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Crushing It? More Like Crushing Me. How One Missed Flight Stopped Me From Burning Out

Constant travel, trade shows, 5 a.m. starts, 16-hour days and late-night drinks with partners had left me spent.

Dave Carruthers

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Tech start-ups have a storied culture of breakneck-paced work and personal sacrifices. The industry is led by individuals who have proudly made their work their life, whatever the cost. The frantic energy of this lifestyle is exciting, and the image of it is alluring. But, make no mistake, it’s also unrealistic and dangerous.

In 2013, I launched a video feedback technology company, Voxpopme. We’ve quickly scaled to employ 50 people across three continents, raising millions from angel investors and VCs. We’ve also accumulated a client list including many Fortune 500 brands. On the exterior, everything looked great. But, in July, after over 45 solid days on the road, the happy accident of a missed flight reminded me of just how much I was missing by keeping this schedule.

The day before I needed to be in Nashville, Tenn., for a client meeting, followed immediately by two weeks of travel in the U.K., I missed my flight to London. Looking at my laptop to re-book, I felt overwhelmed and was overcome with a need to stop, to take a break, to escape. I had already worked through the majority of a family vacation just a few weeks earlier. Constant travel, trade shows, 5 a.m. starts, 16-hour days and late-night drinks with partners had left me spent. After thriving on the adrenaline of constant work for months, something had changed. I was absolutely dreading it. I just wanted to be at home. I missed my wife, my kids, even just sleeping in my own bed.

I canceled the rest of my trip and, after returning home, I had a period of intense reflection where I learned a lot about myself, and about the unforgiving pressure that entrepreneurship can cause. Fortunately, this learning experience only came at the cost of a plane ticket. But, I’d like to share the lessons learned. Others in my shoes have pushed themselves past where they should and paid a higher price.

ceo-superheroes

Lesson 1: There are no CEO superheroes

I’ve come to realise the impossibility of becoming one of those romanticised, non-sleeping startup CEO geniuses. This class of person did not exist in the first place.

The myth of the superhero-CEO is common because it serves a potent marketing goal. As the Wall Street Journal noted in June, “Powerful founder-CEOs who were once lauded for flouting convention are facing a new reality: They aren’t superheroes, after all. Treating them as if they were has been bad for their companies and investors alike.”

The myth’s danger, as the Journal article states, is because it is the root of the misplaced confidence in companies like Theranos, where Elizabeth Holmes’s purported genius was used to silence the company’s critics. This myth gave former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick too much leeway for malfeasance, encouraged by the idea that he was somehow irreplaceable.

For upstart CEOs like myself, this is an unhealthy example to follow. Rejecting needs like sleep and family time left me burnt out. I didn’t see it coming because I had on blinders, in pursuit of this unattainable image.

Lesson 2: When you are your business, your health is your business’s

Re-grouping in Utah, I sat down with one of my mentors, Lonnie Mayne. He had seen this coming. He said I had been maintaining a schedule that was bad for relationships, my family and – yes – bad for business. Having one person as the lynchpin of an entire company is unhealthy for all involved.

Ariana Huffington has recently expanded her career to study this phenomenon, promoting a restful-but-successful lifestyle in the wake of personal tolls that came with running The Huffington Post. After seeing Elon Musk humblebrag on TV about his lifestyle of 100-plus hour workdays, she wrote him an open letter asking him to see the error of his ways.

Quoting a critical passage: “After 17-19 hours without sleep, we begin to experience levels of cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, just under the threshold for being legally drunk. No business leader would hire people who came to work drunk, so don’t model that behaviour for your employees.”

The start-up world is one where one bad decision can undo thousands of man-hours of hard work. Burning the candle at both ends drastically increases the odds of this happening.

writing

Lesson 3: Take what you love and write it down

In the midst of this regroup, I told my mentor Mayne about the guilt I felt when I wasn’t working. Often, I’d sit down to watch a football match but internally beat myself up for not focusing on my enormous to-do list. If I wasn’t working, I wasn’t happy.

