Why I Am Still Burned Out on Burnout
“Burned out on burnout.” This is what I wrote as the first line of a blog six years ago. At the time, burnout was a hot topic — lots of articles and think pieces. So I was giving my advice to startup founders on how to always work without losing steam. Well, not much has changed in 2023. I am even more convinced that starting a company is truly a privilege for anyone reading this. And I am still burned out on burnout.
There will always be too much to do, distractions and interruptions, and pressure to succeed right now when you are building something new.
When Chris and I founded Aha! 10 years ago, we frequently worked 12-hour days. It was just us then and we gave our all to turning our bold idea into a reality. Now that we are a $100+ million business with an exceptional team of more than 100 people working alongside us, you might expect that Chris and I are able to work less. Nope. You would be wrong.
Ongoing success is never guaranteed. We both respect the fact that creating value for customers, colleagues, and the communities we live in is one way we can do good. Meaningful achievement is the result of great effort. Exceptional achievement demands all of you. And we all know that most new companies and new products fail.
Launching something into existence will push you to your limit. Then you will have to dig deep to keep growing it over a sustained period of time. As I often tell Aha! candidates during interviews, I am not smart enough to know how to achieve at the highest level and work less. (If I did, I would build and sell that concept.)
There is always more you can do to improve and create more value. For me, that is the adventure of business and life.
When I first thought about writing a sequel to my 2018 post, I sketched out a list of ways that you can consistently put in the hours and make space for what is fresh and new. The guidance in the original holds. But the environment that new founders and product builders are operating in today is a bit different. There is more scrutiny and less appetite for waste or fluff — in every market there is a push to streamline while still achieving results.
I believe it is possible (and even more important than ever) for today’s founders and product builders to work exceptionally hard and still keep your spirits high. Here are my suggestions:
Be obsessed with your vision
Your vision of the future will feed you. I think founder burnout is often a result of misaligned expectations which impacts your motivation. If your true passion is elsewhere then you will not be able to endure. You have to believe deeply in your vision of the future — that what it is you are working towards is meaningful enough to dedicate your energy and time fully to achieving it. Clarity about what you are doing and why will keep you going when the end goal feels far.
Be meticulous with your time
You cannot do and be everything. And yet it will often feel as though you must. Misaligned priorities are another common source of founder burnout. We all have responsibilities and needs that should not be ignored in favor of work — our families, our communities, and ourselves. Take inventory. For my “off” hours, I prioritize eating dinner with my family, riding a bike or exercising, reading, and getting off the grid in nature a few times a year. Creating a sustainable routine will help you stay focused on what matters most.
Be adaptable with your plans
You will need resilience. There will be more than a few moments where the vision you are working towards seems at odds with your current situation. This can be destabilizing. You might feel like you have lost autonomy and control over the future. Understand that your path is not fixed. Chris and I constantly reevaluate what we are seeing and doing. Knowing when to follow what you have defined and when to break it is one of the most important things a founder can do.
Be happy for others
You can take pride in the success of those around you. It is natural to have a single-minded type of tunnel vision — you are absorbed by what you are doing and what is left to be done. But looking up and outward will buoy your spirits too. Your passion attracted others to join and support you. Witnessing those folks contribute and grow is often awe-inspiring. I know that for me, the output of the Aha! team is the spark I need to keep going.
Be truthful with yourself
You will honor reality. Do not give away energy to drama, perception management, or ego-driven waste. Have the self-awareness to clearly see what really requires your attention and where you can do better. Have the courage to clearly see what is not working so that you do not toil aimlessly.
The ability to do meaningful work is fuel for founders and product builders. It keeps you going — a virtuous cycle of achievement and opportunities to deliver more value.
It is rare to build something new. Even more rare to do it in a sustainable way that leads to lasting success. Those of us who have the privilege to do so know that this is more than just “work” — it is a calling that we cannot deny. In many ways, it is the essence of who we are. And I do not think for me that it will ever burn out.
Ready to achieve your best? Aha! is hiring for many open roles right now.