The Startup, The Burnout

Burnout is as real as it gets. Burnout is a period of life when your thinking has become relentlessly intrusive, and quieting such thinking only makes it worse, similar to that of anxiety, depression and chronic stress. Burnout happens when the separation between your thinking and work has evaporated and your reasoning leads you to the path of trying to work your way to a solution, only fueling the fire. Ultimately, burnout ensues.

What makes managing burnout so difficult is similar to other mood patterns: It can be so hard to identify. Unless a partner, spouse or friend pulls you aside and checks in, burnout becomes the quiet killer. Learning to identify thought patterns is your first clue to identifying a potential larger problem.

When I started running seriously again a number of years ago, I added two rows to my running log spreadsheet: mood and sleep. I typically get up early in the morning, put on a cup of quarter-caffeinated coffee and work through the email-inbox war. I write a plan for the day and leave for my morning run between 6:30 and 7:30.

During the morning, I take 10 minutes or so to note my run, my previous night’s sleep and my mood. “How am I actually feeling?” is typically what I ask. I’m not looking for a specific reaction from a recent meeting or argument with an employee, I’m looking for a mid-level, how are you/how have you been feeling.

During those 10 minutes I take a few minutes to review the previous days and weeks to see if I can identify any patterns. I assign three colors to my runs, mood and sleep. Green is good, yellow is fine (but something to keep an eye on) and red is concerning. By assigning three colors, you can quickly identify patterns; too much red will indicate a break is needed.

Running is my outlet, but there are many. They all include closing the computer and leaving the phone at home. Going for a walk, sitting on a bench, taking a hot bath, watching movies or mediation can provide a powerful outlet. Finding an activity that diverts your attention is critical, and is one of the many reasons exercise-related activities help.

Although exercise helps, there are many alternatives that don’t require sweating that can ease the mind. The important element to note is something that will break intrusive thinking and, thus, break the pattern. Aim for 20 minutes; that’s all that’s needed, especially if you’re just starting.

If you’re just working to work, you’re missing the point.

Interrupting the negative thought pattern is what gets people out of funks or inversely creates funks, stress, chronic stress and inevitable burnout. Good habits include a balance of quality sleep, a balanced diet and general moderation, all aspects of life that are rarely in sync. Finding the equilibrium means you’re operating at the top, or close to the top, of your game.

The CliffsNotes are fairly straightforward. Manage alcohol so you can hit the ground running in the morning. And take a good hard look at how much caffeine you’re consuming, so when it’s time to shut down and sleep, you can.

When I’m looking at deals in which to invest or play a larger role, I tend to walk with the founder to discuss hobbies, health and wellness and habits. I’m looking for founders who have identified the need and aptitude to inject a quantifiable approach to their lifestyle.

As with a well-written story, if you’re just working to work, you’re missing the point. Founders who have healthy outlets will inevitably find solutions faster than those without, as well as approach and manage burnout in a more reasonable way.

Something rarely discussed in our startup community is monotony. Monotony is troubling, and can play a huge role in burnout. Too much of anything isn’t good. Because of the natural ebbs and flows of startups, monotony easily creeps in.

Having a well-balanced habit is certainly a step toward success, but breaking that habit from time to time and working from a different location, not just a different coffee shop, is a great way to provide a new perspective. Consider walking or taking a new route to work; subtle changes will make large impacts.

Your ability to manage burnout will keep you and your budding startup in the game.

People will tell you that having a startup is the craziest and busiest way to live your life. That’s a lie. Most startups only become really busy if they turn into businesses. There are many periods when running a startup is about being patient. You can only code so many hours before it turns to spaghetti. And raising money, especially if it’s your first go round, may require the patience of a tortoise.

Don’t assume because you’re not at every event or trending on TechCrunch you’re not working hard enough. Take the downtime and use it to come up for air; it will pay dividends for managing your head space and preventing burnout.

Technology seems to have endorsed the notion of failure as a right of passage. The reality of failure is a lot more complicated, and its impact can be devastating. Your ability to manage burnout will keep you and your budding startup in the game.

As with most things in life, if you’re feeling like you’re on the edge, the answer is usually in front of your nose. You’re not as busy as you think, and you’re not alone. Be smart, find time for yourself throughout the day and, most importantly, make time to sleep.

The only leverage you and everyone else has in the startup game is your ability to stay focused and manage dynamic situations. The people who do that best, succeed. Period.