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As the founder of a new or growing startup, do you know what the most important aspect of your business is? Most people give answers like the product, the customer or the brand. But do you want to know the real answer? It’s you!
You are the single-most important element of your growing startup. This won’t always be true, but it’s true today. You can think of it like the analogy of a parent and a child. It’s impossible for an infant to be safe, happy and healthy without a parent taking care of them. Babies need the support, care, nourishment and strategic leadership of a parent to have any chance of growing up happy and healthy. Eventually, there comes a time when that child turns into a teenager and becomes capable of some level of independence. However, for many years, the parent is the most essential ingredient.
There may come a time when your business is able to thrive without you — Apple and Steve Jobs is a great example — but when you’re first launching and scaling, the business demands your best. Unfortunately, many businesses never reach their full growth potential, because the founder falls victim to burnout. I’d encourage you to proactively fight off founder burnout before it has a chance to destroy yours.
Related: How to Recognize and Beat Burnout
What is founder burnout?
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included “burnout” in its International Classification of Diseases. While it didn’t go as far as to list it as a medical condition, it did label it an “occupational phenomenon.”
According to WHO, “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It’s characterized by three specific dimensions:
Feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion
Heightened mental distance from one’s job, and/or feelings of cynicism and negativity related to one’s job or profession
Reduced professional efficacy
While burnout is something that professionals at every rung of professional life deal with, there’s a special “variant” unofficially known as “founder burnout” that impacts … you guessed it … founders.
I’ve heard founders say things like:
My company just raised $90 million, but I’m so exhausted that I want to quit.
We just expanded to six locations across the country. I want out, but don’t want to leave my team hanging.
I don’t feel like I have any purpose in life — just a business that I’m grinding to keep alive.
I’ve spent the last five years of my life growing this company, but I’m tired and don’t think we can sell the business.
These might seem like anomalies, but sentiments such as these are more common than you might think. If you’ve ever felt like this, you aren’t alone. The symptoms of founder burnout include depression, anxiety, isolation, escapism, apathy and exhaustion. It’s a feeling of losing your touch. In short, startups are tough. You feel trapped, yet at the same time, you’re hesitant to leave when the opportunity arises.
Causes of founder burnout
Burnout can be scary, alarming and frustrating — especially when you realize that you’ve worked your whole life to get to this moment and now can’t seem to extract any joy or fulfillment from it. So, where does it start? Here are a few possible causes:
Misalignment between vision and reality: As founders, we often start businesses with a particular goal, mission or vision. Unfortunately, circumstances change, pivots happen, and the reality is often much different. If this misalignment between your original vision and the reality of the business becomes too severe, a feeling of helplessness and confusion sets in. You start to wonder why you’re even doing what you’re doing.
Lack of passion: Burnout is rare when the founder has true passion. It almost always crops up in people who chase a business idea that’s outside of their true realm of passion. For example, someone who starts an accounting software company because they see the financial potential, but their real passion lies in being outside and spending time in nature. That lack of passion will eventually catch up with the founder.
Too much control: If you are personally involved in every single project, task and decision within your company, you’re going to become exhausted. As the business grows, this becomes increasingly unsustainable. You’ll feel the pressure mount to the point that you become resentful of the business.
No work-life balance: In most cases, burnout is directly related to a lack of work-life balance. There’s nothing else grounding or tethering you to reality. Your entire world is built around your business, which leaves you feeling like you can’t escape.
There are dozens of other contributing factors, but this at least gives you an idea of some of the driving forces behind founder burnout.
How to overcome founder burnout
Defeating burnout isn’t easy, but it is possible. The key is to act quickly and to be proactive at the first signs that something is wrong. Here are a few tips:
1. Start the day right
Avoid waking up and immediately jumping into work. You need some time to prepare for the day. Take at least 60 minutes in the morning, and begin the day totally disconnected. Try meditation, journaling or even exercising.
2. Go on a dopamine fast
Dr. Cameron Sepah believes one of the best ways to interrupt the cycle of burnout is through something he calls “dopamine fasting.” The idea is that your brain is constantly exposed to quick, cheap hits of dopamine throughout the day, which makes it difficult to reach a true state of flow. By going on dopamine fasts — meaning disconnecting from your screens, devices and apps — you can give your brain a rest and allow it to reset and calibrate.
It’s a good idea to incorporate daily dopamine fasts in the form of at least two hours of downtime each evening. Play with your kids, go for a walk, or read a fiction book. Just stay away from your screen and work-related tasks. It’s also smart to have extended dopamine fasts — meaning a full day off once per week (such as on Sunday).
3. Take care of yourself
Finally, make sure you’re taking care of your mind and body with things like good sleep patterns, healthy eating, hydration, exercise and meditation/prayer. If you do these things on a daily basis, you’ll be far less susceptible to burnout.
At this stage of the game, you are your startup’s most important asset. Don’t let burnout compromise the business and disrupt your momentum. Learn how to identify it, so that you can overcome it. That’s the key to your success.