Written for EO by Megan Hottman. Megan, also known at The Cyclist Lawyer, formed her own law practice in 2010 at age 29. As part of her life’s mission to help lawyers and entrepreneurs become healthier and happier people who take care of themselves and remain fully optimized, Megan recently launched her latest venture, TrialAthlete.com. Megan recently shared this essay with Octane. The story of how she rebuilt her health after a complete burnout can guide any entrepreneur who wishes to optimize their performance.
“Megan, your fasting morning cortisol is 27.3! This means when you wake up, you’re in fight-or-flight mode. You start your day in distress. It is no wonder you’ve been experiencing overwhelming sugar cravings, unbelievable mental and physical fatigue, and that in the evenings, you feel ‘tired but wired’ … Something has to go,” she says. “You cannot continue burning the candle at eight ends as you’ve been doing… Your health will suffer if you keep up this way. The bottom line: You need to cut back or some day in the future, you’ll just be out of steam. You’ll bottom out.”
At the time my doctor was telling me this, I was carrying the considerable stress of an entrepreneur and lawyer and logging serious (and strenuous) mileage on my bike. The result? I’d put myself in one big hole: Adrenal fatigue. Burnout. Call it what you want, but it wasn’t pretty.
For reference, cortisol is responsible for a number of important physiological processes—most notably your body’s ability to cope with stress. Normal results for a blood sample taken at 8 a.m. range between 6 and 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Mine was topping out at a whopping 27.3!
My doctor’s admonition settled on my heavy heart. I physically felt what she was describing. I felt in fight-or-flight mode much of my day. I felt my racing heart rate, stomach distress, and insatiable appetite. I felt un-rested despite being in bed eight hours on most nights. I felt the burdens of too many demands, not enough time, not enough back-up, always chasing, no reprieve—all this despite the fact that I made time for myself with exercise and daily walks.
I felt my body and brain struggling in a fog. I felt nauseous. I experienced overwhelming cravings for sugar—my body’s attempt to feed the stress beast—and the more sugar I ate, the more I craved.
I was running my law practice as I launched another business, sold and purchased real estate, changed insurance companies, refinanced a commercial real estate loan into a better loan and much more. I was also training hard, getting fit.
There were so many ideas, thoughts, inspirations I had in my life! The entrepreneurial and trial attorney fires inside me burned hot and bright! But. It was too much.
Too many good things—when they all stack up–can be a very bad thing.
This was my wake-up call, and it inspired a complete and thorough examination and overhaul of my habits—from how I sleep and eat to how I schedule my day and connect with others. Let my transformation teach you how to optimize your performance, and boost your mental acuity and physical stamina!
SEEK MEDICAL GUIDANCE
My blood work, as it turns out, had shown signs of trouble for the past eight years. My primary care physician never raised these issues. I connected with a local functional medicine doctor who made it her mission to dig into my symptoms and my blood work to figure out what was going on.
Based on my symptoms, she suspected celiac disease or an autoimmune disorder. She ordered blood work and while that was being processed, she dug into my medical history—mold exposure (yes, as a child), toxins (none that I knew of), fillings in my mouth that may be corroded (no, thankfully), recurring illnesses (strep throat, any time I’m stressed), ongoing nasal drip (yes, runny nose recently), and on and on.
When the blood work came back, we learned some key things:
- I was B12 deficient.
- I was vitamin D deficient.
- I am allergic to hazelnut (and, wouldn’t you know, I’d recently given up dairy and had switched to … hazelnut almond milk creamer!). The doctor said that this was the cause my ongoing running nose.
- I was extremely low in other hormones, which were affecting my energy and overall mental acuity.
Following this revelatory assessment, I experienced immediate positive results by starting B12 injections, vitamin D supplements, and adrenal support supplements. Next, I began experimenting in earnest with four areas of my life: morning routine, food, sleep, and what I call the catch-all category—such as life without alcohol, much less sugar, etc.
Here is a summary of the changes I recommend after much reading, hours of watching documentaries and considerable consultation with professionals! (Pssst…. I promise. Your future self will thank you!)
