How To Overcome Founder Burnout

Note: this post was transcribed from this video.

Today I’m going to talk about How To Overcome Founder Burnout.

I have personal experience with founder burnout and I would define it as follows: Founder burnout is when you are working so many hours every week for so long, that you hit a breaking point and need to make big changes to keep things moving forward.

In my experience, founder burnout happens because of a temptation: the temptation to substitute hours for strategy. The temptation to do it all yourself, or solve problems simply by pushing harder and scrimping on sleep or other things that create a sustainable balance.

When I write it like that it sounds easy to avoid, but as any entrepreneur who has employees, and customers, and maybe investors will tell you, it’s pretty easy to fall into this trap. When things aren’t going as you think they should it’s a real temptation to keep going no matter what, and to be persistent AF. To just get it done. I know because I was in that mindset myself and I meet lots of entrepreneurs who are also in that mindset.

And the truth is that it can be a really productive mindset. In the short term. Persistence is often the dividing line between those who succeed in business and those who don’t. So it can be hard to know where to draw the line.

But, persistence and perseverance become a problem when you’re running at an unsustainable level. You can push yourself to the limit for a while, but ultimately there is a limit. I know because I found mine. At the time I was curious where it was and what would happen when I found it. And then I eventually found it and realized that when a tool (in this case my body) reaches it’s limit, it simply breaks. And so I found my limit and I’d recommend to anybody reading this not to find yours. Don’t break yourself if you can help it.

I know this because of my experience running Kindara. I had this kind of sick curiosity to figure out and understand how hard I could actually push myself. I’d ask myself questions like, “Can I keep going?” or “Can I keep getting up at six in the morning?” Sometimes I’d work up to 12 hours seven days a week. I wanted to know “What can I actually physically do?”

And yes, I found the answer to these questions. Unfortunately, like any sprinter or distance runner, I learned that I could keep going until I couldn’t go any longer. I learned I could keep going until my body literally shut down.

Sometimes, I would come home at the end of the day and lie face down on our living room floor. Kati would look at me and say, “You can’t keep doing this.” or “You need to switch something up or you gonna have health problems that are going to be irreversible.” or “Your hormone system is going to break and it’s never going to come back.” etc. And in retrospect she was right.

So all this to show you that I’ve been there. At Kindara we ended up hiring an outside CEO but if I could do it over, I would have done it differently.

Now with some perspective on the business, I see how I burned myself out, why I burned myself out, and what I could have done differently to avoid founder burnout. We sometimes hear that “A startup is a marathon, not a sprint”. People say that to remind founders that it’s an endurance event and to pace yourself. Startups last for years and years.

And that’s why I don’t like that saying, because a marathon you can only run for about 4-8 hours. Maybe you can run an endurance race for 24 hours. But, you can’t run indefinitely. It’s not a sustainable thing, to be running. At some point you’re going to need to stop.

So I made up my own idiom: “A startup is a brisk walk, not a marathon”  The reason I like this better is because you can go at a brisk walking pace pretty much forever. You could walk all day, get some sleep, get up, and walk the next day. Get some sleep, walk the next day. You can do that for a very long time, you can just keep walking. At a startup the pace needs to be brisk, but it also needs to be sustainable.

And that brings me to my last point before I dive into how to avoid burnout: In my opinion, if you are sprinting or running continuously at your startup, you’re doing something wrong. You are substituting hours for strategy. It’s likely there are ways to do what you are trying to do smarter.

One saying I love is, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. If you are pushing hard on everything to try and get everything done right now, the system typically gets jammed up. And when I’m talking about the system, I don’t only mean the external system of people and projects, but I also mean your mental system.

So, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. If you want to go fast, have a system where you can be moving steadily, incrementally every day, making the business better in an environment that feeds you. At this brisk pace you can actually keep going sustainably forever.

And that’s the context of how to get out of a Founder Burnout scenario.

3 Steps To Avoid Founder Burnout

The first step is to realize that founder burnout starts with your mental attitude. Let’s call this RMA or Right Mental Attitude.

A big reason behind why I burned myself out was because of my mental attitude. My mental attitude at the time was, “I need to work harder or this business is going to fail” and I think many founders are in that exact same headspace much of the time. The thing to notice about this mental attitude is that it’s centered around fear. It’a a fear-based mentality.

Take a minute in a quiet space and ask yourself the question: “How often am I in that state of “If I don’t push harder, this business is going to fail.’

Now realize that this is the state that leads to burnout. It leads to burnout because it is actually focussed on what you want to avoid: pushing harder and failing. Realize that pushing harder in order not to fail is a bad strategy. And a mental attitude based on fear naturally closes down your creative and strategic functions, so it becomes self-replicating. Like a snowball rolling down a hill into a pit of more and more hours and diminishing returns and perspective.

