9 Performance Hacks from 12 Years of Startup Life

Startup life requires a different mindset and routine than many other professions. I personally believe that running a startup is like running an ultra marathon in a series of shorter sprints. Over the years, I have started to figure out different ways to optimize my routine to prepare me both mentally and physically for this type of race.

While I think I probably have 1% of this truly figured out, here are my 9 performance hacks and regimented routine for preparing yourself for the startup grind.

1 — Sleep routine
Certainly not unique to startup life, having a regimented and healthy sleep routine has been critical for me in maintaining a high level of performance in what can be a taxing endeavor running a startup. A few years ago I had serious trouble getting to sleep at night because my mind was constantly racing thinking about different aspects of my business.

Being a true-blue Bostonian, when details about Tom Brady’s routine became public and I found out the G.O.A.T. cured his troubles with winding down before bed with cognitive exercises, I decided to try the same. For the past two years, I have been using Headspace which is a mindfulness/meditation app out of LA which has a great sleep track for winding down before bed. It’s personally worked wonders for me. I’m in bed and asleep every night between 9:30Pm-10Pm and up around 5Am often without an alarm.

A few other key pieces that will help with your sleep routine that admittedly I am still working on: 1) no screens in bed — i.e. TV, computer, tablets because it will stimulate your brain and make it hard to wind down and 2) no work for the 30–60 minutes before hitting the hay. You need to get your mind off work so it doesn’t race when you get in bed.

2 — Exercise routine
There is plenty of research suggesting exercise is good for your brain. Personally, I had played sports almost every day of my life until I graduated college so working out is something my body had grown accustomed to and I need to be mentally sharp. While working on my first startup during my early and mid-twenties, my mentality was to minimize just about every activity that wasn’t working on my startup. This included exercise, and after spending the better part of 22 years playing sports every day and suddenly stopping, it had a significant impact on my stamina and overall effectiveness though I didn’t immediately realize it.

After selling my startup, I got back into playing some sports and working out because in my mind I finally had the time. I pretty quickly found that I was far more productive at work as I worked out more regularly. Particularly when I worked out first thing in the morning I would feel much more energized throughout the day and was much sharper. Working out at night often made it hard to wind down before bed, so unfortunately I had to quit the basketball league I had joined, but I found Barry’s Bootcamp which is 60 minutes of getting your ass kicked sprinting uphill on a tread mill and lifting weights. I was never a group workout person, but my wife convinced me (read: made me) to stick with it for a month and I became hooked. We do class 5–6 times per week and I will never go back to not working out consistently.

3 — Mental training
After discovering Headspace for my sleep needs (shoutout to my pal Steve Schlafman who turned me onto it a while back via a Tweet), I started to think through mental training and the potential impacts since physical exercise has had such a positive impact on my mental stamina and performance in the workplace. It just made sense that brain, like any muscle, should be worked out to optimize for certain skills that would contribute to being a good person and startup founder.

I have been using Headspace for about two years now and have seen significant gains in different mental performance areas. Personally, attention span has always been an issue for me since being a kid. Headspace has different “tracks” of guided meditation ranging from sports and fitness to relationships and performance. I haven’t tried them all and have mostly used the performance track which includes packs for focus and creativity, but I strongly encourage devoting regular time each day to some sort of mental training.

4 — Healthy eats
Hands down the performance hack I have the hardest time stick with is eating healthy. I’ve spent my life eating burgers, pizza and just about anything else that turns out to be bad for you, so I am far from a good example of living with a healthy diet. But, on the days that I am able to optimize my macros (proteins, carbs and fat), and especially the days after, my mind is sharper and I have far more energy. I typically shoot for a daily distribution of 40%-45% protein, 30%-35% carbs and 20%-30% healthy fat.

5 — Deliberate learning
Benjamin Franklin was said to have set aside one hour per day to learning. Learning new things is often hard to justify in the startup grind as it can be time consuming and very rarely produces immediate results. But taking a little time each day to chip away at learning something that can make you a better founder or person will ultimately pay dividends.

