5 Ways to Fight a CEO Breakdown

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As a CEO, the list of people you serve and the commitments you have are seemingly endless. There is your team, your investors, your partners, your consumers, and of course your board. And since life isn’t all work, there is your family, your friends, and the broader community.

Most of us try and meet all those commitments, with admittedly varying degrees of success day in and day out, but we try. Where CEOs fail badly and consistently is with one person — themselves. I certainly did.

My time as CEO of Plum Organics was without question one of the most fulfilling and exhilarating periods in my life. We came out of nowhere to become the No. 1 organic baby food brand. We were changing how little ones ate, and with our B-Corp leanings, championing the idea that a company could do good business while doing good in the world.

And then in the midst of all that success, I had a wake-up call.

I was so focused on bringing the best, healthy food to kids, and building Plum to do it, I lost sight of my own health. Too much work, too much food and mega-dosing of caffeine, combined with not enough sleep, healthy food, or exercise almost vanquished me more than any competitor could.

One day when I looked in the mirror, the person I saw was a stranger to me. A visit to the doctor confirmed it.

I had been a hardcore triathlete. Now I was 50-pounds heavier than my usual race weight just 10 years prior, and living an unhealthy startup lifestyle was leading me to some serious and scary health issues. Something had to change or I was going to wind up in the hospital. And I know I’m not the only one who’s been there.

That wake-up call led me to make significant changes in how I take care of myself. It hasn’t happened outside of my role as CEO, but because of my role and responsibilities. It made me finally understand that I wasn’t going to do any company, or any person, any good, if I wasn’t in the shape to show up and perform to the best of my ability and my own expectations.

Fighting what I think of as a CEO breakdown isn’t negotiable. Without your health, as they say, you have nothing. The good news is…it isn’t as hard as you might think.

Here are five tips to combine your CEO role with better health.

  1. Do a situation assessment (on yourself). I did, it inspired me to start a personalized nutrition company called Habit. Here’s what I learned along the way: know what you are personally dealing with from a health perspective. That could be as simple as finally getting a routine physical or going deeper with genetic and biological testing. There are a lot of personalized wellness, health, and food companies coming online that disrupt the notion that one-size-fits all when it comes to our health. Plug into one of them, and get smart now.
  2. Take your decision-making out of the process. Make a plan for regular exercise like you would for any other plan at your company. I now workout six days a week, always at 6:30 a.m. — come hell or high water. Even at 6:15 a.m. when my warm bed is the last place I want to leave for a cold gym. It’s on my calendar and it’s part of my job, so I do it without question.
  3. Work for health. You need to engineer a workplace that makes you (and everyone else on your team) healthier because you are showing up for work every day. This means having healthy food available, whether snacks or entire meals. Set aside space for people to exercise — that could be a full-blown gym or yoga studio, or a bootcamp workout on the sidewalk. You also need to give people the time and permission to do it, and you need to model it for your company. Your participation is your employees’ permission to opt in, so throw on the sneakers, get sweaty, and have fun.
  4. Reward yourself from time to time. This is something my wellness coach talks to me about frequently. Running a company can feel like an ongoing battle without respite, and so can a hardcore health regime. That’s why you need to give yourself a break occasionally. After an especially hard day, week or month, treat yourself to something. For me it might be a glass of good scotch. For others it’s a massage, or an especially indulgent meal. But approach with moderation in mind. This is about restoring yourself, not breaking yourself down further.
  5. Sleep. Along with eating healthy food and exercising, sleep is the key to health. Multiple studies have shown that anything less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep (for adults) over time results in impaired function and focus. But most CEOs have business on the brain, even in the wee hours of the morning. To increase your odds of a good night’s try these three things: 1. Stick to a sleep schedule. 2. Develop a nightly bedtime ritual that helps you relax. 3. Turn off the phone and the tablet. When all else fails me, I pop a melatonin. It works for me, but I’ll admit I’m still cracking the code on consistent sleep for myself. I’ll go into some depth on solutions for sleep in another column.

This time around, I am doing it differently. I started training for the race that is leading a company a year before our launch. This time around I have more energy for the long days and late nights. This time around I have more mental strength for the highs and lows of the business. This time around my health won’t take a backseat to the health of the company.

Ultimately, better health makes you a better leader. And that, of course, is the whole point.