Sent on September 9th, 2022.
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I recently wrote a post on social media about minimizing risks when doing a gaming startup:
“Be prepared for hard work. Startups are hard. 12-15h days. And it’s hard to switch it off outside of those hours.”
Let me elaborate on why startup founders have difficulty switching off from work, why attempting to switch off is worth it, and how to achieve a disconnection outside work hours.
Why should you switch it off?
Chronic stress takes a toll on the human body. Stress is not only caused by excessive time spent at the computer, writing code, attending meetings, and answering emails. Stress is also caused by hours dwelled on work matters after the computer’s been closed.
Overthinking is a term used in stress-related research, where the stressed individual has thoughts on an endless loop with diminishing returns.
I’ve gone through a bunch of overthinking in my career as an entrepreneur. Before my burnout which occurred during the winter of 2018-2019, I hadn’t been working long hours. It was about 8 hours at the office. But I was overthinking for another 8 hours after I’d left the office.
After my burnout, I started looking into the symptoms and the harm that endless stress does to our bodies.
You start to look older. I recently read the piece on scientists discovering why stress turns hair white. White as rice.
It’s all chemistry caused by a harmful stress hormone, cortisol, that gets released into the individual’s body when they are stressed for long periods. Besides white hair, the constant cortisol flowing inside us can lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus, leading to emotional disorders and other abnormalities—scary stuff.
Compartmentalizing work, in its physical and mental forms, to the working hours of the day is paramount in keeping us healthy.
Why is it hard to switch off?
Justin Kan, co-founder of Justin.TV, which later pivoted to Twitch, writes about the emotional stress that founders go through:
“Once you start a company, it is easy to get attached to that company, having an idea of what will happen to it. You might think you’d change the world, solve a problem you care about, etc. Entrepreneurs generally have a higher degree of confidence and optimism, and their ego is tied to those outcomes. It is important to disjoint these outcomes with happiness.”
Let’s first focus on the doing, then the thinking.
On doing: People who are entrepreneurs can easily default to being productivity machines. The more things we complete from our to-do lists, the better we feel about ourselves. I worked until 11 pm in my first startup, usually coding something or answering support tickets.
When we founded Next Games, I had a toddler at home. It forced me to change things. Work fewer hours.
And now the thinking bit: I would never be able to stop thinking about work. I would check emails and Slack and reply to messages. Send off-hours messages to people. I remember being on sick leave and still writing and sharing game feedback with people.
As an entrepreneur, you always have small fires going on. Urgent ones: Team has to get replies. Money in the bank needs to be fixed. And, as you get some success, the money problems might go away, but it leads to worrying about making the right decisions and losing it all. What if the business plateaus? What if our game lead leaves? What if ROAS targets are slipping?
How to switch it off?
I’m not a venture-backed founder anymore, but I’ve noticed that building Elite Game Developers has brought its share of excessive work and overthinking.
Let me describe how I switch off.
Time-block planning is something I wrote about in the spring. We spend our days reacting to things on a whim, answering messages, and doing lots of rushed work based on requests that just landed. Scheduling the day in advance, and focusing on one task at a time without distractions, removes the stress that comes from context shifting and multitasking. You feel better and less stressed. I’ve recently done A/B tests where I’d time-block for a week and then not for a week. The positives of stress relief were immense when my work followed a time-blocked plan.
Calendar audits are a way to look at what you are doing and remove or reshape items on your plate. I suggest creating a spreadsheet where you catalog your work hours and your off-work hours where you think about work. Once you have a week of items listed, evaluate what you shouldn’t be doing. Focus on the ones that create the most worry: Maybe you can delegate more of the things you are worrying about to others. Or clear more space to do the work that matters with more focus.
In the evening, I reflect on the day’s work. I also write down everything that needs to be taken care of so that I can stop thinking about it. It’s on paper, so it doesn’t need to be in my mind. I’ve noticed that I can eliminate much worrying if I’ve noted it down. I recently woke up at 2:45 am and couldn’t stop thinking about a critical and complex issue I needed to solve. I got up, picked up my phone, and wrote eight items on how I “could” solve the problem. I closed the phone, and my mind stopped thinking about the issue. And I fell asleep quite quickly.
Fear setting is something I’ve written about previously. It’s a practice where you list the most frightful fears that you suffer from and how you can prevent them from happening. Finally, what could you do to undo the damage if the worst case happens? By processing those fears and writing them down, you’ve assimilated them in a way that your mind believes they’ve been dealt with them already. No more overthinking and stress about possible preventative and reparative measures.
Talking about stress to others. I’ve been quite open about my burnout, writing about it publicly and going on podcasts to talk about it. But it’s not easy for people to be vulnerable about their struggles.
In a 2019 interview, Justin Kan, who I mentioned previously, was asked, “How can CEOs talk about burnout and stress to their investors.” Justin’s reply:
“I don’t think that people will hold it against to say you experience stress. Unfortunately, stress is a part of the modern business world. Many wear it like a badge of honor. Talking about stress is not abnormal; everyone experiences it, but I think it’s important to share how you are dealing with it. If you are dealing with it in a healthy way, I think that people will admire that.”
Finally, a few words about happiness
“True happiness is being able to do what you want to do when you want to do it with who you want to do it with.” — Jim O’Shaughnessy
The worst thing that can happen with your startup is the need to shut down the company. I was there in 2011, and I wrote about my experience in a previous piece. The grief is immense since you’ve lost something you’ve worked so hard on. But after six months, I’d recovered and realized that the experience was valuable for building learnings on what works and doesn’t. I was happy that I’d done the company and knew I wanted to go on that journey again.
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