The word burnout is commonly used, but what is it exactly? What if you’re experiencing burnout and you don’t even know it?
Burnout is when our nervous system is constantly in a “fight-or-flight” state. Stay in this state for too long without any kind of release, and you’ll feel it — in your body, your mind, your emotional state and you’ll soon see it affecting your work.
In this state, you begin to lose the ability to summon the focus you need for “deep work”. Your mind and heart race, and your sleep suffers. What used to be a healthy level of stress starts to turn into anxiety, irritation, anger, and fear.
Over time, constantly being in this state makes it increasingly hard to do the deep, creative work that really moves the needle. You then begin to find that, even though you’re spending more and more time working on the task at hand and checking off tasks, you’re feeling more and more overwhelmed, less productive, and less efficient.
This experience is commonplace among my founder friends. Many start a company in a good place — their life is balanced, they have solid practices and habits, but as their workload and what my friend Andy Johns calls “mind hours” increases, these self-rejuvenating practices start to break down.
In addition to being overstimulated, early stage founders have to deal with something I call the churn. The churn is the combination of doubt, uncertainty and pressure that builds when you give everything to your early-stage startup, especially when you feel like you’re not seeing any forward motion.
Close your eyes for a minute, take a deep breath and tune into the feelings of uncertainty around what to do, doubt around if it’s going to work, and the pressure of your mountain of to-do’s. In the beginning of your startup, it’s common to feel all three on many days.
This article is about how to cope with what is an extremely challenging and often insane human experience of building a startup without succumbing to one form of burnout or another. We’ll focus on guiding early stage overstimulated founders experiencing the churn - to help you recognize and diagnose burnout earlier on in the process and give you the tools you need to prevent it before it reaches the critical stage — or to treat it once it has.
We’re particularly targeting your ability to optimize performance and motivation over a longer period, but keep in mind, a balanced life is quite difficult as an early stage founder. So some consideration should be taken about your personal nervous system response and what a startup requires prior to going down this path!
What does burnout look and feel like?
In my experience, as you progress down the path towards burning out as a founder, a few things tend to happen:
- Your sleep begins to suffer. You start habitually looking at your screen before bed and going to sleep later and later, leading to chronic sleep deprivation. When your sleep cycle is poor, it reduces willpower even further leading to a repetitive negative cycle that can get filled with substitute behaviors like junk food, substance abuse and social media.
- Your craving for stimulation increases. Partially because you’re not getting enough sleep, you find yourself needing more stimulants like caffeine to stay energized. Lower impulse control makes it so that you need to be constantly stimulated throughout the day — the first thing you do when you wake up is look at your phone and check your email, putting you in a fight-or-flight state which you can end up in for the whole day again reducing willpower and aggravating your emotional state.
- Your ability to focus declines. It becomes more and more difficult to focus on deep work and creativity and the parts of the business that nourish your soul.
- In the worst case, you can lose the excitement for your day to day work. No matter how strong your vision is, when you lose your zest for living in the day to day, it becomes difficult to perform at the pace required.
Burnout becomes a vicious cycle as it becomes harder and harder to turn off or slow down. In incremental steps, you go from a balanced or healthy lifestyle to one of excessive caffeine intake, poor eating habits, spending too much time on a screen, not exercising, and not getting enough sleep. Does the below sound familiar?
Your 12 minutes of mindfulness in the morning goes from a daily routine to an impossible task. Our brains become so wired towards stimulation - it shows up as eagerness to get going, check your phone, start sending emails, and start interacting - that any kind of focused time becomes more and more mentally taxing. We call it “cranking” – that drive to be at the computer making it happen.
You become so intent on stimulation that you just start pushing things forward to retain a sense of momentum, even if those things may be marginal to your startup’s success, or not be worth the opportunity cost, or worse, moving your business in the wrong direction.
This is a gradual process. It’s not like you wake up one day and you’re suddenly overwhelmed. It’s a series of incremental breakdowns of your routine and the suite of tools that you use to cope and keep balanced in life that you barely even notice until it eventually accumulates to a breaking point.