DRINK MORE WATER
Let’s start with something really simple. For the next month, I want you—immediately upon waking in the morning—to slam 8 to 16 ounces of water. Cold, room temperature, with a lemon, without a lemon, filtered, tap—I don’t care. Put a bottle by your bed, by your bathroom sink, or next to your phone. Just do this; don’t over think it.
What’s the why?
- You dehydrate as you sleep. Many of us start the day with coffee, which further dehydrates our bodies.
- Dehydration causes diminished mental clarity and capacity. Good hydration wakes up your brain! We need this muscle firing on all cylinders to feel, think and perform our best!
There are many formulas out there to help you calculate your individual water needs. But honestly, we all just need to drink more of it! The litmus test? The color of your urine should be a light, faint yellow. Not the color of apple cider color. If it’s bright yellow or verging on brown, you are not drinking enough water. And remember, if you are thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
My hard and fast routine: I wake up. The first thing I do is feed my dogs. While they’re eating, I slam my water and fire up my espresso machine, which will be ready to go when I return from our daily brisk walk. My walk is my morning meditation and sunlight exposure, and it’s an opportunity to prep for the day. I do this the same way every morning. Routines make life easier.
This is another relatively easy—and (mostly) free! —change to make, if you’re willing to discipline yourself.
For the entrepreneur who wants to crush the day, getting quality sleep is non-negotiable. We know that the recommended gold standard is seven to eight hours of sleep per night, but there are some folks who thrive with fewer. There are also folks who truly and sincerely need more—perhaps closer to nine hours.
Next time you’re away from work and without your alarm clock, consider when you fall asleep and wake up naturally. What are your own rhythms or cycles? When do you feel alert and when do you feel groggy?
First, let’s talk about tracking your sleep. I highly recommend that you invest in a device that accurately tracks sleep. Wearables (Fitbits, for example) often include this function. There are also sensors to track sleep that can be placed on your bed, under your pillow, or under your mattress. Choose a device that you believe will be accurate and a method that you will realistically follow.
I own a Garmin Fenix5 watch, which tracks and logs all of my swims, bikes, runs, walks, yoga and steps, as well as sleep. I’m absolutely committed to wearing it at night, without fail. It syncs via Bluetooth to my phone and to the Garmin Connect app. My sleep data is available for me to review, as often or as seldom as I feel like checking it.
Fairly consistently, I get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. About half of those hours are deep sleep, while the other half register as light sleep. For the nights my sleep is poor, I have the opportunity to examine why.
Why is tracking your sleep important? Well, to make improvements, you need to know where you’re starting. Plus, data is likely to reveal patterns that you may not be aware of. Objective metrics don’t lie.
Athletes track their training and sleeping in conjunction with one another and often find a correlation between their tougher training days and their sleep. You might think that exhaustion from a hard day would lead to a deep sleep, but in fact the opposite can be true: High intensity or high stress—and therefore, high cortisol—can cause garbage sleep. Other factors, such as alcohol or high glycemic index carbs (sugar) right before bed, can too.
As an athlete in the entrepreneurial arena, don’t you want to know what your sleep looks like? And how to improve it? Of course you do. Getting a good night’s sleep is free and much easier than meeting a personal trainer at the gym at 5 a.m.
So let’s get this sorted out:
- Check out your bedroom temperature. Can you cool it down? Studies show we sleep more soundly in cooler rooms.
- Assess the light. Can you install blackout curtains over your windows and shut the doors? And, for goodness sake, stop sleeping with the TV on!
- How about noise? If background noises are bothering you, consider a fan or earplugs—something to drown out the disruptions and provide your senses a rest.
- Reconsider your view of sleep. Are you that person who just keeps finding “one more thing” to do at night? Who sees less sleep as a way of getting more done? Who pooh-poohs sleep by saying things like, “there’s plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead.” This is not how an athlete views sleep. Sleep is when recovery happens. It’s when the body releases HgH and rebuilds itself from the damaging effects of training or competition. It rebuilds STRONGER than it was, if it’s given the opportunity to properly rest and sleep. Your body is actually very busy at night. It’s taking care of business and setting you up for the best possible tomorrow—provided, however, that you allow it a good sleep.
