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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 give answers like the product, the customer or labeled. But do you want to know the real answer? It is you!
You are the most important element in your growing startup. This will not always be true, but it is true today. You can think of it as the analogy of a parent and a child. It is impossible for an infant to be safe, happy and healthy without a parent taking care of them. Babies need support, care, nurturing and strategic guidance from a parent to have any chance of growing up happy and healthy. Eventually, there comes a time when that child becomes a teenager and becomes capable of some degree of independence. But for many years the parent is the most important ingredient.
There may come a time when your business can thrive without you – Apple and Steve Jobs are a prime example – but once you launch and scale, your business demands the best. Unfortunately, many businesses never reach their full growth potential because the founder falls victim to burnout. I would encourage you to proactively combat 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. Although it did not go so far as to list it as a medical condition, it labeled it an “occupational phenomenon.”
According to the WHO, “burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three specific dimensions:
Feelings of exhaustion or lack of energy
Increased mental distance from the job and/or feelings of cynicism and negativity related to the job or profession
Reduced professional efficiency
While burnout is something that professionals at all stages of their professional lives deal with, there is a particular “variety” unofficially known as “founder burnout” that affects…you guessed it…founders.
I’ve heard entrepreneurs say things like:
My company just raised $90 million, but I’m so exhausted I want to quit.
We have 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 paint 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 may seem like anomalies, but feelings like these are more common than you might think. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone. The symptoms of founder burnout include depression, anxiety, isolation, escapism, apathy, and exhaustion. There is a feeling of losing touch. In short, startups are tough. You feel trapped, but at the same time you are hesitant to leave when the opportunity presents itself.
Related: This founder thinks he found the answer to burnout
Causes of founder burnout
Burnout can be scary, alarming, and frustrating—especially when you realize you’ve worked your whole life to get to this moment and now can’t extract any joy or satisfaction from it. So, where does it begin? Here are some possible reasons:
Mismatch between vision and reality: As entrepreneurs, we often start businesses with a specific 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 sense of helplessness and confusion sets in. You start to wonder why you even do what you do.
Lack of passion: Burnout is rare when the founder has real passion. It almost always comes up with people chasing a business idea that is 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 in your company, you will burn out. As the business grows, this becomes increasingly unsustainable. You will feel the pressure building to the point of resenting the business.
No work-life balance: In most cases, burnout is directly related to a lack of work-life balance. There is nothing else that grounds or binds you to reality. Your whole world is built around your business, which makes you feel 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.
Related: 7 Tips to Avoid Burnout When Growing a Business
How to overcome founder burnout
Beating burnout isn’t easy, but it is possible. The key is to act quickly and be proactive at the first signs that something is wrong. Here are some tips:
1. Start the day right
Avoid waking up and immediately jumping into work. You need some time to prepare for the day. Spend at least 60 minutes in the morning, and start the day completely offline. Try meditation, journaling, or even exercise.
2. Go on a dopamine fast
Dr. Cameron Sepah believes that one of the best ways to break the cycle of burnout is through what he calls a “dopamine fast.” The idea is that your brain is constantly exposed to quick, cheap hits of dopamine throughout the day, making it difficult to achieve true flow. By going on a dopamine fast—that is, disconnecting from your screens, devices, and apps—you can give your brain a break and allow it to reset and calibrate.
It is a good idea to incorporate daily dopamine fasting in the form of at least two hours of downtime each evening. Play with your children, go for a walk or read a fiction book. Just stay away from the screen and work-related tasks. It’s also smart to have an extended dopamine fast – which means a whole day off once a week (like on Sundays).
3. Take care of yourself
Finally, make sure you take care of your mind and body with things like good sleep patterns, healthy diet, hydration, exercise, and meditation/prayer. If you do these things on a daily basis, you will be far less prone to burnout.
At this stage of the game, you are the startup’s most important asset. Don’t let burnout compromise your business and disrupt your momentum. Learn how to identify it so you can overcome it. It is the key to your success.