Yes, You Can Grow a Successful Startup Without Burning Out
Read this email the CEO of one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley sent to all of his employees.
Tim Junio is the co-founder and CEO of Qadium, a hot cybersecurity startup. I first met him at an IVP dinner. We talked for a long time and have continued to talk over the past few months about how to use Thrive principles for peak performance. And yesterday he sent me this amazing email he had just sent to all employees at his fast-growing startup, which I immediately asked if we could publish. It’s a welcome sign that the long-standing Silicon Valley delusion that you need to burn out in order to succeed is finally changing. As Tim and his company show, prioritizing well-being isn’t something that undermines hyper-growth — it’s what makes hyper-growth sustainable. — Arianna Huffington
I think we should spend more time talking about wellness at Qadium. On the heels of a short vacation, I’d like to share a few thoughts about recharging. A lot of it may not be news, but I encourage everyone to read all the way through, and consciously think about whether or not there are things you can do to optimize how you manage your energy, time, and health. We have many years to go on our journey, and I care enormously that everyone feels happy, excited, and effective as we continue to build.
I’ll start with where I’m coming from, which is that taking care of yourself requires deliberate, meaningful effort and thought. Depending on what is happening in the business, I work 70 to 90 hours per week. That is a high pace, but it has been sustainable for years because I make a deliberate effort to maintain my personal energy level during normal times, and create a buffer for crises.
Here are some best practices I’ve accumulated, citations for further reading, and new benefits Qadium is introducing to better effect these practices. I’ll caveat by saying that I’m looking to encourage deep thinking around these issues, and am by no means an expert — you will need to figure out what system best works for you. My examples are strictly FYI in the spirit of “well, it works for me!” I hope you find some of this helpful.
1. Sleep the right amount your body needs, and plan your schedule around it. This advice borders on cliche, but I continue to see patterns where people know it’s true but fail to take it seriously. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how consistently sleeping well will make you a higher performer and happier person over a long time horizon; good sleep filters down into being better and enjoying more in all aspects of life. Not sleeping enough causes tremendous bad consequences, starting with inferior decision-making and, at the opposite extreme, weakening your immune system and potentially causing long-term damage to your brain. I don’t believe in the glorification of all-nighters as a sign of being a hard worker. If you don’t believe me, take it from Jeff Bezos! For me, the right amount of sleep is 7–8 hours per night.
2. Improve the quality of your sleep by giving yourself time to unwind before you get into bed, when possible. Going straight from working to bed will often make it hard for you to fall asleep quickly. Using your phone to check email or Slack while in bed will reduce the quality of your sleep. When you’re committed to sleeping, put the electronics down, and build in a routine that gets your brain ready. Many articles offer tips on improving the quality of your sleep, so you have lots of opportunity to try new things if you don’t already have a good system. One tip I’ve followed, but don’t see in sleep advice articles very often, is building in extra time in bed. So if you want to sleep 7 hours, plan to physically be in bed for 8. I think this has a huge overall effect because even trying to sleep more creates anxiety, like “I need to sleep immediately to get a full night!” I also have a tendency to wake up after 1 REM cycle, and sometimes it can take a while to fall back asleep in the middle of the night, so the extra time ensures I get the full amount of sleep despite interruptions. Finally, I’ve found that wearing an eye mask and earplugs helps a great deal, even at home.
3. Establish some routines. This is less generalizable advice, since some people enjoy spontaneity and a little chaos. However, there are switching costs to doing the same things in different ways and at different times (like when you wake up and go to sleep, or eat, or unplug), and there are strong arguments and evidence regarding psychology of space and how that affects your mood. For example, people who do not watch TV in their bedrooms usually fall asleep more quickly and sleep better than people who watch TV in bed before sleeping. Personally, I love reading in the tub, and read and splash around in a bubble bath before bed 3–4 times per week. I love this routine so much that, when traveling, I plan what hotel to stay at based on whether or not they have tubs. (Shensi forcefully argues this is at great personal health risk due to various theories she has about hotel hygiene. Ask her about it). There’s a lot of evidence for high-performing people having huge variation in their routines, but a common principle in having routines / recurring practices. And they make for fun reading. However, I strongly advise against the Marcel Proust diet.
4. Exercise. This also borders on cliche, but is one of the simplest ways to keep your energy levels higher and overall health better. It’s also a great way to break up your day and establish routines. I usually wrap up in the office at around 9pm-10pm so I can make it to the gym for a quick 1 hr workout before heading home.
