For founders, the topic of work-life balance can be especially elusive—the line between work and life is tenuous.
Burnout is now officially a medical diagnosis.
You read that right.
According to the most recent edition of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases handbook, doctors can diagnose someone with burnout—or chronic workplace stress—if they meet the following symptoms: (1) energy depletion or exhaustion; (2) negative feelings or cynicism related to one’s job; or (3) reduced professional efficacy.
If you’ve ever had several stressful weeks in a row working on a major project, you’re probably familiar with these symptoms. Maybe you don’t feel them every day, but you’ve definitely been tired. You’ve been frustrated. And you’ve had days where you just want to throw in the towel.
For founders, the topic of work-life balance can be especially elusive—the line between work and life is tenuous. With the weight of a company on your shoulders, it’s hard to turn off. You work late nights and answer calls throughout the weekend. Elon Musk even slept on the Tesla factory floor.
When your company is your passion, you might not even realize how hard you’re working. It’s nice when your work doesn’t feel like work, but it also means you have to be extra mindful of your energy levels and take care of yourself.
Here’s how to prevent burnout from creeping up on you:
There are jobs, there are careers, and there are passions.
When you take the massive risk required to start your own business, it probably falls in the third category. It’s something you’re deeply passionate about. Your work is almost like your identity. It’s something you couldn’t imagine not doing.
And when that’s the case, it’s hard to figure out the work-life balance that works for you. Because your work is your life, and your life is your work. If you were ever asked to stop, it would be like telling a runner not to run. It would tear out a part of you, and you wouldn’t be the same person.
At least that’s how I feel.
I definitely work more than 40 hours a week—I love my job too much to work any less. But that doesn’t mean I forget self-care. After all, we’re human beings. We get tired. We get frustrated. And we get burned out.
So I know when to take a break.
I don’t spend any sleepless nights. In fact, I try to get eight hours every night. When I was CTO at my previous company I worked longer hours, but I was less productive. Today, I’m the opposite.
Remember, it’s not the quantity of the time you put in—it’s the quality.
People often focus on the wrong things when they talk about work-life balance. Specifically, they act like stress is the enemy.
But not all stress is created equal.
When we ride a water slide or go on a first date, we experience good stress. Our pulse quickens and hormones change, and it keeps us sharp and engaged. Our bodies release cortisol, the primary stress hormone—which makes us mobilized and ready for action. Even a hobby like sewing or woodworking can release a moderate amount of stress, which allows us to keep going for 14 hours straight.
But you can’t be stressed 24 hours a day. In fact, chronic stress can cause serious negative health effects if left unchecked.
And this is what founders need to watch out for.
I love what I do, but it’s still stressful. I have clients call me up and yell at me. I have to take care of my family and keep food on the table.
But I also have to take care of my health.
As a founder, there’s no way to avoid stress, but you can avoid chronic stress—the dangerous kind. It’s all about checking in with yourself and taking time to recharge.
Hustling is important—maybe the most important thing when it comes to startups—but we’re still human.
It’s critical to implement a structure that allows you to get the work done that’s necessary for your success. But I also think people need to be a little more flexible and a little more kind to themselves.
I don’t mind the 24/7 hustlers of the world, but it’s unrealistic—not to mention unhealthy—to expect everyone to hustle 24/7. Honestly, if you find yourself working 70 hours a week, you might not be delegating enough. You might be over-extending yourself or spreading yourself too thin.
I truly believe most jobs can be completed in 40-45 hours if you’re focused and dedicated. These Silicon Valley people say they work nonstop, and maybe they’re in the office for the majority of the workweek—but they’ll break for an hour in the middle of the day to play foosball or Xbox. They take coffee breaks and go to Soul Cycle.
They aren’t working the entire time they’re in the office.
So instead of trying to rack up an impressive number of work hours, make the hours you do work matter.
All the time, I see entrepreneurs who go hard for six months and can’t keep it up.
They grind themselves into a slump with sleepless nights. And then when the company needs them the most, they’re tired and useless. Their mental energy is completely out the door.
That’s why I prefer to think about founding a company like a marathon.
Sure, you could sprint the first 13 miles—but there’s still 13 more miles to go. Your time will be terrible. You’re better off keeping a moderate, sustainable pace.
It’s the same in business. You can up the pace occasionally when it’s necessary, but you don’t need to sacrifice sleep.
If you don’t believe me, look at the science. With less sleep, you get diminishing returns. Anything less than five hours of sleep puts you at 60% capacity. I don’t know about everyone else, but I can’t run a successful business at 60%. I need to be at 100% because that’s what my clients demand, what my team demands, and what my family demands.
If you pace yourself, you’ll discover just how much more productive you can be.
Of course, there will always be more work to do. Could you be selling more? Yes. Could you be marketing more? Of course. Could you be writing more code? Absolutely.
But at a certain point, you need to hang your hat and let go of what’s not important. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself insane. Work-life balance isn’t about getting something over on someone—it’s about making sure your mental state is good to go every day so you can steer the ship.
Andrew has an M.S. in Computer Science from Georgia Tech University. But he prides himself over 10 years of experience working in the software industry for well-known companies such as Diebold, Tableau, Explorys, and Onshift. After years in the corporate and startup worlds as well as running his own consulting firm, Andrew realized he had to do more to improve software products and practices. From that, Skiplist was born. Skiplist is the opportunity to focus on thoughtful, quality software and change the software consulting industry.