From the moment you wake up, work dominates your thoughts and it becomes difficult to shut down or to exist in the parasympathetic part of the nervous system (ie. “rest and digest”) — the part of your nervous system where we find meaning, feel emotions, and joy. We are in the parasympathetic nervous system state when in nature, laughing, eating and connecting in intimacy. Now imagine the life of a startup founder, where we are jacked up in fight or flight 95% of the day!
When you push this process to its logical conclusion, you will ultimately lose first your ability to focus and then all motivation. It’s this end stage which is commonly recognized as burnout. But we should expand how we think about burnout to include the whole pattern of events which leads up to this point — because for founders, the harmful effects often kick in much earlier on.
For founders, burnout can seem like an inevitable part of life because it’s so common. But understanding the underlying patterns and tools to address it can help you at least mitigate its effects.
Why founder burnout is so common
There’s such a pull to overextend yourself as a founder that founder burnout can be close to inevitable for many. For most entrepreneurs, their business is the most important thing in their lives, right up there with kids and family. It can be an important part of your identity, since it’s wrapped up in your drive to both have an impact and feel successful. Your startup is a part of you.
As a result, it’s very common to devote more and more mind hours to thinking about your business. There’s a huge impetus to always be pushing things forward, especially in the early stages, because of how much the success or failure of your startup depends on you.
For early startup founders specifically, you know you can move the needle for your business directly with the work you do. So there’s a lot on your shoulders – you want your startup to work almost more than anything else in life.
Put all this together and it can be very hard for early-stage founders to take a step back and slow down, even if it’s better in the long term. Prioritizing short-term impact over what’s best in the long-term is a trap I myself fall into almost every weekend — I’ll tell myself, “you know what, this weekend I’m going to clear all my meetings and just crank all weekend and push forward on the things I’m behind on while there aren’t any meetings”
But what I don’t realize is that if I do this six weeks in a row, suddenly I’ve lost all ability to be in a flow state for deep work, and now I’m just spending all my time on marginal stuff like responding to emails.
What I’ve learned from my experiences, and those of other founders I know, is that almost every founder at an early-stage startup will face overwhelming demands on their time.
Check out this tweet thread to see how founders feel when they burn out and if you’re feeling vulnerable, please share your story to help others know these feelings are common!
In order to survive, you need to know when you’re on the path to burning out by periodically self-assessing, and you need to implement pattern interrupts so that you can be in it for the long haul.
Burnout assessment: how to know if you’re experiencing it
I’ve learned what to look out for when it comes to burnout by observing it over and over again in myself, my colleagues, and my founder friends. If we stop and practice self-reflection, then the answer often becomes clear.
When I’m burnt out, my sleep suffers, my morning breathwork practice falls off, and caffeine intake goes up. It becomes harder and harder to slow down and do deep work and creative thinking.
If I’m doing something that requires deep focus like writing content, building a strategic plan or product roadmap, reviewing a legal document, building a financial model, or something else that takes uninterrupted concentration, I find it becomes very hard to sit down and create the time to do it.
Even once I do manage to get myself to sit down and get started, I notice that I’m easily distracted. Five minutes in I’m switching tabs, checking email, checking social media, making sure I’m caught up on Slack, etc.
There’s a negative correlation between burnout and willpower as well. And the more I sink into burnout, I’m more likely to order UberEats at night and watch TV to wind down, whereas normally I would opt for healthier choices (like non junk food and walk before bed with my wife).
There are no hard and fast rules as to what kind of hours or how much stress it takes to enter the burnout cycle. Everyone is different — we each have our own point of diminishing returns beyond which the tradeoff of more time spent working vs rest and recovery no longer makes sense. For instance, I’m at three years of a super intense schedule building Othership right now and still going strong.
So as a founder, and as a person with goals who needs to get stuff done, it’s a good idea to regularly perform a self-assessment to see how far along you are on the path to burning out by asking yourself the following questions.