In response to my company’s to-do list, Mayne suggested developing one of my own. We started by writing a list of everything that mattered to me: Friends, family, fitness, health, watching sports, snowboarding. To ensure balance, we broke them down into my primary focus for that month and things that were important and needed attention but were not a top priority. I shared this with my wife and our executive team so they understood where my focus was.

Finally, I weighed my personal list against my company’s and made some real concessions to ensure I would be able to prioritise both. I completely restructured my schedule for the rest of the year, switching from 80:20 travel to 20:80, and committing to being more present with my family and using my time more effectively to lead the business.

This ties back to Lesson 2, as a part of this involved delegating some areas of the business to my team. Rather than worry about keeping up with everything as the company grows, I’m proud knowing that I’ve put together a team that is capable of stepping in to share the burden.

There comes a point in a company’s growth where it’s no longer possible to maintain the “start-up grind” that was once necessary for survival. This isn’t a negative! This is a sign things are moving in the right direction.

Lesson 4: You’re not alone

Finally, I decided to write about this experience on LinkedIn. Initially, I was worried: What would my team think, how would existing and prospective investors react … would people think I was weak?

I couldn’t have been further from the mark.

My inbox was flooded with messages of support. I even had a VC email me to share that he had realised this lesson too late at his startup and had paid a heavy personal price as a result. Two months on, I’m more productive than ever before. I have more energy and a much clearer vision for the company. All while working fewer hours, focusing my time in the right place and not neglecting the people most important to me. Ultimately, I’ve managed to find a balance and make sure that I’m winning without losing.

If my story feels like yours, take a moment to evaluate your next three months and focus on the things that really matter. Odds are, you’ve already surrounded yourself with people who have the ability and know-how to deliver the things you thought too important to let go. Trust them to help your company achieve sustainable growth and watch yourself grow as a result.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

Dave Carruthers is an entrepreneur specializing in high-growth tech businesses. At Voxpopme, Carruthers works on video market research. Voxpopme's solution now helps leaders in every industry see the people behind the data, transforming the process of capturing and analyzing video insight.

Work Life Balance

Why Rest Is the Secret To Entrepreneurial Success

The surprising power of downtime: Here’s why the most successful founders work the least.

Aytekin Tank

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Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land mammal. These feline sprinters can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in three seconds flat. Explosive speed enables them to take down an antelope, but when they’re not hunting, cheetahs expend as little energy as possible.

In fact, researchers found that cheetahs burn about 2 000 calories per day – the same as an average-size man. “I guess both humans and cheetahs rest a lot to offset high-energy activities,” biologist Johnny Wilson told National Geographic.

Cheetahs work hard to capture their prey, but they quickly compensate for each burst by hiding, waiting and resting. Clearly, they don’t have startups to run, but I can’t help but draw a parallel between these big cats and modern founders.

In the early days of my 12-year entrepreneurial journey, I was the anti-cheetah. I thought success required 16-hour workdays. I was constantly building, growing and hustling. Over the years, I’ve learned that busy and successful are not the same thing. Yet, many of us spend the whole day sprinting, to the point where we’re stressed and exhausted.

According to Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, busyness has become a widespread health issue:

“Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep, and mental and physical fatigue.”

As I’ve built my company, JotForm, I’ve learned that when we know how to balance work with restorative rest, our productivity can skyrocket — and we might even catch more antelope.

The roots of busyness run deep

Scholars believe Homer wrote the Odyssey near the end of the 8th century B.C. In book 9 of this epic poem, Odysseus describes the island of the Lotus-eaters, where the natives spend their days lounging and eating the intoxicating lotus fruit.

Once Odysseus’ crew tries the fruit, they forget about home and long to live out their days on the idyllic island. Eventually, Odysseus drags his men back to the ship and locks them up to break the spell.

Talk about a parable for laziness. It seems even Greek philosophers prized industry, and yes, busyness. Today, everyone from founders to football coaches despise anything that implies complacency. We’re always pushing to do more, to improve ourselves and to stay constantly in motion.

