Updated: Nov 28, 2018
Before I start, let me be clear that the information written here is based on my own personal experiences in startups as well as in my own business consulting and coaching practice and as part of a VC firm.
So, you think you have a great idea? Do you have some secret sauce, a new app, a new crypto play, a new blockbuster Blockchain business — whatever? Ok, great! Congratulations, but be prepared that building a startup is a marathon. You better be prepared for the long haul.
Signs of burnout to watch for include, but are not limited to, elevated levels of anxiety and/or irritability, depressive thoughts, reduced level of confidence, chronic stress, unusual arguments or confrontations with friends, family, significant other(s) or team members. These are common early warning signs (EWS), but typically most individuals are unable to tell if they are approaching a burnout as it silently sneaks up on you — unless you are open-minded and allow people to provide feedback and discuss this with you.
There are some points that can wreak havoc in your life that can cause a mental burnout. Not everybody deals with stress well, and not everyone has someone to talk to. So here are some key findings that have proven to work to counter/avoid experiencing burnout.
Make Time For Yourself
Always make sure to set aside time for yourself. Stop everything; even turn off your cell phone — if possible. Go out for a 10-minute walk and shut your mind down during the day. I also suggest that for every hour of the day you allocate at least 5 minutes to stop working, leave your desk or space, walk a little or get some fresh water and then return to work a little more refreshed. When working late hours, sometimes it also helps to go to the sink and splash some water on your face — it’s quite refreshing and pleasing.
Aside from this, make sure those things that give you pleasure can be experienced. I had a client who loved guitar and had no time to play. I advised her to take her guitar to the office and set the guitar on her lap and play every little but she could, especially when there are moments when her mind would just go blank. By the way, it is also a soothing and relaxing thing to do as well — bonus!
2. Make time for family and friends
Unless you are a “loner” (please excuse to term), make time for family, friends and your significant other (if applicable). Plan ahead in your agenda and do not let these people down as they are often your biggest supporters. Even if you can only afford to “eat and run”, it is better than no time. Moreover, a family has a way of helping you stay positive and grounded, however, you may need to set boundaries on questions about the business.
3. Have a confidant
It does not matter if you have a shrink (therapist), best friend, business coach or mentor — whatever. You need to be able to let out all your issues with someone, preferably someone who can also provide advice to help you along the way. This is a major factor in preventing burnout as I have been working with hundreds of startups over the years and the feedback from founders have confirmed this — before they hired a business coach they were experiencing significantly higher levels of stress.
4. Proper nutrition and sleep
Think of food and sleep as almost, if not equally important, as clean air and water are to your good health. I am not saying that you can never go to sleep late or pull off late nights. I am not suggesting that you should forego that greasy cholesterol filled double bacon cheeseburger, fresh cut fries, and a rich milkshake — no, every once in a while is fine as it's all about moderation. What I am saying is that you cannot expect your body and mind, to function properly if you are not getting enough proper (REM) sleep. Additionally, filling your body with sugary beverages, carb-heavy foods etc… is just counterproductive if you want to be your best. So plan to eat smart.
5. Organizing a daily plan
Part of avoiding burnout has to do with avoiding unnecessary stress. One of the ways you can do this is by setting goals, objectives (a to-do list) the night before or, early in the morning when you have your breakfast or coffee before starting your workday. This will help keep you focused as well as reduce stress, as you will know where you are in your list of getting things done. I personally find using todoist a fantastic tool to use for this.
Ah…. This is a tough one for some people, others, they are all about fitness. A good way to release stress is via exercise. This can come in the form of sports, working out, or even including some “hacks” into your business day. I have found that walking and talking helps people focus better; this is especially true for people with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD / ADHD). If you work from home, walk around the house, around the dining room table, up and down the stairs etc. If you are at the office, get a wireless headset if you are using a regular telephone system or if you use a cell phone, get a wired or wireless headset and walk around the office, your desk whatever. If you exercise like this it will not feel like exercise as it will act like background noise and before you know it, you would have done over 5,000 steps in your day — not too shabby.
We, humans, are social beings and for most individuals socializing is almost like food for the brain. If you are a solo entrepreneur this is especially applicable if you work in an environment where socializing is in a business environment — this is not acceptable either. So go out and be social, be it at a grocery store, restaurant, and food truck, whatever — strike up a conversation with a stranger, it's all good. Who knows, maybe you will make a business contact while going for a coffee at the café.