So the first step to overcoming founder burnout is to realize that you might be in fear-based mental state and to shift it. Some of the shifts that you can make to arrive at the RMA are:

  • I don’t need to work harder, but I need to work smarter or this business is going to fail.
  • I need to stop doing the things I’m not naturally gifted at, or this business is going to fail.
  • I need to learn how to delegate, or this business is going to fail.

All of these are paths that diverge from the “I need to work harder, or this business is going to fail” attitude. In my experience, these divergent paths have a much higher chance of success because the truth is, as an entrepreneur and as a visionary, you can’t do everything. And in fact you shouldn’t do everything because you’re not good at everything.

I believe each of us has a collection of God-given genius qualities. There are things that we are just naturally good at, and that we love doing. And there are things that we are naturally bad at, and we hate doing.

For me, I like products. I like coming up with product visions, and new product directions, and sketching out a product roadmap. But, I’m not good at detail work. I am not good at managing the details of a team of keeping people accountable. That’s stuff that I’m not good at. And one of the reasons I burned myself out at Kindara is because I was doing all kinds of stuff that I wasn’t good at. And that was actually causing more problems in the business than helping the business move forward.

Step one is to become aware of your mental attitude. If you are in a fear-based place, come up with a few different beliefs around working smarter, or delegating, or ceasing doing things that aren’t in your realm of genius. Try to identify what you’re good at and delegate the rest. Find a way to delegate stuff that you’re not good at, and you don’t like doing. This way you can free up space for you to do stuff that actually nourishes you and feeds you

Realize that working harder is a bad long-term strategy. It might work in short sprints, but as a long term strategy for the business to grow, you can’t have the bottleneck be working harder. That’s the number one thing.

Step two is to avoid burnout is to Do Less.

Look at everything that you’re doing, and pick the one to three things that are most important for the business right now. And then decide to stop doing all the rest of the things. It can be easy as a founder to try to do 5 projects at once, while also taking business development meetings, while also trying to do a Ted talk, and firing up a PR agency. But this is a path to bad execution and burnout.

Many visionary type entrepreneurs want to do everything. We have this idea that we can fit 100 pounds of stuff into a 50-pound bag. Or, that we can somehow get way more done this quarter than the last 6 quarters. Entrepreneurs have to be optimistic, but the optimism is a double edged sword.

So the second way to avoid burnout is to do less.

I know this is painful. It hurts me to say “I’m not going to do that. Even though I can see how beautiful, and fun, and amazing that can be, I’m not going to do it. I’m only going to focus on this.

And aside from being painful, it can also be boring. Focus takes discipline. But I can tell you from experience that discipline is what’s going to get you long term sustainable success.

So step number two is Do Less.

And step 3 is to have a Self Care and Rejuvenation routine.

This is vitally important for every entrepreneur but it is often overlooked. Taking the example of our brisk walk, the rest and rejuvenation routine might be frequent water and the right type of food. These things are crucial to keep walking day after day. Without them, disaster is just around the corner.

So ask yourself: what rejuvenates you? what can you do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly to stay fresh? It’s vitally important to figure out a self-care routine for yourself and then do it religiously. For daily stuff I would recommend doing it first thing in the morning.

For example: when I get up in the morning I exercise. I meditate and go over my goals. I do this every morning, even if I can only do them each for a minute each, I’ll still do them. That sets me up for the day. It makes me feel like I have a foundation for the day. On a weekly basis I also try and take one day off a week so I don’t do any work. (Dan Sullivan, of Strategic Coach calls this a free day).

This day is important because it gets my mind off work. It allows my body and spirit to just rejuvenate. I also try to take a day in nature at least once a month. And I could go on about my routines.

So number three is to find out what you need spiritually as a human being to stay nourished and be on this brisk walk that is entrepreneurship for years. Then make sure you’re doing that on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

So those are my top three actions to take to avoid burnout.

  1. Make sure you have the right mental attitude and find ways to strategize and delegate instead of trying to do more. Find ways to work smarter, instead of working harder.
  2. Do less, slow down. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
  3. Make sure you’re taking time to rejuvenate yourself and repair your spirit so that you can keep going for the long term.

Founder burnout is something I’m really interested in because it’s usually a symptom of deeply held negative thinking patterns or beliefs. If you are on the road to burnout and would like some help turning it around, or if you have already burned yourself out and are trying to figure out what to do, I’d love to speak with you. Please reach out to me at will at willsacks dot com or fill out the contact form to start a conversation.

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