- Are you getting time to do deep work, or do you find it difficult to get into a state of flow?
- Are you regularly getting enough sleep?
- Are you able to focus for long periods of time?
- If you have a mindfulness practice, are you finding it unusually hard to decompress?
- Are you maintaining healthy eating and lifestyle habits?
- Are you sticking to your exercise routine?
- If you use a fitness tracker, are you maintaining the same RHR/HRV and sleep quantity?
- Are you able to connect emotionally with people in your life?
- Are you losing your temper or prone to mood swings as a leader?
If the answer to 5 or more of these questions is “no,” that’s a red flag. You’re on the path to burning out and it’s time to take a step back and address it with a pattern interrupt. Small note, these are questions to assess and improve your personal performance as a founder and not for general life satisfaction. For a more detailed questionnaire on your mental state in general, check out Andy’s Stress Response Inventory Checklist.
When you’re an early stage founder, you’re under more extreme stress than almost any other time in your career — so it's more about accepting intolerance for a period of time and mitigating it. It’s good to be honest with yourself about the sacrifices required so you can take the mitigation techniques below seriously.
Having an accountability partner for the goal above is also essential according to Dr. Emily Anhalt, the founder of Coa, an emotional fitness platform. In her words:
“It can be helpful to recruit people in your life to help you keep an eye out for these things. So maybe you email your manager or have a conversation with your partner, and you say, if you see me with poor sleep three days in a row, or if you notice that I’m complaining about things I normally enjoy, will you please remind me that it might be time to rest.”
If the signs are there that you’re experiencing startup founder burnout, whether through an accountability partner noticing it or just through your own observations, it’s time to implement a pattern interrupt.
Burnout prevention & treatment using pattern interrupts
I call burnout prevention/treatment tools “pattern interrupts” because they are all different methods of interrupting the stimulation patterns you’ve fallen into and stopping the ensuing vicious cycle before it leads to a total loss of motivation. Dr. Greg Wells writes about slowing down and how it affects our brainwaves and says, “In order to problem solve, ideate, and create, we need to get into a relaxed mental state. It is only by doing less that we can accomplish more.”
The pattern and feelings you want to interrupt will likely look something like this:
- You’re stressed and overwhelmed by the mountain of work you need and the difficulty of the problems your startup is facing.
- To address this, you decide that you need to work harder and longer hours, leading to a reduction in sleep, rest, and recuperation.
- Lack of time spent in the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest nervous system state makes you more and more unable to do deep work and leaves you feeling scattered.
- You feel even more stressed and overwhelmed because it’s harder and harder to solve difficult problems and attack the biggest tasks on your plate.
There are 4 broad methods to interrupt this pattern which I’ve found to be most effective: dopamine fasting, time-boxing, deep dive transformational experiences (psychedelics and/or meditation retreats), and daily nervous system regulation. Let’s look at each in detail:
1. Dopamine fasting
One of the best ways to create a pattern interrupt is through dopamine fasting, a protocol created by Dr. Cameron Sepah.
Physiologically, what’s often happening in the burnout process is that an overabundance of stimulation and quick dopamine hits eventually lead to pain and a higher threshold for pleasure. Addiction to quick dopamine hits is the reason why you’re finding it so hard to focus and get into a flow state. Taking a break from constant dopamine hits is critical to resetting to a healthy threshold of stimulation. My friend Dr. Anna Lembke recently published an amazing resource on the science of dopamine.
As with food fasting, there are many different ways that you can implement dopamine fasting. It’s ultimately about reducing stimulation in your life by taking intentional, structured breaks.
Here is one lightweight dopamine fasting protocol that I like to recommend:
- Every evening, schedule 2 hours of downtime where you’re removing yourself from stimulation; spending time with your kids, going for a walk, reading fiction. Anything that keeps you away from your screen and allows you to be absorbed in the present moment.
- 1x per week, maybe on Sundays, spend most of the day with your phone turned off — going for a walk or hike, playing sports, or doing something fun that reintroduces some play into your life.