8. Managing alcohol and/or recreational drugs
Do note that I am not for or against either. For people who drink regularly or use drugs, even light recreational ones, working hard and long hours in a startup can lead to excess usage acting as a crutch and eventually leading to abuse. Be strict with yourself and consume at a rate that is no more than you would have normally consumed these before the startup. Oh, and never drink or do drugs when you are driving.
9. Managing your caffeine intake
Coffee is a drug, it is a stimulant — never forget this. Often people who drink coffee (decaf or non-decaf) will get a headache due to caffeine withdrawal. The point here is that you should, once again, consume coffee (or caffeine based products) at a rate that is no more than you would have normally consumed prior to the startup.
Issues that can result from misuse or over usage can include consuming too much or too late before bedtime, preventing you from being able to fall asleep and thus leading to poor sleep habits. You can also get so hooked on this that if you are without it you will feel sluggish and be in dire need of a pickup. Your choice, but I believe that having to be boosted by coffee instead of your own mind is a crutch and I would rather have some water, fruit or something healthy that will deliver natural and healthy energy.
10. Lack of change
Monotony is quite troubling and often overlooked. Too much of (almost) anything is not good. So the answer is to create good habits that break up the monotony such as moving to have a meeting at a restaurant, doing some work at a café, walking or biking to work, and even meeting someone for a walk during the day breaks up the boring and predictable.
11. Overextending your resources
The obvious here is about your own personal financial health and stability. Many founders fail to plan correctly or at all as to the timing when they are going to receive funding for their startup. This results in being in a financial pickle, as many would have dedicated all their time to the startup — foregoing any source of income. All I can say here is plan, plan, and budget conservatively. If possible, have a backup strategy if the funding takes longer than anticipated. You can also prepare for this by reducing your spending to help extend your ability to hold out until funding is received.
Another type of resource is your own time. The point here is extending your personal energy in multiple directions at the same time. An expression I come across often is “burning the wick (of a candle) from both sides”. So plan your time realistically, not by passion or desire.
12. Know when to shut down
This is something that my uncle taught me in my first startup and has stuck with me as its very effective. His advice what that you have to learn to just shut off — stop — no more business, and when you leave your office or workspace, do not discuss it any longer.
This is especially applicable for individuals who are working from their home. If you have a place where you work from in your home, cover it up, close the laptop, shut everything down or close the door to the room where you work — and do not go into it till the next business day.
In order to preserve one's sanity, the idea is to give oneself permission to stop working. Everyone needs a break, your brain needs a break and if you allow the business to permeate throughout your entire life you will reach a burnout much faster.
13. Failure is not a bad experience
The final point I will expand on has to do with the concept of failure. This is a four-letter word for most people in a startup, but a real entrepreneur accepts the fact that there are risks and part of that includes failure. One of the key differences among most successful entrepreneurs is that they use failure as a learning experience. As a matter of fact, I recall in my Queen’s EMBA program that my professor of business strategy, sales and marketing told us “If as an entrepreneur you are not failing 80% of the time, you are not working hard enough”. If this is true or not, I can tell you that most entrepreneurs are not successful the first time out. You can only do the best that you can and after that, it's not up to you.
If you fail, do not punish yourself, and this applies to small failures during the startup as well. You need to look failure in the eyes and face it head-on. Understand it, own it, learn from it and use the experience to prevent the same thing from happening a second time — yes, there is always a second time for you to have a go at a startup.
I hope that these points can help everyone have a better quality of life during their startup company and through to your long-term success. Remember to be open to people to be able to tell you if you are going down the rabbit hole of burnout or depression. Listen to them and do not deny it, better to err on the side of caution and look into it before it festers into something worse.
I’m Avy and I provide strategic business consulting and executive coaching service to companies around the globe and in varying industries. I work with startups and founders, with public company CEOs, and I help companies and executives reach their personal and professional goals with respect and pride as we overcome hurdles together. Over the last 10 years, I’ve co-founded three companies, am presently a co-founder and COO/CSO of a tech company, invested in some early-stage startups as an Angel investor, acted as a consultant and advisor for a US-based VC firm, and mentored hundreds of individuals and startups.
I thank you for taking the time to read my article and would very much welcome your comments, your own experiences and so forth. We are all in this world of entrepreneurship and startups — it is like a family of sorts so meeting new people is always a welcomed pleasure.
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