Subconsciously, we even evaluate peoples’ worth based on how many hours they work or how “in demand” they are. We prize “busy” above all else. At a certain point, however, we have to make a choice: Do we want to be busy, or do we want to make an impact?

Nothing is more precious than time. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Escaping the cult of “busy” means taking time to rest – and it requires us to step back and re-evaluate what matters most. I’d like to share how I’ve learned to reject the frenetic pace of startup culture, and how you can, too.

Related: You’ve Already Abandoned Your New Year’s Resolution. Here’s A Better Path To Reach Your Goals

Start small – and take breaks

Busyness robs us of precious hours: to think, play, explore, nurture relationships – and to rest.

“There is a simple way to take back your time: Do less,” journalist Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson wrote in John Hopkins Health Review.

“And yet, those two words are perhaps the most challenging call to action. Doing less means understanding your priorities and constantly defending them against the encroachments of the status quo, which dictates that busyness – and material wealth and value – is best.”

As Dickinson says, it’s not easy to reverse our mental conditioning. Doing less isn’t as simple as it sounds. That’s why I recommend starting small. First, take the time to discover your peak hours, then take breaks throughout the day. Not only will you feel better, but these short rest periods can actually improve the quality of your work.

In fact, regular breaks can prevent decision fatigue, restore motivation, increase productivity and creativity, and consolidate memories. Breaks that involve even five minutes of movement can also improve our health and well-being.

Taking time to grab a coffee or chat with a team member is far from “doing nothing,” but it’s an important way to step off the metaphorical treadmill and re-establish your priorities.

Reserve time for reflection

Some of the greatest founders, innovators and creators set aside large chunks of time just to reflect. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates first took solo Think Weeks – seven days spent reading, strategising and reflecting — before the idea spread through the company. Today, Gates credits those weeks with generating some of Microsoft’s top innovations.

Other founders, like Skillshare’s Mike Karnjanaprakorn, have now implemented the practice. So have Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Ferriss. Even people who can’t take a full week for reflection often thrive when they set limited working hours.

The late Dr. Maya Angelou, for example, always drew clear boundaries in her schedule. The legendary writer, poet, singer and activist arrived at her desk around the same time each day. Afterward, she set aside work to spend time with her family.

“I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon,” Angelou said in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

“If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.”

Challenge your body

Rest doesn’t necessarily mean lounging out on the couch, watching Netflix in a glassy-eyed trance. The most effective downtime also involves physical exertion, whether that’s a long walk, a hike or a bike ride. Restorative activities can help to balance out more brain-intensive work.

Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, says rest is a necessary form of mental restoration. And exercise is one of the best ways to recover the mental energy we need to perform at peak levels.

“There are so many people who find that a workout, a long hike, clears their minds, helps them calm down, gives their subconscious mind opportunity to think through problems,” Pang told Scientific American. “What all of that teaches us is that exercise is a really important form of rest.”

Related: How To Get The Best Out Of Your Brain At Work

Embrace the digital Sabbath

At least one day a week, give yourself a technology break. It’s not easy to cut the psychological strings, but going device-free on a Saturday, a Sunday or another day of your choice can give your mind space to wander, while enhancing your creativity.

If a full day away from screens and notifications feels challenging, you’re not alone. But remember that a stressed, tired brain can’t generate fresh ideas. We’re also more likely to make mistakes and overcomplicate solutions when we’ve exhausted our mental reserves.

As the late Steve Jobs once said, “Simple thinking can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

Consider bootstrapping

VC-backed founders get the lion’s share of startup press. They make headlines with record-breaking funding rounds and dominate the top of TechCrunch. Outside investment can provide essential startup capital, but it can also tie founders to the pressures of hockey-stick growth targets and boards eager to recover their cash.

Instead of the 24/7 grind, I chose to bootstrap my company with a slow-and-steady approach to growth. It has taken time, and it hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve built a stable business that can even function without me. Most importantly, I have full control over my work and my life.