- 1x weekend per quarter, take a whole weekend to go into nature, whether that’s hiking, camping, a meditation retreat, or whatever. The key is to spend time in a natural environment, away from your desk and your screen, for at least 48 hours.
- 1x week per year - see transformational experiences below.
Don’t think of these periods as vacations; there’s a fundamental difference between indulging in a vacation where you max out your nervous system stimulation (ie. drinking, gambling, partying, etc.), and investing in periods of planned rest and recovery which removes you from the sources of dopamine your brain is marinating in every day at work.
The purpose of dopamine fasting is to allow you to improve your impulse control, reset your routine, and renew your ability to focus and do deep work. Think of dopamine fasts as short-term trade-offs of ~10-20% of your time for a 2-10x improvement in your long term productivity, decision-making, emotional state and focus.
While you’re dopamine fasting, your goal should be to associate it with play while simultaneously reducing stimulation to reduce your addiction to it. If you look at the way an addict’s brain functions, their dopamine is constantly being increased, so much so that they need more and more stimulus to get to the same level of dopamine increase; soon, all other experiences in life outside of the addictive behavior get crowded out.
The beauty of the simpler things in life like going for a walk can lose excitement and become unbearably boring because your threshold for stimulation has gotten too high. Dopamine fasting works to reset that threshold to a healthy level, allowing you to come back to work in a state of greater focus.
2. Time-boxing your day
Another way to implement a pattern interrupt is by time-boxing your workday by confining it within pre-specified boundaries. For example, you decide that you’re going to work from 9 am to 7 pm, six days a week. My former co-founder Sina Habibian and I used to work 16 hour days on our last Company, so it made a huge impression on me when he implemented time-boxing for his new Ethereum based accelerator Zeitgeist. “When I do this, I literally set a timer and after it goes off, I shut my computer no matter what, do a “downregulated” breathwork session and send a problem I want to work on to my subconscious. Since implementing, I’ve been way more effective at prioritizing what’s important.
This works because it forces you to balance time between work and everything else like sleep and healthy habits, preventing a vicious cycle of burnout from getting out of hand without you even realizing it.
Time-boxing has the added benefit of taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Time boxing your workday is a forcing function to become more effective with your time. And when you give yourself permission to rest, you reset, refocus, and recharge. For example, here is an excellent practice to try at the end of the workday:
On the other hand, if you set no limits on your work day, you won’t be forced to prioritize your well-being and can end up wasting a lot of time on marginal tasks that are urgent but unimportant to having a real impact on your startup’s outcome.
Both dopamine fasting and time-boxing help your mindset; they are about maintaining the things that give you energy and a zest for life, which helps you avoid burnout in the long term. It all comes down to spending at least some of your time in a parasympathetic, rest-and-digest state, which is critical for the health and performance of your nervous system.
3. Physical activities to change nervous system state: ice baths, breathwork, and more (the daily work)
Physical activities like ice baths and exercise can teach you to modulate your nervous system between sympathetic and parasympathetic states (“fight or flight” and “rest and digest”). I do ice baths daily because it immediately brings you into the present moment, quiets the thinking mind and reduces stress, while also increasing baseline dopamine in a sustainable way that doesn’t have addictive consequences.
In fact, cold water exposure has interesting benefits for addicts and can similarly be highly beneficial for people who are addicted to work and stimulation. Ice baths work by forcefully shutting down the executive function that typically drives your conscious thoughts and allows your body to process some of the built up backlog of unprocessed stress and emotions that you’re typically carrying as a founder.
For example, if you get a negative email from an investor, it can feel like you physically got punched in the gut, and you’re holding all that tension and stress physically. The science around this phenomenon is called “somatic experiencing”.
Activities that shut down the thinking mind, can help process and release that trauma from the body. When you get in an ice bath, norepinephrine — the neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation, attention, and vigilance — triples in the brain leading to a state of pure presence. The ice bath is really nature’s meditation for type-A founders. There is also a system-wide reduction of inflammation, and the amount of white blood cells in the body increases.
