I can’t believe it’s May.
It feels like the last few months have flown. And by flown, I don’t mean in a jovial, enjoyable manner. It’s been uncomfortable. I’m likening it to being chucked in a river and only just keeping up with its current.
I was focused for so long on getting my long-term US visa (related: immigration reform for entrepreneurs), that once it happened, there was a pause. When I first got to NYC, I powered through getting the home and office set-up that after it was all done, I felt tired. Now, for anyone who’s just moved, let alone someone creating a startup, this might seem natural. However, it’s been an unusual state for me. I recently admitted this to my friend Jen. She laughed, remarking that she thought of me as one of her ‘Ninjas’ for getting things done as well as being everywhere, so it was good to see I was human. (I say this mostly to display things are relative – and to share vulnerably from a place of strength, not to boost ego.) It was somewhat of a relief as I tend to house a High Expectations Asian Father in my head!
Since then, I recognised I’ve been getting a taste of burnout. And I haven’t really encountered it before. You can read all the lifehack and productivity tips you like but until you experience something, it’s hard to relate. I believe we don’t understand much about burnout in startups because a lot of literature is focused around the initial – or final days of companies. It’s either the hustling, fearful enthusiasm or calming hindsight of success. Once you’re one or two years into working on something, it’s different – you need to find that balance to continue. Burnout isn’t to be confused with stress either. You are very conscious of when you’re stressed – it’s manifests physically and is the result of too much. Burnout is the opposite – it sneaks up on you emotionally. It’s the result of too little – it’s hopelessness and detachment.
Burnout feels like you (can) no longer give a shit about things you usually care so much for. Your momentum is off. Giving up seems like a serious option. You’re indecisive and lost. You feel bitter. Unsupported. And according to Marissa Mayer, resentful:
“I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful. I tell people: Find your rhythm. Your rhythm is what matters to you so much that when you miss it you’re resentful of your work.” ~Mayer
Tomasz Tunguz offers another perspective with the antidote to burnout being progress. To him:
“Burnout is a motivation problem, a listlessness, a defeatist attitude, and perhaps even a hopelessness, triggered by the lack of progress.” ~Tunguz
He recommends highlighting what you have done each day as a reminder of the progress made. I love the idea of a ‘done list’ instead of a ‘to-do list’ as a place to leave our minds as we finish each day. Celebrating what you have achieved and the resulting successes is crucial. It’s definitely not something I’ve done enough of to date, and while this keeps one in a humble beginner’s mind – awareness of progress helps build confidence. You need to regularly reflect on how far you’ve come. Rebekah Campbell has a post on why this is important:
“When you’re burdened with a list of unmet goals, it’s easy to overlook what you have achieved.” … “I learnt that this approach weakened motivation. The team didn’t feel appreciated and productivity dropped. Worse than that, we weren’t having fun!” ~Campbell
Andrew Dumont also published a Svbtle post last week with some tips on avoiding burnout. You hear the following suggestions a lot but working out, sleeping well, taking time off, unplugging, getting small wins and a healthy diet can make a massive difference. I now aim for at least one day a week where I’m not working on my startup. Because the beta version of The Fetch involves a Monday morning deadline, I realised I’ve work every weekend for the past year and a half. There’s comes a point where working longer and harder isn’t viable anymore.
In fact, I’ve recently revisited my entire schedule after Amber Rae’s Fast Company piece on optimising for creative performance. I try to hold all my meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, get in the zone with solo work on Monday and Wednesdays and use Friday for catch-up requests, coworking in cafes/spaces and getting through the inbox. I’m following Amber’s lead and scheduling nothing for all day Saturday and Sunday mornings – enjoying free time and allowing for more spontaneity, not to forget new city exploration. I’ve moved most of my non-work related communication and mentoring to Clarity and cannot recommend it enough.
Another thing to note is that if you’re like me and actually love your work, it is hard to switch off to do other things. I’m not exactly going to finish up for the day to do some drinking at a noisy bar, but I might like to put some energy into a side-project (like this blog). Now I’m in one place, I’ll also take up biking everywhere again.
If you’re trying to navigate burnout, my final tidbit is to cull any niggling negativity from your life. As cliché as it sounds, life really is short and it’s a waste of time trying to please everybody, or bring naysaying connections along for the journey. Make space and you’ll attract the right peeps.
So, I guess this did just turn out to be another post on burnout. :) If you have any other tips or words of wisdom, please share in the comments or hit reply to send me a message if you subscribe via email.
Related: Burnout on Wikipedia and this entry has a great table on the difference between stress and burnout.
12 thoughts on “Not just another post about burnout”
You’re brilliant. And shit as it is to hear we’re both going through the same thing, it is such a relief to hear you – of all people – are in the same place xxx
Nice post, Kate! For me, I find that I hit burnout when I don’t get enough sleep. It happens when I run ragged for too long, especially when I’ve been flying a lot and/or working odd hours (and sleeping at odd hours). I have to pseudo-unplug from the grid for a few days to catch up on sleep and reset.
I can relate… sometimes the wins are so few and far between that my attention turns to other things, simple things I can do with my hands – like renovating the house. With renovations I see instant results – yay, I dug a hole!
I find that setting out time for yourself is most important. For me it’s a solid gym workout first thing in the morning to kick things off. Later in the day, I get together together with the guys for Jiu Jitsu, or maybe some time playing music.
Fantastic article, Kate.
One thing that bothered me: when you felt the need to explain/apologise for being “a human.” This bother me: if this article was written by a man – he would not have explained himself, nor apologised. You see it many times in the startup culture, where men write about themselves/their startups – they make bold statements about themselves and are rarely apologetic.
Furthermore, you ARE human! So don’t apologise and be proud of yourself and your brand! Now go have a nice up of tea. Stop being so hard on yourself. :)
Thanks Gem! I actually showed Mat the post before publishing and he said sharing Jen’s comment sounded cocky, so then I inserted the apologetic disclaimer. I should have gone with my instinct and realised it wasn’t needed! :)
A great piece. I especially like the “Done” list for providing a sense of what you’ve achieved, instead of the “OMG, I have so much more to do”.
Brilliant Kate and so wonderful of you to share.
Definitely know what a burnout can feel like. I guess the only thing to take from it is that you can see the signs in the future.
Have you figured out what the burnout is from? Or is it not really something you can pinpoint or explain?
Hey Fox! Yep, I was aware of what the taste of burnout has been from. It seems stock-standard for the startup world (and women who give lots)! It can take some time to identify the cause but if we’re conscious of emotional feedback loops, it’s quicker.
It’s particularly tough to detect burnout when one’s ‘work’ is also one’s life passion. Some find it hard to believe, but we can burnout from overextending in our passions as well. And everyone has a different burnout limit. There’s no rule of thumb. Everyone’s early warning signs are different too. It’s up to us to learn to recognise our own unique signals from body and mind.
My first warning signs tend to be disinterest and a sudden dip in clarity of thought. That’s when my mind says, “I’m getting close to the limit.” If I ignore that, I start getting random anxiety attacks, depression and mental fog. If I still insist on ignoring that, I fall sick physically. End of story. How long does it take? It depends on how hard I’ve been pushing. Real hard with lots of stress, it can be as short as a month.
As an entrepreneur, this is extremely limiting but I’ve learnt to recognise my personal limitations and work with them, instead of resenting them and constantly pushing myself to be something I’m not. It’s all about self respect.
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