Being a founder is not easy, there’s always a thousand things going on at the same. Not knowing what comes next or if you’re doing enough can lead to burnout and anxiety. In this blog I’m sharing what I did to handle them.
Let’s face it. Being a founder is not easy, there’s always a thousand things going on at the same time, much like the situation in the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once”.
There’s customers complaining, metrics not reached, needing to put more efforts on marketing, bugs everywhere, your codebase so bloated with all the tech debts that nobody understands what’s going on, you need help but hiring is impossibly hard, and in the midst of it all, you don't even know what the hell you're doing.
It’s really overwhelming, and for a good amount of time, I spent my days working from the moment I wake up until the moment I sleep, just burying myself in CODE. Yes, I’m a technical co-founder and I thought my job is to code, code, code. I wouldn’t even know what day of the week it is because it’s all the same to me. This goes on for almost a year. I thought I’m supposed to work, and that time-off is a waste of time and does not contribute to the success of the company at all.
There are many days where I just feel so sad or anxious for no particular reason, and started crying even while watching my favorite movies. I also noticed that I’m 100x more emotional when watching people achieving great success, a mix of awe & star-struck, followed by fear and a wave of sadness knowing that I’ll never reach that level.
We ended up pivoting away from that product, the product that I worked on day and night for almost a year. That’s the point in time where I realized, pushing harder and working more doesn’t amount to a bigger probability of success.
“Success” is a mix of luck, opportunity, and the ability to cultivate that opportunity by doing the required work. And it takes time 💕.
There’s probably no “finish-line” to this startup journey. I can’t sprint my way to the end, especially when I don’t know where “the end” is. It’s not like school, where I can sprint my way to finals and then we’re done. It’s a continuous marathon that might take somewhere around 10+ years.
That’s when it hits me, something my dad always say at the end of every conversation:
Relax, have fun, enjoy your life. If it becomes stressful, it’s not fun anymore 🏝
And it’s true, I started this startup journey because I LOVE building things. But bogged down with responsibilities and working non-stop makes it stressful and made me wanted to give up on it. Why would I sabotage myself by imposing rules that make me hate what I loved?
When you do work that you don’t like, it becomes a routine, just another thing you have to finish today. There’s no passion, there’s no idea, there’s no push to do better. We all need that feeling of starting something AWESOME together. That excitement, that rush of ideas, and the will to get started asap is what gets me going.
Knowing it’s a long journey, I started taking better care of myself. I realize if I didn’t do anything on weekends (Saturday/Sunday), I’ll be really excited to start working on my tasks on Monday. So I made it a rule, no work on Saturday & Sunday, have fun, fill it up with everything else I wanted to do, binge watch my favorite shows, and eat delicious meals.
Come Monday, I’ll feel refreshed and wanting to work. My tasks becomes new challenges, and I feel ready to tackle them. It actually feels exciting and fun to work on the next challenging task. This little weekly excitements gets me through to Friday, where by the end of it, I feel SO relieved the damn week is over. I don’t want to see anything work related, I’m tired. That’s where the weekends come in :).
I almost never wanted to “skip work” during the week days.
Of course, to feel excited about your work, you need to work on things you’re actually excited about. Thankfully for me, I love making new features, and I’m kind of the ideal person to do it in our team because I can do the whole suite starting from user interviews, designing, building the product, UX research, release, answering questions on it, and marketing it.
Of course, there’s always the other annoying tasks that you have to do, that you’re not particularly interested about. Unfortunately I don’t have a good advice on how to make those tasks fun, other than the satisfaction of finding the root of the problem and getting it fixed.
Try to communicate with your team, let them know what you want to work on and what you don’t like. We do this often within our team to make sure we’re aligned. From time to time, our interest changes. We want to work on different things, and having it expressed makes it easier to divide the tasks and make everyone happier about what they’re working on.
I watched this talk How to Win by Daniel Gross on YC’s YouTube. It gives me a couple insights.
"Treat your body like a temple"
This is a quote we’ve probably heard many many times before. I understood it, but like, ok I get it, so what? But the perspective that Daniel brings shed a new light to the quote. He said:
"A founder is like an athlete. You need to perform 100% of the time to do your work well."
