Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Burnout is a bad thing. That seems like an obvious statement but you would be surprised how many founders and startup executives who know it, ignore its symptoms. They are too busy building their dream business and nothing can stand in the way of getting the job done. I have seen harsh outcomes; drained families, lovers breakups and founders exhibiting mental and physical ails before they realize what is happening. By the time they realize the unsustainability of their pattern, they’ve all but abandoned social life, neglected contact with family and old friends, and their private downtime is non-existent.
Plenty of seasoned execs will offer this is what it takes. In order to succeed with a startup today you need to be all in, and that means showerless days, sleeping bags in work spaces and chips and energy drinks for nutrition. Without an absolute devotion of this magnitude, they say, the startup risks failure. In an era of tech and dotcom booms, we are all guilty of romanticizing this behavior. But it's been going on long enough by now that we have also seen the negative impact on people and mental health. Because the symptoms are subtle in the beginning, and not talked about, doesn't mean they're not there. And the downward spiral doesn’t happen overnight either, it’s a gradual evolution. One day you wake up and you have no life outside of work. It can happen like this: The excitement of the adventurous journey provides adrenaline. You may have received funding and you double down on commitment. Now it’s for real. Time passes quickly. Days pass, weeks pass, months pass, and before you know it, it's a year or two later. Each workday along the way is too short and doesn’t provide enough hours. You can’t fit in half of what you intend to accomplish. With so much on your plate, so much yet to do, it’s easy to lose track of time and work into the night, and then repeat that pattern over and over again. Spouses are forgiving, for a while, and children can adjust to anything. They miss you but are helpless in changing their parents behavior. It becomes an accepted living condition. Most don’t realize till years later what they have sacrificed.
Devotion to the startup is one thing, sacrificing everything; health, friends and family is quite another. I will take it a step further and argue that sacrificing personal life is also detrimental to the startup. Your mental fitness, your happiness and your emotional and mental balance matters to its success. Balance between work time and private time has been proven time and again to promote mental fitness, stamina and longevity, and for an indispensable executive, like yourself, those elements are essential for yours and the startup's success.
The approach to accomplishing balance is similar to tackling addiction. First you must acknowledge the facts; the excessive overtime, admit it to yourself and to others. Then you must commit to doing something about it, guarding your behavior, that tendency to work into the night, everyday. Create routines that you like, walking the dog, exercise, practicing yoga, go to the gym at 6pm daily, even for 30 minutes, it can be anything that matters to you. Commit to tucking your kids in every night. Use gardening, home improvements, cooking or meditation, as meditation. Create boundaries regarding text messages and phone calls. For those who say they must be able to reach you late at night or over the weekend, because of urgency or even emergency, I say; there is hardly any urgency that can’t wait until Monday, or an emergency that will spin the company out of control between now and tomorrow morning. Yes there are exceptions but we shouldn’t build rules based on exceptions.
You are right to wonder what your co-founders will think, those who exhibit the same behavior as you and have so far done nothing about it. Why should you alone raise the red flag and need a different response or consideration? The answer is that it isn't about a different consideration for one person. It’s about the company as a whole, its leadership and it's about company culture. This is one place where a healthy partnership communication is essential. I recommend having a sit down to discuss this in earnest, positioning it in the best interest of the startup and it’s staff. Consider incorporating measures into the culture that embrace life work balance, become a leader in creating people friendly work environments. Make it about the company leading a more human sustainable culture, an argument that should get everyone on board. Building a startup is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. Pacing yourself, grabbing water along the way, going it at variable speed, is far likelier to get you to the finish line faster and safer than sprinting to exhaustion. Let me explain:
A seasoned startup partner of mine, once shared with me the story of the two woodsmen who worked all day chopping trees, each armed with an axe. One kept at it all day without a pause. The other stopped on top of every hour, for ten minutes, and rested. By the end of the day, the woodsman that rested had a bigger pile of wood. How could that be? It turns out he sharpened his axe’s blade while resting, each and every hour. Taking time off work does not mean you stop thinking. You may make great and crucial discoveries for the benefit of the company during your downtime, when your mind is detached. A mental rest refreshes your mind, enabling it to hit hyperdrive when awakened, when the company needs you. Creating a new pattern, sustainable long term, will serve you and all of those around you better, including your loved ones and the company. It simply starts with saying no, and sitting down to talk about why. That way the only thing breaking up is the burn out.