No. 10: Me-Time vs. Work All the Time

Morning fabulous RCL readers. As some of you know, I created and currently run a self-awareness program – Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) – for entrepreneurs in MIT’s delta v accelerator. They get a weekly reading in their inboxes every Monday, and leading up to this coming holiday weekend, I thought you might be interested to read today’s, below. Hope you have a great start to your week,


Should you sacrifice yourself for your startup? Much of the culture of entrepreneurship over the past 10-15 years has encouraged – and even glorified – 110% commitment, to the exclusion of everything else in an entrepreneur’s life, including friends, family, and health. But does it have to be that way? Does that kind of sacrifice lead to startup success?

We can’t yet prove with data that personal sacrifice does or does not lead to startup success, but we do know that around 70% of startups fail. And we know that entrepreneurs are affected by depression in greater numbers than the general population; a 2015 UC Berkeley / UC San Francisco study of entrepreneur mental health showed that a third of entrepreneurs experience feelings of depression or loneliness. So even though it’s not fun to think about, it is very possible that you could end up hurting your mental or physical health over the coming years and still not end up with a successful startup.

But what if compromising yourself for your startup is just not necessary? What if entrepreneurs taking care of themselves in fact leads to more startup success? A growing contingent of the startup community thinks this could be the case. They’re prioritizing self-care for founder success and growth – writing about it and putting money behind it. And here you are in the delta v accelerator, experiencing MIT’s commitment to it with the ECC program.

With ECC, we are asserting that putting effort into yourself as an individual entrepreneur will accrue to your startup. If you build your self-awareness, you will have more clarity when making decisions, you will dwell less on daily stressors, and you will communicate better. You’ll be caring for your mental health in every choice you make.

What about your physical health? Well, if you’re hurting yourself physically, you are putting up barriers to self-awareness. If you’re working long hourssleep deprived, getting less nutrition than you need, not moving enough each day, and not engaging with friends and loved ones, you are placing a limit on the capacity of your brain to work efficiently and think creatively.

But you have so much to do for your startup, you might say. How do you balance your own well-being and your startup’s needs?

The First Step: Belief.

The first step is realizing and believing it’s possible and doable to take care of yourself and your startup at the same time. Here is a story from Amanda, a former delta v participant and MIT Sloan MBA, about her experience with her current successful startup vs her experience with her first startup in 2014:

“I often think to myself nowadays, in trying to eat right, sleep enough and work out consistently, what a shame it is that I didn't realize how simple it could have been years ago. Seriously, it's really not rocket science, especially since I was never - and would never - train at the intensity of a pro athlete! We're just talking a little exercise here and there. But I guess that's the main point: I didn't even realize it could have been fairly simple, for lack of resources / awareness / understanding / education in that department. For me, back then, even the very idea of working out consistently seemed totally daunting. When I looked at people who worked out regularly, I used to think: 'Well, I guess I'm really just not a sporty type of person, because there is NO WAY I could be motivated enough to do that!' Which, of course, is a self-defeating first thought to have, which ended my internal conversation before it even really got started.”

Amanda has been able to integrate self-care into her entrepreneurial life, and so can you!

The Second Step: Give yourself and your teammates permission.

So belief, check. The next step is to allow yourself to act on that belief, and to create a culture in your startup that allows and encourages your teammates to take care of themselves too. Giving yourself and others permission to spend time away from your startup is hard, especially when you are so motivated to move quickly with your business and to take advantage of everything currently at your fingertips during delta v.

But since time away prevents burnout and encourages creativity, it isn’t a cost to your startup; it is an investment in your startup. As a multi-millionaire entrepreneur I spoke with recently said, “I have never really worked that hard as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship isn’t about staying up all night at your desk. It’s about stick-to-it-iveness over time.” Entrepreneurship may be made up of sprints, but it is most definitely a marathon. You have to remind yourself and your teammates on a regular basis that building and growing a company doesn’t happen over a summer; it is a much longer term commitment. And persevering over time requires that your mind and body stay up to the challenge.

