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Shut yourself down, or your body will do it for you.
Applaud the gladiator entrepreneur! She travels across 10 cities in 8 days. She puts in 80-hour weeks. She sustains herself on coffee and take-out Chinese. She does this for weeks if not months on end.
America glamorizes the individual achiever. Silicon Valley takes it to an extreme. No sleep is part of the job description. Poor health is a badge of honor. Caffeine (or worse) is the armor against the typical limitations of mind and body.
But here is the truth too often left out of these stories of heroism. There’s always a crash.
In recent years, I’ve spent intimate time with more than 50 start-ups, and I personally know founders who:
— Turned to a daily diet of cocaine for nearly six months to hit a product launch.
— Gained 25 pounds, began losing his hair, and was diagnosed as pre-diabetic.
— Suffered a stroke before reaching his 30th birthday.
— First lost his health and not long after, his marriage and his children.
There are warning signals. A little tweak in the lower back. A flagging memory. A recurring sniffle. Recurring migraines. The ignorant hero pushes past these annoyances and presses on. Just a few more meetings. One more marathon coding session. A final cross-country flight. One more night sleeping at the office. There is too much to do and too little time. There are deadlines approaching and milestones to cross. Just a little longer…
These are the lies we tell ourselves to push past the truth while our bodies whisper to us, “Slow down, or I will slow you down.” And that’s what happens. Every time.
I know there are those rolling their eyes as they read this. Not long ago, I, too likely, would have dismissed this article as the fearmongering drivel of an out-of-touch person, only to return to the grind while consuming an In-N-Out burger (animal style).
But at this point in my life, I’ve seen the same story play out again and again. The fatigued CEO misses a step, and an ankle is sprained. She ignores sleep one night too many, and the flu takes hold. She works without pause and suddenly wakes up in the hospital with little memory of how she arrived there.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of your company. The entrepreneurial path is a long one. It’s years — with a decade or longer not unusual to reach liquidity. The journey will test you in many ways, not just physically. Your job is to inspire followers, make tough decisions, and keep the organization focused. At the very least, you need to be alert to do those things.
Here are a few tips I wish I had followed during my early start-up days:
Of course, all-nighters are bound to happen. Particularly early in the journey. You’ll have too much to do and too few resources. But those should be the exception, not the norm.
Engines run better with better fuel. So do you. You don’t have to become a gluten-free, sugar-free vegan, but I promise you that fresh produce and an occasional piece of fish will sharpen your mind better than the food-like products I often see entrepreneurs stuffing into their faces. At the very least, commit to one healthy meal each day. It’s not a major commitment to aim for a lunch salad between your coffee breakfast and pizza delivery dinner.
Humans were not meant to be sedentary. Sit at your desk long enough, and your body will erode. I’m not just talking about losing your beach figure; I mean important parts will atrophy. Joints will degrade, ligaments will tighten, and pain will follow. Try making sound business decisions when your body hurts… Walking meetings, biking to work, or a regular gym routine are all small investments that will provide a substantial return.
Burnout is real. Everyone needs time away. Separation provides perspective and allows you to heal. Equally importantly, it signals to your team that taking time away is encouraged. This will lower turnover and boost morale. This, of course, assumes it’s a real vacation. One of the definitions of vacation is the act of leaving something behind…to vacate. Do exactly that. Separate yourself from work — at least for 4–5 days — so that your mind can rest and your body can slow down. No email. No phone. Just play.
I know there will be entrepreneurs who will read this and claim they don’t have time to care for themselves. A few might enjoy herculean genetics that allows them to ignore bodily needs for years on end. For the rest… I’ll see you in the hospital.