It was my first startup. I was 18 and we had just raised our first real financing round — $250,000 from a local angel group. A lot was riding on us, even though the scale seems minuscule in hindsight.
We had just upgraded from a basement to an actual office, and we were on top of the world. Numbers were rising and the team was growing, it felt like we were invincible. We were pushing hard, but it didn’t feel that way. We were fueled by constant adrenaline from the latest press hit and the signing of a big new customer. We didn’t need a break, we felt great. Better than great.
After the highest highs, the good times started to fade. We began burning a lot of cash and couldn’t stay on the path we were headed. The days got longer and the adrenaline bumps were few and far between. A fresh Red Bull only got us so far. The only way out was to push even harder, so we did. We were all topping 80 hour weeks. It just wasn’t sustainable.
Eventually, I burnt out. Hard.
I remember coming home and curling up into a ball. I was so emotionally and physically exhausted, I couldn’t even move. My productivity was cut to nothing. The next day at the office, I found myself just staring into my computer, for hours. No movement, just staring.
I was shot.
It was a terrible feeling that took me months to shake out of. I guess I was a victim of my own immaturity. In the startup world, we push hard. It’s part of “the hustle” that we so commonly refer to. Thousands of people burn out each week, and I can assure you that number is very highly concentrated in the startup industry. So, how do we avoid it?
Each person has their own limit, and I was completely oblivious to mine. I love to work, so spending countless hours in an office wasn’t crazy, it was normal. But burnout crept up on me, so I had to find a way to avoid it from happening again.
After much trial and error, I did, and here’s how I did it.
I start out each day with a workout. It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t matter what kind of workout it is. Some days I run, other days I lift weights. The method is irrelevant, but doing something active each morning clears my mind and provides a fresh dose of endorphins that puts me in the right physical state for the rest of the day.
An Evening Walk
Evenings were tough for me, I wasn’t sure how to turn it off. Hence, the “Always On” blog title. I would come home and hop on my computer, right after leaving the office. It wasn’t that I needed to, it was habit. I didn’t have closure to my day, so I simply extended it. To help with this, I started going for walks each evening before heading home after work. Not long, just enough to digest the day and clear my mind.
Initially, I was never a big fan of fiction. But there’s something about it that helps in avoiding burnout. Allowing your mind to think creatively and wander outside of your everyday routine can be extremely valuable. Each night before bed, I try to read a bit of fiction to remove myself from my traditional business mindset.
A Day A Week
The past few weeks, I felt myself getting close to burnout again, so I instituted a rule for myself. One day a week, work is off limits — answering email, writing a blog post — anything. For one day a week, it’s off limits. I tend to rotate between Saturdays and Sundays, but it’s completely up to your schedule. To ensure that I stick to it, I tend to save errands and personal obligations for the weekend, forcing myself into a schedule without work.
I recently bought an espresso machine because I needed to nerd out on something other than work. Roasting coffee beans, playing with the granularity of the grind, steaming the milk, it’s all part of my new intellectual hobby. Whether it’s discovering the science of taking the perfect picture, mastering your golf-swing, or studying the art of roasting an espresso bean, we need intellectual hobbies outside of work to cleanse and stretch the mind.
So much of burnout is mental. In order to avoid physical burnout, you need to show your mind progression for all of the effort that you’re exerting. I’ve found that one way to do this is to set small and easily attainable goals that you can reach each day. This can be parsing down larger goals into smaller chunks or just going though the motion of checking-off completed operational tasks. Anything to show your mind progression towards a finish line can do wonders.
A Healthy Diet
We all know that we’re supposed to eat well, but it’s especially true when you’re pushing yourself hard. Eating the right food can help extend your runway and give you the needed nutritional energy to stay strong.
After reading this article in Vanity Fair on Obama, there was one piece that stuck out to me. As the author interviewed the president, he said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of a limited resource: your mental energy. Operationalizing decisions in your life that are less impactful (like the clothes you wear and the fruit you pair with your cereal) allows you to invest that energy elsewhere.
Finally, a yearly unplug is a must. Especially when you work in technology. Having a set time each year where you can turn off the cell phone and go off the grid is a way for you to hit the ‘reset’ button on your body. I’m still working on extending my yearly unplug to more than four days, but even with that, I feel refreshed when I return.
You’re going to have to read your body to sense when you get close to burnout. Just like driving a car, using these maintenance techniques can help, but it’s up to you to know when to ease off the gas.
My immaturity got the best of me, but I’m hoping this will help you avoid the same fate. I used to feel guilty for pacing myself. I felt that if I wasn’t sprinting all day every day, I was doing myself and my team a disservice. Hitting rock bottom burnout was the only way to make me believe otherwise. Hustle is good, but it can’t be blind.
It’s taken me years to realize that overnight success is fictional. Overnight success comes after years of hard, sustainable work.