If that sounds like a privileged position, you’re absolutely right. I’m grateful for the ability to spend a whole summer with my wife and my newborn baby, for example, and I’ve worked hard to reach this point. Bootstrapping isn’t the right approach for everyone, but it can help you to maintain your freedom and live a more balanced life.

Work to live, instead of living to work

Even in a conversation about rest, we still tend to look through the lens of productivity. We’ve become obsessed with maximising every minute – and that’s fine, as long as we reclaim that time for our lives, not necessarily our work.

Related: Arianna Huffington’s Recipe for Success: Avoid Burnout

No matter how excited we may feel about our businesses, or each new project, a rich life also includes family, friends, exploration and adventure, in whatever proportion you desire. I certainly don’t want to regret relationships that fell apart while I was staring at a screen, or the opportunities I missed in the world outside my office.

Try to leave work at work – even if it’s in your home. Give yourself the gift of restorative downtime. And balance thinking hours with time spent in motion. Just like the cheetah, we can sprint to bring down the antelope, but then it’s time to rest.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Work Life Balance

Having The Time Of Your Life

How can you avoid a To-Do list that never gets ticked off by the end of the week? Or maximise the number of hours you work on critical projects, to achieve your career goals? And why is it important to take time out?

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Being an entrepreneur is a constant balancing act between the demands of your business needs and your personal life. The key to a work/life balance that ensures you achieving your work and personal goals for the year ahead, is effective time management.

Time is our greatest resource and there are many ways in which to maximise your ability to manage this precious commodity. But how can you avoid a To-Do list that never gets ticked off by the end of the week? Or maximise the number of hours you work on critical projects, to achieve your career goals?  And why is it important to take time out?

Unfortunately, time does equal money

In the modern workplace and in most businesses, time is synonymous with money. Whether you bill by the hour, or bake by the truckload, time is essential in running a successful career and business. Just think of how important time is in the service industry, and how time influences purchasing decisions. Think of all the drive-through fast food chains in a city – all there to save time. Because time is indeed money, it is critical to prioritise your time effectively. Keep in mind your most pressing deadlines, plan ahead and prioritise clients and customers effectively.

Related: 6 Steps To Go From Procrastinating To Productive

Me-time with a twist

Self-management impacts on your personal effectiveness and includes managing yourself and your time, being responsible for your achievements and being accountable for your results and successes. In business, if you prioritise a company’s time more efficiently, it can lead to improved customer service, improved delivery, increased profits, and increased market shares.

Imagine what it could do for you if you made the mind shift to prioritise your time and self-regulate your time daily?

Visualise that empty inbox

Start by removing thoughts of procrastination and imagine yourself as a “doer.” Think of the benefits of becoming a doer. What would our work life be like if we organised our tasks in order of importance, and not in order of enjoyment? What would it feel like to be thought of as someone who “got things done” and was “reliable?” How would we handle our paperwork? Imagine having an empty in-tray.

Critically, managing your time and self-regulating the hours, minutes and seconds in a work day will free up time for the people that matter in your life. Go watch that ballet recital or cricket game you never have time for. Have a coffee with a fellow entrepreneur and see how these small acts of rewarding you for time well spent, with energise you in your daily tasks.

Ditch the time wasters

A Time Waster is anything (or anyone) that doesn’t contribute to your daily goals or your To-Do List. Many of these time wasters have become a natural part of our work style. Now is the time to change – to reverse the process. It will take time and effort to get rid of time-wasting habits. Research shows that it takes approximately 21 days to change a habit.

For example, at first, we will have to make a conscious effort to keep our meetings on track. If things are dragging on, we need to stand up and indicate that the meeting is over (if you are running it), or to be excused (if your input is no longer required). This applies to all the time-wasting habits we have acquired.

Related: The Tools That 5 Highly Productive Entrepreneurs Use

It may be uncomfortable at first to tell a colleague that you are busy and unable to chat – but as you get used to being assertive and as they get accustomed to the fact that you are not always available – then it will become easier.