- Stop the screen time well before bedtime. Wind down with a book in bed or even your notes for trial tomorrow, but put the phones, computers, and tablets away—FAR away. Do not leave your phone on your nightstand overnight. Even its mere presence can elevate your heart rate! So, imagine how the lights, beeps, buzzes and alerts coming from the phone will disturb your sleep over and over again throughout the night.
What’s the why?
- Studies show that melatonin, the chemical our bodies release at bedtime telling us it’s time to sleep, is actually suppressed in the presence of glowing screens. The blue light from digital screens tells your body it’s time to wake up and melatonin is not released or its release is delayed (ahem, grogginess in the morning?).
- How do you feel after reading that one doggone snarky email or off-putting Facebook post? You might feel a surge of anger or a rush of your heart rate and voila no sleep for you anytime soon!
Opt for printed books or papers to read. Keep it light—perhaps nothing to do with work or any topic that are stressful. Allow yourself every opportunity to wind down WELL at night and to set yourself up for the best sleep you can possibly experience.
My hard and fast rule is no screen time after 9 pm. This gives me 60 to 90 minutes to read a book, tidy up or just relax before bedtime. If I need to work, I review printed paper, not a computer screen.
FUEL UP THE RIGHT WAY
Your food choices have a significant impact on how well your brain functions. As a trial attorney, my brain needs all the proper fuel it can get to function at its optimal performance capacity. Simply put, these are my top rules for nutrition:
- Minimize sugar.
- Limit gluten.
- Reduce dairy.
- Limit items that come in wrappers or boxes.
- Increase whole fruits and vegetables, as well as plant-based protein.
- Consider giving up alcohol for a period of time to see how it affects your productivity.
I have noticed an insane difference in my moods, energy and mental acuity since I got off sugar. My capacity and bandwidth has expanded since I quit alcohol. My stomach and body feel so much better—leaner, lighter, and more efficient–since quitting dairy and scaling way back on meat. If you want to food-hack your way to being even more awesome, these are steps you must try for yourself.
My hard and fast rule: If I don’t buy it at the store, if it never makes its way into my home, fridge, or cupboards, I won’t eat it. For me, willpower begins at the store. Don’t buy sugar. Don’t bring it home.
RECIPE FOR FULL OPTIMIZATION
I encourage you to make a list of the five to six things that help you feel fully-optimized.
Here’s my personal recipe, which may help you get started.
In a nutshell: Take notice on the days you feel absolutely ON POINT. Your morning was awesome, you remember people’s names, you can recall case citations, your relationship with loved ones, coworkers, and staff is positive, and you feel like you are sending your positive energy back out into the world.
Alternatively, you could approach this from the opposite end of the spectrum: On a day when you are lethargic, short-tempered, harsh, coarse, frustrated, or angry—what happened or what didn’t happen?
Compare and contrast your best and worst days to create your own Recipe for Full-Optimization. Use this list as your filter through which you assess your workload, your extra-curricular commitments, and your personal to-do list.
Reviewing my recipe has brought me back from the brink of burnout and guided me toward keeping the right number of good things in my life.
STAY IN CONTROL
We are in control of our lives and, therefore, we are in control of our circumstances and the situations that can lead to burnout. “If you don’t like how things are, change it! You are not a tree,” said the American entrepreneur Jim Rohn. And, after all, isn’t this the reason we became entrepreneurs?
Regaining control reinvigorates us. Focus on doing the best work we can do in the best way we can, by taking care of our human self. And just watch what happens. Just watch the energy you can bring to everything you touch. Intentionality. Protection of time and energy. Investment in your recipe. Go forth and crush it.
Megan Hottman has raced three Ironman Triathlons and won state and national championships on her bike—all while running a successful practice. She’s also known to lead circuit-training classes in the lobby of legal conferences to reinvigorate participants. Megan is an EO Colorado member who joined the organization in 2018.
Want to know what it’s like to be an EO member? Here’s what members have to say about how EO has changed their lives.