Startup founders: ten tips to put you back in control & avoid burnout

Over the past two weeks I’ve enjoyed total downtime and taken the four days in the working weeks either side of the Easter weekend with the ‘closed’ sign on my email. It’s reminded me of the importance of slowing down and giving your entire attention and focus to what’s at hand around your own well-being.

I’ve always been a living life to the full at full-stretch person. but last year I made the decision to operate in a s-l-o-w-e-r gear, feeling, tasting and touching the sounds and colours of everyday life more, taking ‘holiday’ as ‘holiday’, and not living life in go faster-forward working mode full-on, five days a week.

First off, let’s get something straight, I’m not a ‘go slow and be cautious’ kind of bloke. I’m a hullaballoo ‘roadrunner meets speedy Gonzalez type’, the kind who reads fast and has a bath fast. Slowing down didn’t come naturally to me. However, the birthday cards said ‘60’ and that was terrifying. Seven months later, I’m closer to 70 than 50. Terrifying!

I’ve been thinking a lot since then, trying to juggle an amended working week, seeking to maintain a balance of doing for clients, whilst also giving structure – and no structure – to ‘me time’. Adopting a pace of life shown by the giant panda is now my favoured mode. Easter was a good time to execute the thinking, turning the plan into making it happen.

We live in a society that’s so fast-paced, it’s on hyper drive. People moan if they have to wait in a drive through for more than three minutes. We expect next-day delivery, but I’m convinced I have countered this and learned to slow down and live in the moment. But then I think to myself, do I know how to relax? Can I discipline my way through a prioritised work to-do list and also have a sense of balance in the day and for the rest of the week?

Though these thoughts may seem frivolous, I think it’s important that we consider the ability to relax and unplug. In our perpetually ‘always on’ society, we have forgotten what it means to press pause, reset and recharge. Relaxation has come to mean the equivalent of laziness. ‘Doing nothing’ has become a thing to avoid, a sign of failure.

But I’ve intentionally slowed down and now view restoration not something we do to antiques, but as a necessary balance in our life, to remind us not to overwork expectations of ourselves. Everyone needs time to unwind each day. If we don’t, then we lose an equilibrium we need in our very existence. Work and rest complement each other, that to do one well, we must complete the other. That’s my new manifesto!

If we let stress get the best of us, it can reduce our unicorn ideas to donkey fodder. But if we address it head on, we can stay productive and be happy at work, and navigate with a clearer sense of purpose, direction and focus. It’s taken me since last September to get a rhythm and routine that is satisfying and productive, which over Easter I have finessed, and I think could be adopted by startup founders. It goes something like this.

1. Keep a journal I’ve kept a Moleskin journal since I started work in 1984. I’ve got 54 completed notebooks as a valuable as anything Samuel Pepys produced. I find writing is both a reminder and reflection, as well as a therapeutic opportunity to just vent to self. Writing free form about what has happened or how you feel, or just your random thoughts can help you identify what might be a pressure point or even spark a new idea to improve your success.

2. Take time to make time Stepping away and putting work down has actually improved both the quality of my work output and personal life. Skipping emails and just unplugging – I put ‘out of office’ on for the first time ever two months ago – has done wonders for my ability to switch off when initially it scared the life out of me. Rest and relaxation are necessary to perform at optimal levels. Stepping away has also given me a fresh perspective on issues that had been plaguing me.

3. Take breaks Scheduling breaks into my timetable is one of my top tips on how to reshape your daily or weekly working routine for the better. I have three habits:

Take a 60-minute break to do something non-productive – sit in the garden, listen to music, read a book. Music is engrained deeply into my daily life. Listening to songs decreases stress hormones that harm our immune system and memory. While reading books seems to be dying out during the age of social media, its benefits are proven – research has found that reading for only six minutes can decrease muscle tension and heart rate. I often tag this break onto dinnertime, so it feels restorative.  

Get inspired with a TED Talk Sometimes all you need is a healthy dose of motivation. TED Talks are a great way to reignite your fire, and I intentionally select subjects where I listen and learn, but not directly related to work. 

Chat with a friend We are so focused on work, that time out to just chat with friends and family during working hours is frowned upon, yet researchers have found that having such interactions releases oxytocin, a hormone that decreases stress and helps form bonds between individuals. We all become better, healthier human beings. Call someone today and just chat for twenty minutes.