More tips to deal with time wasters

  • Fix a time for paperwork and admin;
  • Have clear daily objectives;
  • Delegate work as needed;
  • Group your telephone calls;
  • Be assertive with unannounced visitors.

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Work Life Balance

The Secret To Living A Balanced Life As A CEO? Pick A Strong Second In Command

The key is to find a partner who is strong in areas where you are weak.

John Suh

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Entrepreneurs are not known for having work-life balance. In my experience, trying to find balance as a start-up founder is like looking for a real-life unicorn. If you’re looking to create something that is disrupting an industry, the path isn’t going to be easy.

Building out a new idea practically guarantees imbalance. This is especially true in the early stages of a start-up. Prior to joining LegalZoom, I would work 100 hours a week. It was a fast-paced start-up world. I had to make certain sacrifices. For example, I chose not to have a family right away, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to be the present father I wanted to be. However, I was prepared to make those decisions. I believed in the work I was doing, and I knew it was going to take blood, sweat and tears.

So, what’s my advice to entrepreneurs on achieving balance? First, grow the company. Even in a company of 25 people, the burden of leadership generally falls on one person. It can take upwards of 100 people to really notice a shift in leadership. But, second, and most importantly, look for a co-partner that is just as strong as you are.

The one-two punch

Usually, when companies are founded, there is one individual who is celebrated. We forget there’s almost always another person behind the scenes helping to call the shots. Oftentimes, that person doesn’t want to share the spotlight. He or she is happy to have a non-public facing role and just want to get the work done.

We tend to talk about the visionaries, but there has to be a person in the company who helps turn that vision into reality. We all know Walt Disney, and maybe even the previous longtime CEO Michael Eisner, but what about Frank Wells? As the president and COO alongside Eisner, Wells helped lead the company through a 10-year period of unprecedented growth. Steve Jobs will forever be remembered as the visionary behind Apple, but Steve Wozniak provided the necessary engineering expertise to drive the company forward. Even today, many believe Elon Musk needs a strong second-in-command to help run Tesla.

I call this dynamic the “one-two punch” in leadership. As a CEO, you have to think critically about your second-in-command – whether it’s the COO, CTO or CFO.

Related: 5 Central Responsibilities Of Every CEO

We all want to be able to spend our time doing the things at which we excel. Excellence is what drives the company forward. At LegalZoom, I’ve been able to spend 80 percent of my working hours on tasks that leverage my strengths. The only way that I can do that is by having a partner who is strong in areas I may be weaker. In a strong one-two punch combination, both of us are spending 80 percent of our time on our strengths. The key is that those strengths don’t overlap.

How to find a great co-captain

The longer you wait to find your “two,” or if you make a mistake in selecting that person, you set yourself up for trouble. How do you find a second-in-command that can help you lead your company to success? It may seem obvious, but the first key is to understand where your weaknesses lie. It is essential that your co-leader make up for the skills that you lack, and vice versa.

It’s important to consider a person’s background as well, but don’t be afraid to look beyond the resume. I’ve judged candidates before based on raw talent and a gut feeling on their potential. Sometimes the best person for the role doesn’t necessarily have the strongest resume. Instead, he or she has a high level of motivation and a killer work ethic. These are the individuals that never hear “no.” They look for solutions rather than just identifying issues – and they are critical in the startup world.

Ultimately, while you bring different skill sets and career aspirations to the table, you and your co-partner must connect at a collegial level. At the end of the day, you have to appreciate what the other does. You have to share a common vision and mission.

Finding balance, after all

Any CEO with some semblance of balance in their life owes it to the small army of individuals behind them helping to make it happen. While you should prepare for imbalance early in your career and understand the sacrifices it takes to start a company, with the right “two,” you’ll have the support needed to succeed.

Related: Entelect CEO Shashi Hansjee’s 4 Life Hacks and 1 Little Quirk That Deliver the Dough

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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