Every day as a founder is different. I’d say at least fifty percent of days are hard and some of those are even harder than others. Feeling like everything is all a bit too much is a fairly common occurrence, but sometimes things get a bit more serious than that.
Last week I spent several days trying to solve a problem; more time than I would have chosen to or liked. I sat in meetings, I worried, I sat in more meetings, I met with people, they met with other people, they sat in meetings, we all sat in meetings together. This cycle went on for days. Time was wasted, blood pressure was raised, carefully-structured sentences were deployed with increasing diplomacy into rooms taut with tension.
Eventually, the outcome was the one I had needed and wanted all along. The news came just a little too late, as I sat in the corner of a room, trying to hold myself together whilst questioning what I was doing with my life. I should have felt relief, gratitude, maybe even a little bit of victory… but I didn’t. I felt nothing.
I politely thanked the messenger; he whom was also the key decision maker throughout the situation in question. I returned to my desk. I sat down. I looked at the list of things I’d been trying to do for days, things which had been indefinitely parked whilst an outcome was negotiated, things I could now finally get on with. I felt no satisfaction or desire to proceed.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to lose a loved one, you probably know what I mean when I talk about the emptiness that follows a death. The event in question happens, and life is thrown into chaos whilst a funeral is organised. You focus on the organisation, the structure, the things that need done to handle this situation in the best way possible. All of your energy is consumed by executing that one task. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you say your goodbyes and, eventually, you return home. You sit down and then you think; now what? Where do I possibly go from here?
For some reason, I felt like that.
Burnout comes to different people in different ways. Sometimes it creeps up on you and swipes you off your feet. Sometimes you feel it coming, like you’re living your life with a dark cloud lingering overhead, awaiting its opportunity to unleash its worst. If you’re one of the lucky ones, it politely taps you on the shoulder and you start to free up some time in your diary, go outside more, spend some time with your loved ones.
For me, it arrives in the form of a friend you don’t really want to hang out with. I become aware of it lingering nearby but I ignore it, assuming it will eventually go away. It stops making noise — or I become deaf to it — and I think I’m off the hook. Except this friend is not my friend. It lurks quietly in the background, feeling betrayed by my lack of interest and then one day when I’m struggling, instead of suggesting a coffee, it throws a sack over my head and clubs me to the ground.
It suffocates me and blocks out the light. It makes sure I won’t be regaining control of my life any time soon.
As entrepreneurs, we’re told about this thing called burnout. We’re told to watch out for it and to pay heed to the signs, but many of us don’t know what to look for. Last week was exhausting me from all angles but it didn’t seem like something I could admit, even to myself. No one talks about it.
People do their best to sympathise. “You’ll be okay,” they say; “it’ll work out”. They might even tell you they know how you feel. “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now too”.
The thing is, burnout is more than a minor bout of feeling overwhelmed. Burnout is all-consuming; a powerful force that dominates your life and affects everything you try and do. It seeps into your head, a toxic poison that creates and multiplies your worries and fears until your entire frame of mind is altered. It confiscates your sleep; swapping those much-needed hours of slumber for long spells of lying in the dark trying to organise your thoughts. The anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach never goes away. The treadmill you are running on is getting faster and someone else is controlling it.
Burnout cannot be dealt with in the same way as a difficult day or a bad mood. A good night’s sleep, even if you were granted one, will not help. A nourishing diet or the recommended amount of exercise will only go so far to ease your burden. Your body and your mind have reached their limits and they just can’t give you any more.
I hadn’t realised the extent of my burnout until I tried to compete in Britain’s Strongest Woman on Saturday. I’d been exercising regularly and eating well. I’d been making the effort to retire at a sensible hour. On paper, everything was solid, but when the competition day rolled around I still felt like I’d been run over by a bus. An recent injury flared up again; my body hadn’t healed itself in the way or time I’d expected it to. My first event went badly and the words “I wish I hadn’t even come” escaped my mouth. Something that would have normally motivated me to up my game, had instead just made me want to give up.
And that’s the most dangerous thing that burnout does; it steals your passion. It takes the things you love and the things that set your soul alight and it turns them into chores; difficult, exhausting tasks you’d rather not do. It robs you of your motivation, your drive and your hope.
In the medical world, burnout is considered very similar to depression. In a study that compared depressive symptoms in burned out workers against clinically depressed patients, no diagnostically significant differences were observed. In fact, the view that burnout is indeed a form of depression in itself has found support in several recent studies.
It would be hypocritical of me to write about how to avoid burnout and I’m not in a place to write about how to recover from burnout. But I want to open the dialogue because the startup world has become a strange hyper-universe where we feel pressure to be constantly productive and working an 80 hour week is considered normal. It’s not normal and it’s not clever.
Being constantly consumed by something is exhausting, yet to admit that is seen as a weakness. I don’t even take weekends off because I can’t handle the (entirely self created and inflicted) guilt of stepping away from my business, despite the fact I logically know that I’d be more productive for it. We spend so long in our insular worlds that revolve around our work that we lose sight of the outside world and it loses sight of us.
If there is anything I’d like you to take away from reading this, it’s that you should learn your own limits and be smart.
I didn’t set out to work so hard or so long but nobody stopped me or even questioned me. I have what is usually the advantage, but in this case is a disadvantage, of working in a co-working space with other like-minded people who pull long hours and have devoted their lives to their startup. It means that no one notices when 8pm, 9pm, 10pm rolls around. If your co-founders and/or your team are in a similar cycle, you fuel each other in the wrong ways.
If, like me, you are also lucky enough to be surrounded by a bunch of particularly incredible startups, there is always some doing better than you or moving faster. It’s easy to feel like you need to do more, to work harder, to be better. Nothing keeps you awake at night more than the feeling that you’ve got something to prove and the pressure to compare — or at least match — others is substantial. Your awareness of your limits should be as high as your expectations of yourself.
As I sit here on a Sunday afternoon, aching from head to toe, with no energy or desire to even move, I wish I’d been smarter. My body is broken and my brain is incinerated. The person sprawled on this bed is not one of greatness.
In time, everything will be fine again — but I’ll have lost much more time and productivity than I needed to. If I’d just left the office an hour earlier every night, or elected to spend Sundays with my friends rather than on my laptop, I would have achieved a better mental balance and I would have been more productive in the hours I did spend at my desk.
I’m smart enough that I should have recognised my lifestyle wasn’t sustainable, but the problem with comprehension is that it comes too late.
It’s also another problem that we fall prey to as startup founders; everything feels temporary because everything is always moving so fast. We just have to make it to that next milestone, close the next round, ship to the next customer and then we can take a break. But there’s always something else on the horizon and the thing that makes us — our relentlessness — can also be the thing that breaks us.
Kurt Cobain was wrong. It’s not better to burn out (although please don’t fade away, either). Getting the most out of ourselves shouldn’t be at the the expense of the best of ourselves.