4. Use productivity tools There are many tools that exist for saving you time. My go-to is Evernote where I have notes, tasks and scheduling all in one place. I have my notebook for personal reflections and capturing quotes, but software eats the world as they say and Evernote keeps things simple, together and accessible.

5. Set boundaries – say No! It can be tempting to do everything and anything to help people and fire your adrenalin on interesting projects, but a great way to simplify and control your agenda is to set firm, clear boundaries as bookends to your capacity. I’ve gradually reduced the number of active clients, I have a hard stop at 5pm, I now always take a lunch break, and on days I am ‘off-line’, I am digitally silent.

6. Work outside We all know the physical and mental health benefits from time spent outdoors, surrounded by nature and in the sunlight. Whenever possible I take myself outside and work in the garden. Obviously this is weather dependent, but with Spring upon us, make this a habit in the coming months.

7. Good is good enough My natural instinct to seek perfection, I become pedantic, and it has driven me with a goal to simply not let anyone do better. However, I’ve learned that if anyone could do it, then everyone would do it, but they don’t. I now understand that my best is good enough and move on.

8. And breathe This is one of the easiest and most beneficial ways to relax. Deep breathing increases oxygen flow throughout the body and can be done in two simple steps: breathe in slowly through your nose, filling up your lungs completely, and then slowly breathe out through your mouth. Repeat this process 5-10 times and you’ll find an immediate melting of tension replaced by serenity.

9. Wake up early everyday Many folks can’t wait for the weekend because it allows them to unplug the alarm and sleep in. That’s not my advice, get enough sleep during the week and get out of bed on weekend at the same time as you do during the week. I have found that keeping a consistent internal clock and sleeping pattern keeps me alert. Furthermore, when you rise early on the weekends, you get more time to do things you enjoy. Snooze you lose.

10. Do more of what makes you happy I thought this sounded a bit twee, but I realise that my happiness levels play a huge role in my overall wellbeing and productivity. Not necessarily putting a spring in my step, but having a positive outlook and self-esteem has a progressive impact. I double down on what makes me happy and started doing more of that each day.

This six-month period has really made me think, culminating in this personal manifesto developed over Easter. Not quite the Tim Ferris four-hour week, but it works for me. Like most people, I like to stay busy and the times when I wasn’t, my mind spent that time thinking about what to do next. We set a ridiculous pace for ourselves and watch time go flying out the window, then have the audacity to wonder where it went. We chased it off!

I trust the above is useful to startup founders. Being perpetually tired isn’t a badge of honour. Yes, there is always something to do, but push back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, highlighting extreme working hours, working weekend and growth-at-all-costs as fundamentally flawed. Why this has been accepted as the ‘new normal?’ Simply turn this on its head and debunk the myth.

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. Build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches or extreme busywork that leads to 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.

Many entrepreneurs brag about not sleeping, telling me about their 16-hour days, making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the only way. there’s an endless amount of work to do. 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.

It’s important to get a ton of sleep. You’ll start better, think better, and be a better founder and colleague. Sleep is great for creativity and problem solving. Aren’t these the things you want more of, not less of, at work? Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes? Very few problems need to be solved at the 12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th hour of a workday. Nearly everything can wait until morning.

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. It’s harder to relate and to pay attention for sustained periods of time.

Some of you will be saying ‘he doesn’t know the reality; he’s never been there’ but I have. I’ve worked for myself for twenty years and within this, over a decade in tech startups as founder or investor. Prior to that I was a mainboard plc director for twelve years, and prior to that for a global professional services firm. I’ve been there, I reckon my 40-year working career to date has been a solid fifty-hour average weeks. I know pressure, expectation, performance targets.

But no more. My observation is that the  current epidemic of ‘founder burnout’ is a result of an emperor’s new clothes syndrome of a badly framed cultural phenomenon of startup hype. The welcome focus on wellbeing is a necessary response, but its self-inflicted. Sometimes emergencies require extra hours and you need to make an extra push. That happens. And that’s OK, because the exhaustion is not sustained; it’s temporary. Such cases should be the exception, not the rule.

Stretch yourself to be your best but on balance be calm , by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Keep things simple: leave the poetry in what you make. The best moments in life are the ones that happen when we aren’t trying to chase our expectations. I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes the important thing in a whole day is the time we switch off. I’m not turning into a Zen thinker, do not confuse spirituality and the art of peeling potatoes on a daily basis, but realise there’s still plenty of time to un-do something about it if you’re driving yourself to burnout.

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