Finally the ice bath allows you to strengthen your emotional resilience and learn to regulate your nervous system. Moving from the “fight or flight” state into the “rest and digest” state through your breath. You are literally training your nervous system to deal with anger, fear, embarrassment, doubt and other fight or flight stimulating emotions.
A morning ice bath for entrepreneurs who crave stimulation is therefore an amazing, healthy way to get that stimulation without relying on an unsustainable, addictive dopamine hit. The norepinephrine release leaves you feeling alive, alert, and clear in a way which lasts all day. Here is a guided ice bath or cold shower session you can use to guide you through your first journey.
Another physical activity that can be a powerful lever is breathwork. Guided breathwork is an underappreciated way to control your autonomic nervous system, and can be used in one of three ways to switch between nervous system states:
1. Pushing the pedal: Up-regulating breathwork can help you activate the sympathetic nervous system (much like a cup of coffee).
2. Pushing the brake: Down-regulating breathwork can slow you down into a parasympathetic state, releasing anxiety or stress or even allowing you to transition from work at the end of the evening to be present with your partner or family. We like to call this “becoming a human being again”.
3. Emotional Regulation: This style of breathing can be used to deal with challenging emotions, overwhelm, grief, and anger by shutting down the prefrontal cortex and allowing for emotions to be processed and released. Emotional regulation requires a bit more work, but just like an intense workout, you’ll feel 100 pounds lighter after a session like the one below .
Regardless of what particular type of breathwork or cold water exposure you make use of, their benefits can be extremely profound. So much so that it’s what motivated me to found my company Othership, which enables both ice baths via physical spaces and guided breathwork via an app with professionally DJed, mixed, and mastered breathwork tracks that fall into one of the three categories above.
4. Psychedelic, Meditation or Nature Retreats (the once per year deep dive)
Psychedelics and meditation both work by shutting down the default mode network (the thinking part of your mind or that inner voice that is criticizing, doubting, chattering). These pattern interrupts help to shift your mindset and process emotions.
They can help you release things like childhood trauma, while also letting you reprogram subconscious behavior and increase your willpower, zest for life, and authenticity.
In general, because of the legality and other risks surrounding psychedelics, and because of the difficulty of proper, prolonged meditation, it’s best to do either with the help of a professional in a group setting in the form of a retreat. You can follow my newsletter or Feel free to DM me on twitter for a list of vetted resources.
A multi-day meditation (see my Vipassana account here) or psychedelic retreat are a typically more profound pattern interrupt than the other three forms discussed above. They turbo-boost stress reduction and resetting your dopamine threshold, accomplishing in days what might take you months of normal vacation.
Any transformational experience that allows you to get off your phone, shift your mental state, thoroughly process your emotions, and come back fully recharged and ready to go is beneficial! I aim to do one per year. Here is another example of a “dark” retreat dopamine fast where I lived in a cave for 8 days aiming for deep rest.
If the above feel too intimidating or intense, a nature excursion or charity event like Habitat for Humanity work just as well! Again, the goal is to reduce stimulation and if you can combine with service to others, even better!
Choosing a pattern interrupt that fits your level of burnout
If you’re really deep in burnout, your willpower may have suffered so much that the more incremental options like time boxing, exercising, or breathwork may not be viable because you’re so deep in addiction to stimulation.
If this sounds like you, then you might need a more extensive treatment — whether that be a dedicated weekend in nature with no social media, no cell phone, minimal email, no stimulants, or a more extensive 10-day meditation retreat.
These measures — dopamine fasting, time boxing, ice baths, retreats — might sound extreme when compared to a “normal” vacation, but it’s important that we recognize that being a founder is an extreme act which calls for aggressive self-care.
For the average person working a 9 to 5 job and taking weekends off, it is easier to have balance in life without having to intentionally design it into their lifestyle (although in practice, many people use their off-time servicing their social media addiction or other unhealthy habits, which don’t do much to help them rest and maintain balance).
