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A high-intensity, high-performance career* will keep you up at night.

Illustration called "planetary brain," created by Flickr user Adrian Kenyon and shared under the creative commons license.

It’s great to have an active mind — but sometimes we need to train it how to quiet down. (Illustration called “planetary brain,” created by Flickr user Adrian Kenyon and shared under the creative commons license.)

My mind is not the sort that can just shut off at will. Also, I’ve always been in careers that are mentally intense and involve producing work for public critique and consumption.

As a business reporter, when my head hit the pillow at night, my mind would race over the details of my article that would be on the front page of the newspaper the next day. Every single detail had to be accurate — from name spellings to calculations to quotes — and mistakes meant public embarrassment plus career-destroying printed corrections.

As a stock analyst — particularly during the quarterly earnings seasons — I would finish my work and I had a mere four to six hours to sleep before I had to wake up and sell my research to Wall Street. This means that I would finalize updating a complicated Excel model, write a report, paste in my financial tables, and file the report electronically before going to bed. There often wasn’t transition time between “working” and “not working” — no time for a glass of wine. So then, I’d find myself laying in bed with numbers dancing in my head. I wondered where I could be wrong, which fact I might have missed that could embarrass me in front of clients the next day. My mind was a jumble of data points — revenue trajectory, gross margins, currency fluctuations, tax rate, execution risks, management’s body language, investor expectations, where the stock trended in the after-market. Hours of brilliant work on a deadline would be useless if I misplaced one decimal point in a spreadsheet of tens of thousands of cells.

When I spoke with investors about my stock calls, I would say, “Here’s what keeps me up at night,” and I wasn’t speaking in metaphor — the job truly kept me up at night!

Caring about the work you do is an innate strength. Knowing how to turn it off is a learned skill.

Ok. So. Taking my work less seriously was never an option. So how does one sleep with all that?

Because my brain would not stop on its own, I had to give it something else to do.

These two things always worked for me. These are my personal versions of counting sheep.

One. The fisherman. I imagine a small boat floating above my head. A friendly fisherman casts his net into my brain and scoops out all the thoughts. Sometimes, it takes two or three scoops to get them all. But when he’s done, my mind is clear and I don’t remember what happens after that, as I am in dreamland!

Two. Kickball. Remember those red kickballs we played with as kids? You’d kick the ball and it would make a satisfying boink! and go flying? Well, in my mind’s eye, I place myself in my own small yard. The fence around the yard is high and I am standing in lush green grass. The goal is to keep the grass clear. As thoughts come in over the fence, I run over and kick them out.

The kickball mind trick is particularly helpful if someone else’s unkindness toward you keeps replaying in your head. Turn those mean words into a kickball and boot it out of your zen yard! Boink! Boink! Boink! Sometimes two or three balls would come in at a time, and I’d kick those suckers right back out.

You probably have tips to share, too! At the end of an intense day, how do you turn it off? What techniques do you use?

*Parenting too. It is intense and it counts. It counts. It counts. It counts.

 

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