There has been a lingering problem for founders that just won’t go away, a founder fetish and the oddest thing is we frequently celebrate it. Just last Friday, a founder boasted to me that she was so busy she’s averaged four hours of sleep a night for the last three weeks. She wasn’t looking for sympathy or help, she was proud of the fact that she was out on her feet.
Then a founder emailed a cashflow to me at 4.38am. I just wanted you to have this ahead of our 10am meeting. Did I read it? No. Was it full of errors? Yes. We all know why. Working ridiculous shifts is the startup mantra. Its’s the founder syndrome in the bubble of bubbles, the bubble of overwhelming busyness.
Why we are so irrationally exuberant and celebratory about this? Founders brag about being busy. It’s code for being successful and important. Not only are we addicted to the drug of more, we are pushers too, the undisciplined habit of more. Luckily, there is an antidote to this: the disciplined pursuit of less. A growing number of people are making this shift. These people are the essentialists, as opposed to the extremists.
The essentialist entrepreneurs design their founder lives around working hard on what is vital and remove the noise. These people take time to think. They have family and personal time outside the cauldron. They are not working incessantly like the extremists, where the law of diminishing marginal returns is irrefutable. Instead of running madly on back-to-back meetings, they block time in their calendars to get important work done.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Charles Dickens words from A Tale of Two Cities capture the turbulence of what most founders experience in their relationship with their startup. From this, there is an underlying question to ask: are you running your startup, or is your startup running you?
Your initial reaction may be of course I’m running my business, it’s all I do! in which case I would argue that you have fallen into the busyness trap. What I mean by your business running you is that you compromise boundaries or give more of yourself to it than you want to give. From this place, the business has control of you, rather than the other way around. Ask yourself why?
If you are consistently overwhelmed, bombarded by an endless to-do list, working more than ten hours a day with little obvious wins, putting out fires and perpetually functioning out of scarcity, then your venture has got the reigns. Your free time may be spent just trying to get enough life back in you to face another week, rather than doing things you enjoy or want to do.
For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ has become their normal. At the root is an onslaught slicing workdays into a series of fleeting work moments, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost. Some founders are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore. Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers.
The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and fewer things that induce always-on-anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real founder hero is home because she figured out a better way.
I know many founders that have a great balance, building high growth businesses whilst having high value personal lives, so I know it can be done. The façade of I need to work 60 hours this week as I’m in startup mode and then get nods from others in sage agreement is frankly Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Yet we also make a fuss of founder well-being. Well help yourself.
If the point of working long hours is to get more work done, and you care about the quality of your work, how can you justify it? I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of startup land. Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. We all know our ability to think declines on each successive day that you feel more tired. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling.
So, build a startup that isn’t fuelled by regular all-nighter crunches or manufactured busywork that creates systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicators of activity and progress – they’re just indicators of noise and movement. No hair on fire. Build calm. Ensure your workplace isn’t a Gordon Ramsay chaotic kitchen. Busy with focus yes, busy with busyness, no.
So, what do you do if your business is running you? There are practical solutions, but more importantly, there are changes in behaviour and mindset to consider, bringing about a step change. Research shows that achieving better balance between professional and personal activities boils down to a combination of self-reflection and honesty, questioning your assumptions about yourself to increase self-awareness and intentional role redefinition.
Based on the research, my own experience and sharing that of fellow startup founders, here are ten pointers on how to change your relationship with your startup from a behaviours and mindset perspective. Ditch the wash-rinse-repeat go fast mode for more thoughtful entrepreneurship.
1. Press pause once a week
Take a step back and ask yourself: What is currently causing me unbalance? How are these circumstances dictating how I perform? What is getting lost? Be aware of the mismatch between the business situation and personal priorities, and begin to denormalise habits of working long hours. Apply Pareto’s Law, what are the 20% of jobs to be done that I can defer? Use the Eisenhower Matrix to manage yourself – do important stuff before it becomes urgent.