But by contrast, if you think about the job of a founder, it’s one of the most stimulating jobs you could possibly have. You’re answering emails all day, you’re reaching out to investors, you’re managing 50 different things at once, and constantly fighting fires. What’s more, you need to be emotionally aware, you need to be a leader, and you need to be talking to customers.
For 90% of founders, you’re stewing in dopamine day and night. and your time is very limited outside work. Because of this, I believe more aggressive measures to avoid burnout, like the pattern interrupts outlined above, are more than warranted.
Beyond trying to avoid burnout, there is another powerful reason to make use of aggressive pattern interrupts as a founder — your emotional awareness as a leader. If you’re a founder and you’re always in fight or flight mode, working 16 hours a day with no breaks, it means you are never in a parasympathetic nervous system state, which is where we are capable of having experiences that create meaning and connect us with others.
This can harm your empathy for your employees, your self-love, and your zest for life. It can turn you into an angry, manic leader — you may be getting a lot of things done, but the cost down the road for your company culture and your state of mind may be very high.
Everyone has different limits, which is why the self-assessment step is so important. But the question is, if you took a structured break with purpose in the form of a pattern interrupt, would you perform better as a leader emotionally, as well as from a productivity standpoint? For many founders, the answer is likely yes.
All this is not to say that you should be working less; rather, that you should periodically self-assess. Each person’s tolerance for stimulation before suffering negative consequences is different.
But as someone who’s done 10-day meditation retreats and a regular practice of breathwork, daily walks, and ice baths, and understands the science, it’s still very hard to avoid burnout. For the average founder, I suspect that pattern interrupts in some form are desperately needed.
To stop burnout and be a successful founder: be honest with yourself
Some founders might be hesitant to invest time and effort into resting in the ways suggested in this essay — maybe feeling that it’s a matter of discipline and willpower.
But as we’ve seen, being successful as a founder is not simply about outworking everyone else — what matters is not just the sheer output and effort, but also the quality of your work, how effective you are, and how long you can stay in the game and sustain a high level of performance.
Jack Dorsey is one of the most successful CEOs of all time, having simultaneously 2 massive companies. Yet he still makes time for Vipassana retreats. Jeff Bezos timeboxes his workday to end at 5 pm and prioritizes sleep. Founders like them are able to sustain a high level of performance for so long because they understand how to rest effectively and prioritize the long term.
Athletes are a good analogy here because they too must also be strategic about resting, and they have to balance recovery versus training to maximize performance. More isn’t always better; overtraining can impede performance more than it helps. If Usain Bolt trained 16 hours a day, he would be worse, not better, than his competitors who did less.
Another point to consider is that analysts in investment banking famously work 130 hours a week, but this is not very effective work. As a founder, you aren’t just mindlessly filling out spreadsheets; you’re called upon to do deep, creative work and bring a new product into the world.
This can’t be done by brute forcing mindless tasks 16 hours a day — judgment, impulse control, focus, willpower, and creativity are indispensable to being a successful entrepreneur.
Most founders burn out at some point, but that doesn’t mean you have to be one of them. Starting a startup can be a 10 year journey. If you want to reach the end of that odyssey having maximized your performance throughout, instead of periodically burning out and having to reset, be honest with yourself about your mental state. Assess yourself regularly, and don’t make the mistake of neglecting strategic rest.
If you do find yourself caught in a vicious cycle of burning out, learn the tools and practice the techniques above that you can use to interrupt it early. The benefits will compound throughout the life of your startup and more importantly, they’ll help you to be in a mental place where you’re capable of enjoying your success when it arrives.
Want to take your pattern interrupt practice to the next level? Try Othership App today and dedicate time to a more productive and creative you.
A special thanks to Dr. Anna Lembke, Dr. Greg Wells, Dr. Cameron Sepah, Dr. Emily Anhalt and Andy Johns whose research and quotes are called out and linked to in this article.