Every founder knows what it feels like to push too hard and have an empty tank. You are exhausted. You're fried. You're clawing your way to your next vacation. You feel like a shell of a human, going through the motions.
Burnout is a real thing. It happens when we are stressed out repeatedly and have physical and/or emotional fatigue.
If you think you’re already there, you may want to check out this book, which has helped me a ton:
Ideally, though, we want to avoid burnout in the first place. Our goal is to make daily and weekly stress levels sustainable. You may wonder how this is possible while launching an early stage startup but I assure you that you don’t need to fry yourself in the scaling process. Sure, we may need to occasionally push hard for a milestone or deliverable. It's unrealistic, however, to imagine that we can keep up that pace indefinitely.
Great leaders and managers have energy reserves so they can support others. We need access to our emotional intelligence and our best creative and strategic selves. Founders can't really do their job all that well while operating on fumes.
So, how do you avoid burnout? The key is energy management.
Sure, sometimes burnout comes from failing to delegate effectively, or being under-staffed. Sometimes burnout is a sign that we have some hard emotional stuff we need to sort out with a therapist. Sometimes burnout is about fixing a challenging relationship at work.
Often, though, burnout happens when we layer poor daily micro choices on top of each other. To make better choices, we need to increase our self-awareness and observe ourselves throughout the day. What drains your energy? What fills you back up again?
I often ask clients to fill out a spreadsheet like this so we can better understand how to stack every day and week for success:
Time of Day
Here’s how I would fill this out:
Time of Day
Eggs, fruit, veggies, avacado toast, cheese, chocolate, tea
Lindley, the F2L team, my neighbor Betsy, my son, my dog (counts as a person)
Biking, spin class, talking to good friends, a walk in the woods, 1:1 meetings, deep thinking time
Early morning (4 AM - 10 AM)
Too much solo time and I feel sad, too much people time and I'm exhausted
Sugary treats, turkey sandwiches, fried food
My crazy neighbor, most of my relatives
Admin tasks, detail work, mediations, short talks
Doing anything after 8 PM
Once you know where you derive your energy, you can be mindful about keeping your energy supply relatively constant so you rarely end up “empty."
A thoughtful block schedule (see this blog article) is one way to proactively design your daily life to get the right stuff done. It's important to design each week to achieve quarterly goals (strategic), to focus on what matters (proportional), and to ensure our basic needs are met (functional). We also, though, need to look holistically at how the week will feel from an energy-management perspective. This is not just about what happens during work hours, but also about how you use your personal time.
Believe it or not, I’m actually a closet introvert. After about 3 hours of client meetings, I need 15 minutes of quiet time to refill my bucket. I don’t need hours of silence; I just need a few minutes. I feel significantly more exhausted at the end of the day when I don’t protect a few minutes to retreat and restore.
I recently learned that I need to exert myself physically every day in order to sleep deeply at night. Yoga wasn’t enough. I need to actually burn and sweat with a hearty road bike ride or spin class.
I am sharing these examples to demonstrate that I'm still learning things about myself. Our needs change as we enter different stages of our life. Our energetic needs may even shift from season-to-season.
The key, though, is to be mindful. Watch yourself closely and keep experimenting with all of the tiny changes you can make to take care of yourself. All of the mini-adjustments you make each day will add up to the difference between being sustainability and burnout.