I try to take half an hour while eating my lunch to learn something that has been on my list and a few hours each weekend. Several years ago I set out to learn network theory and analysis and it has become incredibly relevant in my startup job today. Not everything needs to be something relevant to your work, however. For the past few months I have been working on deeply understanding the Constitution and making my own interpretations of each of the Articles.

6 — Re-charging your personal battery
This one is a bit more ambiguous but as I mentioned earlier, I used to be focused on making sure every hour of my day was spent on my startup. I hate when people say “work smart, not hard”, because the person who does both will beat the person just focused on working smart, but the goal is to be as productive as you can be every day for a long period of time. Not surprisingly, very few people can devote every waking hour to their startup without burning out.

It’s critical to figure out how you best recharge your own battery, meaning what relaxes you and takes your mind off the job in a way the replenishes you when you return to it? And you probably need a variety of ways to recharge, a mix between short-term and more long-term tactics. For example, what’s something small you can do at home at each night that recharges you for tomorrow, like watching your favorite Netflix show or reading? And what is something you like to do each year that recharges you for the long-term, like a vacation/trip? You have to constantly monitor your “personal battery” to make sure it’s charged, especially in the event you hit a stretch that will require everything you’ve got in the tank, which is not uncommon for startups.

7 — Daily productivity tactics
One of the things they don’t teach you in school are the small daily tactics of productive people. A while back I came across this Entrepreneur article that really changed how I viewed some of the small decisions I make every day. To summarize, here are the key points for having a productive day:
1. Don’t touch things twice — i.e. open and read an email, save it for later. Act on things immediately, particularly in the age of digital communication. Respond then and there or delete.
2. Get ready for tomorrow, today — Plan your to do’s for tomorrow before leaving the office to head home. Makes a huge difference in the start of your day.
3. Fight the tyranny of the urgent — there can always be little fires to put out that can distract from the big, important things that will move your forward. Don’t give in to the urgent but small items, focus on the things that move the needle.
4. Get tough stuff out of the way first — pretty simple, do the hardest/toughest stuff on your list first thing so the rest of your day is enjoyable and you don’t put off the tough things that will then pile up.
5. Say no — co-workers ask for your opinion or thoughts, people ask for meetings to pick your brain, you get invited to an event… every new commitment buries you a little bit more and more. Saying no is an important skill to develop. Side note: don’t have a templated “no” response to people who aren’t strangers. No one is that important.
6. Do one thing at a time — as the article referencers, Stanford research suggests multitasking is far less productive. Execute one thing at a time.
7. Delegate — getting work done through others is the only way you can scale anything. Know that other people are smarter and more talented at different things and let them own their jobs.

8 — Weekly assessment, calibration and planning
Over the years, I found it important to regularly assess how I am doing at the goals I’ve set for myself and to remind myself of the items above to keep me on track. After several iterations, I learned that daily assessment was far too much, monthly was too little, but a weekly reflection and assessment is a great way to keep these things top of mind. Further, I now schedule my weeks around many of the hacks listed above and my overall goals I want to achieve professionally and personally. Below is a picture of the notebook I use to scribble the things I assess, calibrate and plan for each week. I also use a spreadsheet to break down the percentage of my weeks I want to devote to different activities which helps me convert into hours which I then slot in my calendar. This weekly planning regimen allows me to minimize my thinking on some of the more mundane things throughout a week (what to wear, eat, etc.) and allows most of my mental energy to go to the the bigs things I want to achieve.

9 — Annual assessment and planning
52 times per year as described above I assess, calibrate and plan my weeks. For overall productivity, it is also important each year to take a step back and assess the big picture. This helps figure design major initiatives, tactical and life goals, for the years to come. It also helps to go month by month and get a general sense of what your schedule will look like for the next year. Starting at a macro level will help you optimize your 52 weeks for the year ahead.

All of these hacks are very much a work in progress and I’ve found the best way to improve is to draw from other people’s experience and then mold them to fit your specific lifestyle and personality. So please share any tips you might have in the comments!