Heroic is how I describe working 95 hours a week. Yes, some time in the summer, I was spending that much time on work related tasks. Crazy, no? I never planned to commit that many hours, didn’t need to, but as it was happening, I felt heroic. Looking back, it was one of the biggest mistakes I made for countless reasons. First, 30% of the tasks I spent my time on had no tangible impact on my mission. I could have thus saved myself 28.5 hours from useless effort and headache. Second, most of the complicated and important tasks were started and completed within the first 6 hours, my brain was less able to process information and solve problems later in the afternoon. Everything after the first 6 hours, therefore, had to be simpler and repetitive. Afternoon tasks were not given as much attention and productivity was low. Evening tasks were just a waste of time and effort. Most importantly was number 3. After each 95-hour work week, I felt extremely exhausted, discouraged, moody, sleepy, weak, and sometimes very sick.
Weeks went by and the quiet killer started to hit. It’s that period when everything starts to annoy you; when you are overtaken by concerns and disappointment. When you sleep less, think more, and start setting easier goals and objectives. No matter how much you try to think positively, you just can’t beat it as quickly as you want. Here are my lessons for avoiding and dealing with burnout.
Thinking Too Much All The Time Is The First Sign
Pre-execution: especially for first time passionate entrepreneurs, envisioning a better world with their potentially very successful and revolutionary idea can become the only thing they have in mind. It’s fun at first but very exhausting and irritating when many questions start to come up and answers aren’t always there. Things can get even more confusing and annoying when friends and family express a disagreement with entrepreneurs’ conclusions as to what constitutes a viable business.
Instead keep the enthusiasm and excitement up while acknowledging that some steps cannot be burned. Those steps are mostly educational and practical. Entrepreneurs must read, listen, ask questions and learn from others’ mistakes before executing on their ideas. Startup development education builds confidence and reduces uncertainty. This is how every entrepreneur should start.
Post-execution: questions change and concerns can become even bigger. Mentors and advisors have an excellent role in making sure you are avoiding their mistakes and everything is moving in the right direction. One of every entrepreneurs’ biggest mistakes is not asking enough questions. Sometimes we follow our guts, a post or presentation thinking we got it. And we don’t, we panic. Such panic if experienced on a continuous basis can cause anxiety, depression and may lead to burnout. I’d rather cut to the chase by sharing my concerns with more experienced entrepreneurs. It takes a lot of pressure off entrepreneurs’ shoulders.
Excessive Excitement Can Cause Burnout
I think most of us reading this post had friends who at some point in their life seemed like they will build the next billion-dollar company. Hearing them talk about their vision and the things they want and are committed to accomplish make you truly believe they will. Then all of the sudden it’s a no go for them. They change direction, get a job and move on. This, in my experience, is caused by either or both of the two following reasons: 1) they are dreamers not entrepreneurs, and/or, 2) they went from too much excitement to realism to exhaustion to giving up. The second usually happens because of the first because real entrepreneurs take the time to find answers and don’t expect short term rewards.
Instead, dream big but keep your feet on the ground. If things were as easy as a strong imagination of a bright future, everyone would have done it. Overexcitement will burn you out.
Not Everything You Do Adds Tangible Value
In line with the first wo points, stop what you are currently doing, go for a walk and ask these two questions: I work or expect to work day and night, for what (end result)? And, which tasks are directly contributing to this goal and which are not? Those that are not should go or, depending on available resources, should be assigned to others.
Spending many hours, especially during the most productive period of your day completing useless tasks will deviate your focus, use your energy and thus negatively impact the core of your business by slowing progress, delaying main goal achievements and potentially burning you out. My brother once called me as I was mining data for analysis purposes which I used for market analysis. I would spend 1-2 hours a day searching keywords, cleaning excel sheets and running regressions. Frankly, the analysis provided some insights but not a justification for the hours spent. I told my brother this was the most consuming and useless time of the day. He said why are you doing it then? I said, you’re right. Why? I couldn’t find a completing answer so I shut it down the moment my call ended and never looked back.
Only focusing on what adds direct value to your mission, vision, short and long term goals will keep you away from the activities that can hinder your performance on the important tasks.
Know Your Worst-Case Scenario And Make Sure You Accept Its Consequence
An expected bad scenario is a hundred times better than the same but unexpected one. If you are getting to a point where you start saying, one more of these and I’m done, you have not done a good job thinking about what can potentially happen and what you should do in the event they occur. This is directly tied to startup development education. Some of you may wonder, how do I know what can happen? Some things catch us off guard and it’s a losing battle, we can’t fight god, others can easily be expected such as bank freezing accounts unexpectedly due to suspected suspicious activities, employees quit, clients don’t pay, product does not meet expectations, failing the first 3 ventures, partners cancel contracts, etc. Such events, if unexpected and unaccounted for, will quickly cause discouragement and failure.
In addition to education and reflection, mentors will help you expect and overcome tough times. Giving someone a chance to think along can be a life saver, literally.
No matter how educated we are, how much planning we do, or lessons we take, we are not invincible. What makes managing burnout difficult is that it is hard to identify. When you’re burned out, you are not necessarily depressed, exhausted, anxious or tired. You can be perfectly fine and healthy and yet burned out. If your mind is constantly overtaken by worries and concerns, if everything angers you, if your body is denied sleep and if you feel unhappy and unstable, you may be experiencing a burnout. If you are or when you do, here is how to get back on track quickly.
Create a Worry List
Help your brain rest. Write down your concerns and leave some mental space to relax. Make sure you clear your head from all the things that are causing your worry then for each point, create a list of steps that need to be taken for it to be completed. As Henry Ford says, nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs. Next,
Take Some Time Off
According to Steve Blank, Larry Ellison would sometimes disappear for a few days to think and often returns re-charged with a pile of ideas. Taking a break is also about helping the brain rest and think. With a rested mind, you’ll be able to look at the list and steps from step 1 with a different mindset and perspective to possibly realize nothing was a big deal in the first place or propose different and better action steps to successfully solve problems and concerns. Last but not the least,
Is this what I want to do for the next 5-10 years? It is when you do the things you love that you are less likely to burnout. Are you passionate for what you do and do you see yourself doing it for a long time? During your time off period, take some time to rethink about your passion, interest and future. It is during those periods that I usually realize what I really enjoy doing.
Every persistent professional (startup founder, corporate executive, small business owner or employee) will, in one way or another, go through one or multiple burnout stages. Learning what it means to be burned out, how to avoid it and, when it comes, how to deal with it can have a major impact not just on us but also on those around us such as family, friends, clients, partners, and mentors.
How else did you learn to avoid and cope with burnouts?