The 3 Stages of Recovery From Founder Burnout
How to recover from burnout when you can’t take time off to recover.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many opportunities to deal with the challenges of burn out. But dealing with it as a founder takes this problem to a completely new level.
I think the main reason why it’s been so difficult for me is that the startup world is full of success stories with the common theme of hustling 24/7, 365 days a year. We’re supposed to be switched on ALL the time and make consistent progress with our business or we get criticised for moving too slowly.
Because we are madly trying to solve our businesses most immediate problems we don’t take a second to really understand the decision we make and the repercussions it can have on our mental health. Sometimes the longer term decisions we’ve made in our business can wear us down but we’re usually too busy to see that until we reach a breaking point.
The internet is full of content on generic information on dealing with burnout and my intention is not to add to that.
Instead I want to share with you the mental framework I’ve used to overcome burnout as a founder.
1. Identify the Root Cause
It can be really hard to get some perspective on your problems when you are madly putting out fires and juggling 100 other things that need to be done in order for your business to remain operational.
So we first need to take a step back and give ourselves some room to identify what caused us to burn out.
It doesn’t happen because we work too much or are too busy all the time. Yes sleep is important. So is regular exercise. As are all the other cliches like having a balanced diet and allowing ourselves time to recharge.
But if we want to deconstruct how we got to this stage, we shouldn’t pay attention to what we stopped doing. We need to understand WHY we stopped doing those important things to begin with.
It brings me back to a quote by Jocko Willink:
Bad mental habits creep into our daily routine when we stop paying attention to where we direct our energy. It’s really easy to slip into this state when we are constantly switching between tasks; worrying about not satisfying our customers needs, worrying about raising a round of funding or whether we are still going to be around in the next 12 months. Constantly putting out fires can slowly create cracks in our mind that allow stress and negativity to creep in.
So we need to learn to identify what business decisions we are making that can lead to the cracks widening too much. Are we trying to achieve a goal that is too large given the resources we are currently able to attract? Maybe we need to break down our lofty goal into smaller bite sized chunks and be a bit more patient. Are we in the wrong geographical location to effectively build the product/service we are trying to build? Does our team realistically have the right capabilities to execute our vision? Are we relying too heavily on one revenue stream? Maybe there are some toxic people in our team that are holding us back from achieving our desired objectives?
These are REALLY hard questions to answer. Being truthful requires a level of humility that contradicts the bold vision we are taught to pitch to our prospective customers and investors.
Identifying the changes we need to make within our business isn’t going to be immediately obvious. Its going to take some time to dig through our problems to identify them, let alone admit to ourselves what they are. So its important to give ourselves permission to take the time required to properly identify these causes.
Once we have done so we can move onto the next step.
2. Take Action to Remedy the Situation & Mitigate the Impact of Burnout
We need to accept our situation.
Don’t fight it.
Realise that it's okay to take time off when our head isn’t clear and we are not feeling 100%. This is challenging when there is so much momentum moving the business forward and tasks that require our immediate attention.
When we are going through periods of burnout, it usually isn’t planned. Meaning there is a fair chance we won’t have the privilege of taking 6 weeks off to recover.
So to do this we need to strip back our workload so that we only focus on the most critical tasks business tasks.
That means saying no to media opportunities. Saying no to meetings that aren’t necessary. Saying no to doing extra things that aren’t delivering direct value to our customers and whilst we are doing this we need to remind ourselves:
“It’s okay to say no to opportunities that will likely to be very good for our business.“
Those opportunities are useless if we don’t have the energy to deliver on them and continue to grow our business.
This will give us room to fix the root cause of our burn out. We can make the pivotal business decisions necessary whilst we give ourselves the chance to recover. Meaning more sleep and less work. I also believe its important to use this opportunity to redirect our energy to some of our other passions outside our business.
Taking these necessary steps will be uncomfortable because it's the opposite of how we have been previously operating. It also means removing the mindset of needing to be “busy” all the time to feel productive.
A lot of the changes you will need to make within your business will require you to confront issues you’ve been avoiding. This is both emotionally and physically draining, which can be difficult to manage when you already feel like your tank is on empty. So its important to realise the number of tasks you will complete each week is going to seriously decline during this period.
While making these changes don’t judge yourself for your mistakes and the “time you’ve wasted doing this”. This is a necessary step for your future success and regretting what you should have / could have done isn’t going move you towards your goals any faster.
Seek advice from your peers, colleagues and mentors on the changes you need to make.
Make the changes and move on.
3. Prevention of Burnout in the Future
One of the most critical things you will find by going through this process is that you probably had problems that would have been easy to observe from an outsider's perspective.
Find people you can talk to about your problems and your situation that are outside of your business. Even if they may not be able to provide you with solutions to your problems. Talking through them will help you.
I think part of the reason founders struggle with burnout is because we’re always supposed to be talking about how good things are with our business. Whether that’s to our customers, potential investors, partners etc. As a result, it can become pretty easy to take all the problems we have and bottle them up. By giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable we can actually learn that admitting to our shortcomings isn’t going to destroy our business. People are surprisingly empathetic and often they can help provide you with a fresh perspective you may have not considered.
Make time for your passions outside your business!
I’ve been caught in this trap for a while. Believing all my energy needs to be directed completely towards my business and nothing else. However, I think its really important to take time away for side projects and/or for other hobby’s that may have dropped off the radar.
Doing this has a few benefits. It can help you improve some of the skills you may need for your business. It can also help give you some perspective and allow you to realise that the problems in your business aren’t the end of the world. There is much more to life than building your startup.
Here’s the thing, you probably know 99% of the things I’ve written about in this article. But the truth is, there is no magic bullet to fixing burnout. I’m sure you know this but you’ve made it this far because sometimes it’s nice to take on board someone else’s perspective on a problem you’re having. It’s comforting to know that other people experience the same challenges that you do and it's perfectly okay that you’re going through this.
And that’s my main purpose for writing this. To let you know that you’re going to get passed this and next time you’re going to know how to manage this better.
Remember it's okay to push your boundaries and get burnt out every once in a while! It’s an incredibly useful way to learn how you manage difficult situations and can help you learn how to manage them better in the future. But for now,
Take a break.
Needing to take some time away from your business doesn’t make you weak or soft. It doesn’t mean you’re not committed to your cause or that you’re not good enough to play this game.
It’s important to take the time to reflect and make changes to ensure we are still enjoying our startup journey.
If you got some value out of this and you know someone that needs to read this, please pass this onto them.