Avoiding founder burnout
As a founder, you’re never “done”—there’s always more to do.
To maintain my sanity, I have one rule: Either be working or be actively not working. The case you most need to avoid is “trying to work, but just staring at your screen or mindlessly scrolling through LinkedIn.”
This sounds obvious, but I had to learn it the hard way.
At my first company, Ksplice, I fell into the trap of working nonstop. In the early days of the company, our official policy was literally twelve hour days, six days a week, with Saturday as the day off. (Side note: in retrospect, this was an awful official policy.) Inevitably, I wouldn’t get everything I wanted done during the week, and so I’d say “OK, fine, I will spend some time on Saturday to knock this thing out.”
What ended up happening is that instead of spending time with my friends or exercising or sleeping, I would spend the day staring at my laptop screen, resentful and unproductive—and I didn’t actually complete the task at hand (or, if I did, it took 10x longer than it was supposed to).
Come Saturday night, I’d be super-frustrated. Not only did I not complete the task because I was exhausted and my heart wasn’t in it, but I also didn’t use the time to recharge. It was the worst of all outcomes—bad for my morale and also unproductive.
With my second company, Zulip, I took a different approach. I realized it was better for me to have that dinner with friends, to catch up on sleep, etc. I still worked most evenings, but I’d break for dinner with my then-girlfriend, and I stopped working most weekends. I still worked more than 40 hours a week, but far from the 70 I had been clocking previously. And of course, if something was truly urgent, I would stay up until it was done—but if it wasn’t, it was fine to defer it to the next day.
I sprinted unsustainably at Ksplice, and I didn’t at Zulip. (We still worked incredibly hard, but it was much more reasonable.) The clincher is: the outcomes were comparable. We were just as effective running Zulip, and Zulip also had a great exit (in fact, it was an even better exit.) In short, working more sustainably didn’t actually cause us to run the company less well. Working less just forced us to focus on the things that actually mattered.
To be clear, the point is not “You don’t have to work hard.” You definitely have to work hard (and a 35-hour work week probably isn’t going to cut it.) But more importantly, you have to be disciplined about the time you work and don’t work. Setting aside time to recharge will lead to the best outcome for you and your company. If you don’t, you’ll burn out, or grow to resent your role and quit.
Admittedly, it helps to have a clear idea of what is actually urgent, so that you can prioritize accordingly. In our first company, we had a terrible sense of what was important—and so everything felt like an emergency. As I’ve said before, 99% of the things you worry about are totally irrelevant.
Truly urgent is “the site is down” or “a big prospect wants to buy today and is waiting for your proposal.” Truly urgent is tomorrow morning’s VC partner meeting. In general, “truly urgent” is driven by an important external stakeholder or forcing function.
Everything else is not urgent. If you defer the task until tomorrow, it doesn’t really matter.
Admittedly, you can’t push tasks off forever (if you can, you should probably just strike them from your to-do list entirely)—but if it's a beautiful Saturday and you can’t stand looking at your screen any longer, step away and pick your work back up on Monday.
It’ll still be there, and you and your company will be fine.