5. Meditate. Oodles and oodles of research are stacking up regarding the cognitive and other medical benefits of meditation, and is a good way to either start or break up your day. Sam’s an expert if you’re looking for some pointers.
6. Pay attention to your breathing. This is linked to meditation, but not the same thing. Deep, mindful diaphragm breathing can have an instantaneous effect on how you feel, and reduce stress and anxiety. This is another of Sam’s areas of expertise, so ping him for tips if you are curious!
7. Audit your nutrition. Think about whether or not you are achieving what you want with your current regimen — what you put into your body can have a big effect on how you feel.
8. Identify what rhythm works for you for disconnecting from work for a bit on a regular basis, including building in time to think about higher-level things related to your job. For me, this has meant doing minimal work on a computer on Saturday unless I have a time-sensitive or Board-related request, and making sure I schedule some social and other downtime with zero work. I’ve found from experience that if I (and those around me) don’t actively plan for this, it is easy to become overwhelmed by daily tasks and not do higher-level thinking for weeks or months. Most Sundays (when not traveling) are my dedicated introvert days, when I do written work for Qadium, fold laundry (example of a small routine that makes me feel good), and generally plan to not interact with any other people. I’m a borderline extrovert/introvert, and having a lot of meetings in a week leaves me needing to recharge by withdrawing socially over the weekend.
9. Periodically audit your time. Everyone has to do things we don’t like sometimes. But consistently doing things you don’t enjoy, and especially things you both do not enjoy and are not good at, will lead to burnout. People can work very large numbers of hours without burning out if they feel that their work is valuable and they are good at it. I audit my time several times per year by going through my calendar, and grading my recurring activities in the categories of “leverage for Qadium,” “can somebody else do it,” “am I good at it,” “do I like doing it.” Then I adjust the scope of my responsibilities such that I dedicate the majority of my time to tasks that are high impact for the company, no one else can do them, that I’m good at, and that I enjoy. I recommend looking over your last few months and thinking about how your activities align. If there is a major misalignment, you are probably not happy, and probably will not do great in the long run. You should sit down with your manager to consider how you could more effectively use your time.
10. Try using to-do lists if you don’t already, and use them effectively. To-do lists have an advantage of helping you build a mosaic of how you use your time if you approach them non-sequentially, such that when you are unable to focus on a particular task (because of your mood, etc.), you can pick up another, and therefore accomplish more overall than trying to force your way through an unproductive session. I’ve personally found that rolling to-do lists are better than daily ones. I used to lose sleep regularly to make sure I completed every item on my daily to-do list before going to bed. This made me more tired, irritable, and ineffective over a multi-week time horizon. By having a rolling to-do list, I stop work (unless something seriously urgent is happening) at my designated cut-off time to go to sleep, and resume work on my tasks once refreshed. This helps me stay high-output and high-energy for weeks and months. I like how Sam Altman approached this topic in a recent blog post on productivity.
11. Take your vacation, and take your vacation seriously. We offer a generous four weeks of vacation, plus eight companywide holidays, plus two floating holidays you can take at your discretion. Use them, and do not do any work when you are on vacation. Part of being a high performer at Qadium means you have built redundancy such that the company can survive without you for a little while. I strongly advise logging out of your email and Slack, and preferably not even taking your work electronics with you if you are traveling, when on vacation. I’d like for us to be culturally committed to not bothering one another when on PTO except for absolute emergencies.
12. Change your point of view. We have a large, beautiful, (for now) under-populated office. Move around every so often, and use quiet rooms when helpful. There are many coffee shops nearby and we’re a brief walk from the Embarcadero; take a stroll if you need to stretch and clear your head.
If you’d like to read further, check out Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, which has far more information than this email regarding managing your personal energy to be a happier and more productive person. I like it. We’ve ordered ten copies to keep in the office. Please take one if you are interested in learning more.
Finally, we’re rolling out several new benefits that are directly tied to the advice offered above. I hope many folks take advantage of them. Details are forthcoming from our office staff.
1. Corporate gym discount.
2. Gym membership subsidy.
3. Meditation app subsidy.
4. Quiet rooms at SF HQ.
5. Literature on wellness around the office.
6. A new Slack channel, #wellness, for us to share the ever-evolving research into caring for ourselves while focusing on high performance.
— Published on June 25, 2018