As entrepreneurs, we hear a lot of advice about pacing ourselves and making time for an actual life outside of our startup. Taking that advice is not so easy, but it could make the difference between success and failure.
Startups are not sprints; they are the marathon from hell.
When we decide to run a marathon, we know the exact distance we'll run and how much fuel we'll need to get us across the finish line. When we launch a startup, we often have no idea how long it will take or how much runway we'll need to reach our intended goal. About the only thing we do know is that whatever we've estimated, we're likely not estimating high enough.
Despite the goldmine of advice available about pacing ourselves, when the pressure starts to mount, it is tempting to tap into the one resource the seems to be free - our time. One of the very real risks we take when we choose to push ourselves over long periods of time is that our bodies hit us with a harsh reality check and force a decision we weren't willing to make ourselves.
I have learned that lesson first-hand this year.
I came face to face with my own harsh reality check when I started out 2017 with a case of walking pneumonia that kept me dragging for months. But I ignored my doctor's advice to take two weeks completely off work - because who in their right mind would even think a CEO of a startup could do that?
I was booked to speak at several conferences over the next few weeks, so I powered through the flights and hotel stays, medicating and pushing forward because I was keenly aware that others were depending on me to not stop. I even hailed a Lyft to take me to urgent care after one speech out of fear I had something contagious. I didn't, but even the urgent care doctor told me to take time out for myself and slow down. My solution? Work from my laptop while lying down on the couch for the next few days.
But a couple of months ago when I contracted West Nile Virus from a mosquito bite, I didn't need a doctor to tell me to slow down. My body would simply not cooperate. I spent three days flat on my back in bed before I had enough energy and mental bandwidth to do more than just read the unending march of emails arriving in my inbox and marking most of them as spam.
Once I was finally through the worst of it and started to regain my energy, I was hit with another bout of symptoms. It turns out West Nile Virus is one of those special gifts that keep on giving, with random recurrences of symptoms still showing up almost two months after the initial infection.
So here is what I've learned about working wounded as a founder of a startup: it would have been best to pace myself before I ever got sick, and it would have been better to pace myself once I was sick.
I also learned that great startup teams pick up the slack and carry the weight when one of the team is not at their best. Despite my imagined fear of what might happen if I slowed down to recover, very little in the world actually stopped because I did. And most importantly, I learned that when I finally did slow down, I was more productive and effective than when I was pushing too hard.
I'm still finding my new rhythm. I go to bed earlier, and I turn off email and Slack notifications at a reasonable hour so that my mind has space to breathe and be creative. I am more strategic with the conferences I plan to attend and which speaking invitations I can accept. I set aside one day of the weekend where I do little or no startup-focused work. And on a recent weekend excursion with my son, I completely put away the laptop for the full weekend.
Instead of getting further behind on tasks or goals, I'm finding quite the opposite. My creativity and enthusiasm are returning, and the drive I kept trying to find while pushing myself so hard? All it took was giving myself room to breathe. I am more than ready to begin 2018 with the passion and vision that originally inspired me to launch our company.
If we are focused on achieving big goals, we will inevitably find ourselves in situations where we have to continue to work while wounded where our obligations are greater than our energy. But if we deceive ourselves into believing our health is an expendable asset to achieve those goals, the price we'll pay will be higher than we bargain for and still won't give us the results we wanted in the first place.