3 Tips to Prevent Burnout While Working in a Startup

Balancing your workload, sanity and energy during a startup is critical to avoid the big crash...

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The startup culture values work and hustle at all times and above all else. A no-holds barred royal rumble of 80 hour weeks are often the norm. And to a point it is true, crazy schedules are often required to get a new business off the ground and achieve the milestones required to continue moving forward. There’s a reason burnout is so prevalent in Silicon valley. Not many people can take the heat for long without getting burned. 

Startup culture has a very high toll, and finding a way to survive – much less thrive – in this extreme environment is difficult for most. Success long term depends on having a system to balance the workload, and avoid crashes and burnout like so many have experienced.

After attempting my first couple businesses 20 years ago and working 16 hour days, I would routinely crash, or worse burn out prior to getting the company off the ground. Early on there is no replacement for sweat equity, and while trying to conserve money it often means doing it yourself.

I went on to build multiple companies from the ground up, and have developed and refined many processes required for me to survive long enough to achieve success in this environment. While a crazy schedule and 16-hour days are still normal, I have found ways to ensure I don’t burn out before crossing the finish line. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, and how I’ve managed to find some semblance of balance after more than 8 startups requiring crazy hours, workloads and stress.

The 3 Biggest Takeaways For Preventing Burnout I’ve Learned in my 20 Years of Startups:

  1. Schedule downtime

    I find that every couple of months a real break is required to recharge my batteries. Not just a day or two, but one to two weeks.The accelerated cost of extra hours will eventually take its toll, and you need to be prepared to offset it if you’re going to maintain the pace. Be the tortoise and not the rabbit.

    “But I can’t take that long off!” you may be saying. Let’s be clear. The owner/founders should really be the only ones working hours like that on an ongoing basis. Expecting employees to work those hours consistently is unrealistic and will likely lead to multiple other problems. Long days are expected in this environment, but don’t expect everyone to share the heaviest costs with you. And if you’re the founder then you can take it, and need to plan it into milestones and investor expectations.
  1. Go extreme

    Balance and extremes don’t often go in the same sentence, however when going hard is the name of the game, your recovery needs to go extreme as well. That means downtime needs to be “full downtime” so you can get your mind off work and recover so you can recharge properly. There’s nothing worse than taking a short vacation but not getting the recovery and then feeling like you’re picking up where you left off on your first day back.

    For me, this means staying off my phone or at least away from business apps. Usually I will vacation in an area that has too much going on to be involved in the daily grind. Preventing habits is especially difficult if you are usually working remote and on a laptop all day. It is very easy to jump back into your daily habits.
  1. Find your own balance

    I can tell you what works well for me, but in all honesty if you’re going to maintain a startup schedule for more than a couple months then you’ll have to experiment. Test ideas and strategies and find what works best for you so you can keep going, avoid burnout, and not die an early death due to stress.

    I find short and frequent breaks (even if it is only goofing off for half a day once a week), combined with a substantial 3-7 days of downtime every few months to more fully recover is the best combination for me. But you’ll have to find what works best for you. Be aware of where your breaking point is, and listen to your body so you don’t push it too far. There’s times I need to take a half day to get more sleep so I can recover to the point of being functional again.

    Also, try and find something small to aid in recovery you can implement on a daily basis to help rejuvenate a bit. You may need to cut off all work after a certain time, or watch a movie before bed or something similar to give your brain some downtime. This way you can wake up feeling refreshed.

The main thing is to be sure you find something that works for you. This is especially important on the days you feel maxed out. The most trying times are the ones having a plan in place is critical. 

While not many people are crazy enough to stay in startup mode for the long term, it is important to make sure you develop the necessary toolkit to thrive in the environment. You’re not tested on the easy days, but on the difficult ones. Hopefully, these 3 strategies will help you find the path that works best for you so you can continue to grow your company and achieve success!

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