The Third Step: Just do a little bit, regularly.

Ok, so you believe it’s possible to take care of yourself, and you have given yourself permission to do it. Because entrepreneurs are high achievers, it’s tempting to think that the next step is to make an awesome get-in-the-best-shape-of-your-life regimen for yourself and execute on that. And if that works for you, go for it, but remember, we’re in this for the long haul. As James Clear, bestselling author on habit-building, says, “Life goals are good to have because they provide direction, but they can also trick you into taking on more than you can handle. Daily habits — tiny routines that are repeatable — are what make big dreams a reality.”

A commitment to spend an hour at the gym every single day over the course of the summer could lose steam after a week or two, whereas marginal gains, through small daily habits, produce big returns over time. “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement,” so focusing on building in a few self-care habits each day or each week will not only prevent burnout, but help you achieve self-care goals without making you feel like you’re taking too much time away from your startup.

Some small-time suggestions for big-time self-care success:

  • Meditation and mindfulness practices. My favorite practice, which I call “mundane mindfulness”, is simply making a boring task you do every day (e.g. doing the dishes, brushing your teeth) into a mindfulness practice. Focus entirely on the task, experiencing every aspect of it; feel the slipperiness of the soap suds and the warmth of the water on your hands as you wash the dishes, or the rough feeling of the toothbrush bristles on the edges of your gums. As you find thoughts appearing in your brain, notice them and label them (e.g. “thinking about breakfast”), and then go back to focusing on the physical sensations of the mundane task.

  • Get out in nature at regular times each week. How about walking meetings with your co-founder over the phone instead of indoor Zoom meetings? “A wealth of research indicates that escaping to a neighborhood park, hiking through the woods, or spending a weekend by the lake can lower a person’s stress levels, decrease blood pressure and reduce the risk of asthma, allergies, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, while boosting mental health and increasing life expectancy. Doctors around the world have begun prescribing time in nature as a way of improving their patients’ health.” (Source: How much nature is enough?)

  • Making personal days and/or vacation mandatory. Back when I was starting my first company, I got so stressed that my co-founder forbade me from coming into work and insisted I take at least a three day vacation. It was the best thing I could have done – I came back refreshed and with a bunch of new ideas.

  • Don’t just encourage your teammates to get sleep, help them work according to their own internal clock. “Every human runs on a 24-hour circadian rhythm, an internal clock, which coordinates a drop in body temperature, for example, as it prepares for slumber, and cranks back up when it is time to wake... [But] not everyone’s clock is the same… about 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between… Night owls are not owls by choice.” (Source: Maybe Your Sleep Problem Isn’t A Problem)

  • Build exercise into your team schedule, helping teammates prioritize exercise at least 2-3 times per week. "Every time you work out, your muscles, fat cells, and liver release a variety of molecules into the bloodstream. Some of these molecules circulate through the body and travel up to the brain, where they cross the blood-brain barrier. Once inside, they trigger a cascade of beneficial changes that can make you feel sharper and happier.” (Source: This is What Exercise Does to Your Brain)

  • Help each other eat fruits and veggies. “A poor diet is a major factor contributing to the epidemic of depression… A study of 422 young adults from New Zealand and the United States showed higher levels of mental health and well-being for those who ate more fresh fruits and vegetables… [and] a survey published in 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only one in 10 adults meets the minimal daily federal recommendations for fruit and vegetables — at least one-and-a-half to two cups per day of fruit and two to three cups per day of vegetables.” (Source: Can What We Eat Affect How We Feel?)

So this coming weekend and next week, we encourage you to take a break, eat some good food, sleep, get outside, and be your full, creative self.

“Joy comes to us in moments – ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary."

– Brené Brown

"There’s another way to live beyond feeling assaulted by life and then trying to find a remedy.”

– Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen Master

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