In my early LearnVest startup era there were some extreme days--one of which even landed me in the hospital--as I was dropping out of Harvard Business School and traveling cross-country. Yes, I literally worked myself to the bone and was so sick I was hospitalized.
It shouldn't take a fever so high that you are physically breaking to remind us all that we only get one body, and one mind. I quickly realized that "surviving startup mode" isn't just a clever catch phrase: It's an imperative.
One thing I appreciated about my board of investors was that they would go out of their way to say, "Hey, are you sleeping?" Their thoughtfulness in asking such a question made me realize how work was negatively impacting my own well being.
The Harvard Business Review coined a phrase--the corporate athlete--that describes the shape you need to be in to succeed in business. The gist is that you'll never be your best self unless your spiritual, mental, emotional and physical capacities are at their peak.
Here's how I made it through my startup athlete training and beyond.
1. I lived by my Fitbit.
Get the cheapest version you can afford, the one that counts steps and monitors your sleep. That little device kept me accountable for taking care of myself. And it still does. I think of being an entrepreneur, a CEO and an executive like training for the Olympics. You're trying to do something that's super-human, and if you were training as an athlete, you'd have a really serious regimen for exercise and sleep. There's no difference in the corporate world. And when that a-ha moment struck me, it made me realize that taking--literal--small steps could make or break my career.
2. I made time for exercise.
For me this means at least working out three to five times a week, which is really hard to do when you're running around. One of the struggles with exercise during this stage is when you're responsible for other people's salaries and careers, it really weighs on you and you feel selfish making time for things like going to the gym. So I treated it reasonably, but still made it a priority. Finding that balance was critical. I also downloaded a ton of workout apps--like the 7-minute workout--that you can do from anywhere, with no equipment.
3. I slept.
Once I started tracking my sleep, I got so much more aware--scarily more aware--of the fact that on occasion, I was getting four hours of sleep for two to three nights in a row. I say scarily because it really highlighted the times I was frayed. But the positive side of that was that even today, my device beeps every night at 10:15, which has made me so much better about winding down and going to bed. If at 10:15 I'm still at a dinner, it cues my graceful Cinderella moment to head home. If I'm in my house watching TV, it triggers to say, "Do I really need to watch this?" It helped me transition from four to five hours to more like six and--dare I even dream--eight.
Despite my self-imposed discipline, there were countless nights when I opened my eyes thinking it was 5:30 in the morning but it was actually 2:30 AM or 3:00 AM. And I realized that there was an issue at work that was weighing really heavily on my mind. There were even nights where it weighed so heavily that I woke up my husband to help me talk it through. And those were always the nights where I knew I had to make a really hard call.
Until you can manage yourself, you really can't productively manage others. I found that running a startup is about getting punched in the face a bunch. If you want to do it really well, you need to have the emotional energy, stamina and resolve to tackle those hard moments. For me, that was a combination of sleep, exercise, seeing my doctors, eating my vegetables, and having really great relationships with my friends and family. That's what carried me through the superhuman requirements of startup life.
Don't be confused: There is always a grind, and you can never outsmart it. But there can be a healthy infusion. And even though I have not perfected that yet, every day feels a little healthier.