2. Pay attention to your emotions
Once you’ve increased your awareness of your current situation, examine how that situation makes you feel. Do I feel fulfilled, satisfied, or do I feel frustrated? When I discussed this with one founder, he agreed his current relationship with his venture was engendering negative emotions: You feel resentful and bitter that something that fundamentally isn’t that important to the essence of life is stripping valuable time away from you.
3. Focus on equilibrium
Instead of ‘work life balance’, aim for a healthy equilibrium. Each day will skew in a different direction, simply fuse deliberate balance into your life. If you spend Saturday morning responding to emails, spend Wednesday afternoon preparing tea and pick your kids up from school. The reason you started a business in the first place was to operate on your own terms, wasn’t it? Businesses that run like clockwork without the owner being frazzled do exist, and yours can be one of them.
4. Hold your vision
Hold what you stand for, your long-term goals, and what you’re going to do in the short term to make sure you achieve them. If you’re flitting between changing agendas, then you’ll be confused and overwhelmed, and likely to achieve less. Go for progress over perfection. Stop filling your head with negative thoughts about your product not being good enough, all startups are skinny and scrappy, hold your vision.
5. Challenge your mindset
The difference between you running your business and your business running you are the boundaries you set. Remind yourself that you have made the choice to run a business. No one forced you to do it. If it feels like your business runs your life, the problem might exist solely in your mind. Develop other interests, give yourself space and don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t take the tough parts of self-employment without allowing yourself the perks.
6. Counter your inner critic
Being overwhelmed we see as a weakness and means we sometimes we get overtly self-critical. and more likely to procrastinate because you doubt yourself. It’s important to replace your self-criticism with self-care. If you think you’re failing, you more likely to fail. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pay attention to your thoughts. Acknowledge your own limitations. While some founders are hesitant to show vulnerability, doing so enables them to refresh, which is more important than protecting your ego.
7. Don’t be an ‘opportunity junkie’ – learn to say no
Many founders are ‘opportunity junkies’, driven by the fear of missing out and feel the need to pursue every possibility that comes their way. They become addicted to the chase. Just because we are invited to do something isn’t a good enough reason to do it. Saying no creates space to focus on the highest potential opportunities and gives you back some time. Have a high filter and refer back to your vision. Run counter to the hullabaloo we see in startup mantra on the street.
8. Enjoy Mondays
Fridays are often the anti-climax of the week, sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, you just want to put a lid on it. Mondays, on the other hand, well imagine all the great things this week has to offer and cracking the problem that cooked your noodle last week. Make Monday the day of optimism. Weekends came to pass as a result of a workers protest in Manchester in 1843, so make them a festival of freedom to celebrate those workers, one massive, colourful, exciting two days of hobbies, family time, trips to the seaside and more to celebrate free time. Enjoy the weekend not working and wake up hungry for Monday feeling fresh.
9. Rest well to excel
Rest be damned, there’s endless work to get through. People pulling 16-hour days on a regular basis are exhausted. They’re just too tired to notice that their work has suffered because of it, and not thinking straight. And there’s more to not getting enough sleep than compromising your own health and creativity. It affects the people around you. When you’re short on sleep, you’re short on patience, less tolerant, less understanding. Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes?
10. Be intentional
Be intentional about how you spend your time. Dial it back, give yourself the space needed to perform optimally. Lose the motion sickness and the self-neglect by working overloaded. You’ll then find the self-sabotaging mistakes stop, This will help you feel like you’re on top of things and do a better job of navigating your most important tasks.
Very few problems need to be solved at the 14th or 15th hour of a workday. Nearly everything can wait until morning. We are caught up in the day-to-day whirlwind, pulled in a myriad of different ways every day because that’s the founders’ fetish. The key is to follow the above ten tips and focus on outcomes, not simply hours, and each week ask: are you running your startup, or is your startup running you?