And I completely agree. When planning on a new product, or coding a feature, or fixing bugs, talking to customers, everything we do, we need to perform 100% of the time. Performing less than that results in lower quality of work, which is especially bad when it comes to making decisions.
And like athletes, to be able to get in the zone and perform 100% of the time, we need a supporting body and mind. If you’re weak, or don’t feel good about your body, constantly feeling sleepy or lethargic, or getting muscle pain after every few hours of work, you can’t perform well. You don’t have the energy to do what’s required to be done.
So I started working out together with my co-founders. We take significant measures to improve our overall health by eating better and avoiding sugar. I notice that I get VERY sleepy after eating rice for lunch, so I avoid it entirely. We cook at home, we don’t buy outside food, and we made sure we got veggies & fruits in our meal. Yes it takes time to prepare, but it’s cheaper and you can control what you eat. It also gives a good “break” where you can take your mind off work.
It’s been almost a year since I started, and I’m feeling great. I feel great about my body, I’m able to concentrate better, and I feel overall stronger and can work relatively longer before getting all sorts of back pain. Of course, it’s still a work in progress 🙂
1. Don’t see your notifications before you’re ready to work on them.
I noted that I’m usually very anxious in the morning. I’d wake up and see 10 notifications from our Slack channel where users are complaining, asking questions, and whatever else they do. To prevent this feeling, I always put my phone back to “Sleep” focus after I turned off the alarm. I’d then go on to wash my face and work out, before taking a quick shower and making coffee.
Once I’m ready and refreshed, I can peacefully start handling those notifications one by one. The anxiety of knowing there are people waiting for your response when you just woke up and won’t be able to reply while you do your morning routine is COMPLETELY a waste of mental energy. There’s nothing you can do, why think about it. Leave it be.
2. Share the responsibility and don’t take things to the heart
I take things to the heart, almost every single time somebody complained about my product. Especially because I worked hard building that product, and I know there're a lot of imperfections, but I swear I'm doing my best.
So I communicate this to my co-founders, and we split the work. My co-founder who don’t take things to the heart would handle whatever she can handle first on the customer support. She’ll then CC the engineering team if it needs us to help resolve the problem.
This helped a lot. From seeing 10 red notifications, of which most are non-urgent (but I wouldn't know until I read them right 🙄), to seeing 8-9 green notifications saying it’s resolved.
3. I’m always anxious when I don’t know what to do next
The moment I’m finished building a feature, there always comes the dreaded question “What do I do next?”. It’s dreadful because there’s a ton of things you can do, and you don’t know which one is right. This is when I’m always at my peak anxiety, when I don’t have a clear direction.
To overcome this, I’d ask my co-founders to do a small “meeting” where we discuss what we do next, and what everyone should do next. We’d talk about where we’re going, what stuff we want to plan out for the next few months, any personal changes in what we want to do and what we don’t, etc. This helps giving me and the company a clear game-plan for the next few months.
I’d come back excited to work on my next tasks.
I notice that when I drink ~2 cups of coffee a day, I start getting anxious out of nowhere. I should have known this, like this is a common knowledge right? Well guess what, I thought I’m “immune” to that stuff. Until I started going crazy, getting anxious in the middle of family lunch, and start thinking about everything negatively.
I only drink decaf now 🙃
I do this often, especially when taking a bath. I let my mind go, rant about all the feelings I had, then try to “argue” with myself to find the root of those feelings.
I’d go about how someone or something is horrible, then take the role of the “objective friend” who would question my arguments. Why am I feeling sad? Why am I feeling sad about that? What changed? Why am I tired and have no energy today? What did I do?
These questions, especially being “objective” in your argument with yourself, helps you find out the root of the problems that you’re having, and you can start experimenting with different routines to help you solve the problems and feel better.
The things above are stuff that I noticed about myself, and the solutions that worked for me. You have to start noticing this stuff about yourself before finding your own solutions.
Ok, that’s it for my rant about my feelings today 😜. I hope this helps someone out there! If you enjoy this post, let me know!