Micah January 30th

Smells Like Burning Out

I wrote this post a couple of years ago and found it this am while looking for another post. Given the reaction to my post from yesterday, Just Stop, which I never expected, I thought it would be useful to repost.

To everyone that I spoke with, tweeted with or emailed me. Thank you. It is clear that there is a larger problem in our community around depression and all the darkness it brings. Let’s continue the conversation.

Over the past week or so, I have had two friends burn out.

Like most professions people choose, entrepreneurship isn’t all playtime and money. Startups aren’t filled with foosball and Mac Pros.

We read about layoffs and think to ourselves “Well, it’s a startup. They aren’t making any money. I have no idea why they employed so many people. Whiles its horrible, it’s probably for the best.”

Or we read about the latest funding and think to ourselves “What? Did they get $5million? It’s just a ‘me too’ company. They will never make any money.”

What most people don’t understand if they haven’t been in a startup (even those that cover startups really don’t get it), is that a startup’s culture always has a few key components (not success components necessarily, just that they exist).

A general belief that what the startup is focused on is unique, interesting or better than current offerings in the marketplace (the old better, faster, cheaper argument).

That startups have an end.

And at that end, there will be some sort of reward.

That working at a startup gives you a greater ability to have a bigger influence on the product, brand, business direction, whatever.

That you, the employee, can do whatever is placed in front of you, better than anyone else.

And while it’s easy to intellectualize the long hours and hard work to get to the end of the rainbow, most people don’t understand how the startup lifestyle truly affects them emotionally and mentally.

You can get fired/laid off at any time.

Often decisions are made based on the money in the bank, or the expected out of case position, rather than on the true needs of the organization. Often, there is a little determination of the effect fewer people have on overall workload.

A mistake can be magnified.

Because each person has a large effect on the outcome of the business, mistakes are magnified. Code something wrong? It could push back the next release. Push back the next release, and lose a big deal. Lose a big deal, and miss the numbers you expected. Miss the numbers and the world turns on you. Because most startups run extremely lean, it is imperative that each person is competent. Extremely competent.

All the best work can be for naught.

Do everything right, get the product out the door on time and under budget, make the greatest thing since sliced bread, and watch it wither on the vine. Sometimes, for no reason, a great idea/product just dies. It’s a sad reality of the risk/reward game of startups.

All of this leads to high level of expectation and stress.

Which leads to burnout.

Successful entrepreneurs and long-time startup employees understand that burnout is part of the lifestyle they have chosen. Everyone burns out at some point.

So what do you do when you feel a burnout coming?

Most people don’t. They work and work and work until they fizzle. Their production decreases and mistakes increase. Soon, they have been let go, and don’t understand why.

Here are some early warning signs of burnout:

  • You are tired all the time. No matter how much you sleep, you can’t seem to “catch up.”
  • You complain more than usual. Everyone is a moron. You are the only person that can get the job done.
  • You snap at friends and colleagues. Since they can’t understand the workload you are under, or how unfair that workload is, you snap. You withdraw.
  • You start thinking about quitting. It has to be the company. There is a better job with less stress out there. I just made a bad choice of jobs.
  • You take little “breaks.” Today, I am going to nothing that pertains to my job. I know it’s Tuesday, and we have a release coming up, but I can catch up tomorrow.
  • When do you get home, you don’t take care of personal business. Dude, I just worked for 12 hours straight. Why should I pay bills?
  • You wish you can, or you start, working from home more. There are fewer distractions (and people). I can work at my pace and I do a better job!

Often the signs of burnout are subtle, and the important thing to realize is that working at a startup is a continual ebb and flow of “completely burned out,” to “almost burned out” and back.

What do you do to make sure you don’t completely burn out?

Pick a project that is just for you. Work it at your pace. Work it in your space. Don’t “re-grout the tile” or “pull the storm windows.” Remember your passion. What got you going in the first place. Do that, but do it for you.

Take some time every day away from the office. I make sure it always take a lunch. 30-60min where the focus is on anything except work. My first boss told me, “The concept of a job is that there is work. When there is no work, there is no job.” 30-60min a day will not put you so far behind that it causes an issue.

Laugh. A lot. There is nothing wrong about finding humor in your day. If it’s a quick trip to Reddit or a joke with a co-worker, make sure to laugh every day.

Learn. A lot. Often, we get so caught up in our jobs, we forget that there is always a lot to learn. It doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be something. Ask a co-worker a question. Look something up on Wikipedia. Try some different code.

Engage. The great thing about startups is that the team is small enough that you can engage with most anyone. There is no reason to go at it alone. Ask a co-worker to review your work. Get involved in something outside your job. Find a team that you can add value to, and get on it. You can also engage outside the company via a blog, Twitter or some other social media outlet.

But most of all, reach out.