with positive reminders – successes with your business or if you just started out, successes from previous jobs such as promotions, praise from your boss, or something like that. She said she keeps that list on her desk or somewhere where she can see it every day to remind herself of how far she has come. According to her, when she focusses her energy on telling herself that she can do it, she does not spiral, because the spiral usually is something we make up about ourselves. Why should everything change suddenly? If you managed to create nice products before, why would you suddenly lose this capability? If you have successfully worked on projects, why do you doubt yourself right now? And so on. Maybe this is something I should try as well, it sounds logical and I love logic – more than an illogical and emotional spiral sending me down a dark rabbit hole.
What about you? Do you also spiral sometimes? And what do you do about it?