I’m alive! I’m back!

Qiuyun Song Startup Speaker

At the start of last month, I crossed the 6 month mark at Grab. It certainly felt more like the 1 year mark than the 6 month mark. I’ve been running non-stop since Day 1, and I’ve done and learned more than I ever have at any other point in my career. I don’t struggle to get out of bed anymore dreading to go to work. Instead, I usually wake up feeling energized, engaged and purposeful – even on the worst of days when I know problems will be raining down on me the moment I check my phone. Life in a startup feels like looking at an iceberg. At any one point in time, you’ll only see 10% of what needs to be done, because that’s all you’ll have time and capacity to do.

But if I were being frank, there is a flipside to this as well: I feel the definite onset of startup burnout from being so engaged 24/7. I go to sleep thinking about Grab, dream about it, and wake up thinking about it. Even when I have my weekends free (hardly ever), I’m thinking about what went on during the week, the problems that have surfaced and how to solve them, how could I do the 1,001 things that were going on better, and how to run 2 steps ahead of everything I’m working on.

Right now, people say I look tired (as in I am overworked and haven’t slept much), but energetic (as in I’m excited about what I do). But it’s utter rubbish to think that I can always be more energetic than tired just because I am passionate about what I am building. The truth is, anyone who is in any meaningful role in a startup has a burnout point. That clock starts ticking when you get more tired than energetic.

A few years ago, while still at Goldman, I was told by a team lead that although the team really benefited from how engaged I was on the deal, I was burning through my fuel tank faster than I replenished it, and that one day I would just literally burn out. I’m reminded of his comment again now that I feel the onset of startup burnout, and I’m putting in place 4 ways to replenish my fuel tank on a weekly basis, starting from this week.

1. Define and Achieve Personal Balance

I realized that burnout happens to me when I spend every waking hour on one thing. Startup life guides people down that path. There’s so much to do and so much at stake, that it’s natural to start moving more and more of your personal focus there. I literally think about Grab every waking second. But when I compromise the other things that are important to me, I find myself more impatient, more defensive, less calm, less productive, and much more prone to making judgment errors.

For me, I’ve defined that building personal balance means I do yoga and swim every week. Exercising helps me to focus and feel a lot better, and keeps my energy levels up and stress levels down. Personal balance also means that I set aside time with my partner, friends and family every week. And one more thing that starts with this post: tending more to this blog, my personal real estate, a lot more. It’s a project that keeps me curious and creative. By the way, I just checked back and it blows my mind that this blog has had more than 3,000 unique visitors and more than 7,000 page views since I started it a year ago!

Personal Balance

2. Be Firm About Taking Breaks

My to-do list will never end. The emails and messages will never stop. So on a weekly basis, I find a window and make myself take a timeout. I use that time to do whatever I want, and to hang out with people to talk about and do nothing related to Grab. This can be hard, but it’s worth it. Disengaging is important.

The one thing I love that I’ve given up while being in this startup job is traveling. My friend Sheng constantly reminds me of how important it is to not give that up. Weekend trips are kind of out of the picture now – I’ve spent all the long weekends this year working. So I’m trying to find a window to go away to a different part of the world to rejuvenate my soul and to do a HUGE top up of my fuel tank. Top of that list now is to go back to the most energetic, inspiring and diverse place in the world to me – New York City. I always find something new there. And then I’ll do a 180 and go to the Galápagos Islands to dive with seals, lizards and hammerheads, and to experience the crazy and unique land ecosystem there. It’ll also give me a chance to get back into photography.

Photo credit:  Nina Papiorek

3. Celebrate the Little Things

Sometimes it feels like my team and I have worked so hard, hustled 24/7 to get so many things effectively done, but perhaps problems continue to come up out of our control, and there continues to be an endless list of things we are expected to do but have no resources to match. People are all time-crunched, and apart from telling you about the pressing problems you need to help solve, few have time to stop and give you a pat on the back for all the good things you’ve done. It all causes frustration to build, little by little, each day.

I figured the best way to counteract this frustration is to celebrate the little things along the way. Every week, I will endeavor to tell myself and my team at least one thing, big or small, we have done well. The little victories and milestones are important to keep being self-motivated. Importantly, the big picture is that what my team and I are doing is incredibly difficult work that few other people know how to do. We are now one of the few, and being in the center of it is a unique privilege and opportunity.

New Zealand Auckland Cornwall Park Fall Colors-0406

4. Let Things Go and Be Resilient

It’s not possible to win all the time. I have an abnormally excessive amount of responsibility and work to do. I’m learning to let failures and disappointments go, and to learn the 3 Ps of resilience.

1) Personalization: For the things that didn’t go the way I wanted, if they were clearly out of my control and I’d done everything within my control to the best of my ability, it’s important that I don’t dwell on them and to understand clearly that it’s not my fault that it didn’t work out.

2) Permanence: The failure will sting but it doesn’t last forever. There are ways to fix mistakes and failures.

3) Pervasiveness: Compartmentalize. Just because things didn’t work out in one place, doesn’t mean it would be the same everywhere else.

And so I’m learning to focus on the controllables and and to let other things outside of my control go.

New Zealand Auckland Piha Beach-0329

A few weeks ago, one of my best friends who was doing really well at her startup job decided to leave. While there were many, many factors that played into that decision, startup burnout from being overwhelmed by the neverending to-do list and feeling of failure that startup life involves was definitely one of them.

I’ve realized startup burnout is particularly a problem compounded many times over when you’re a natural pessimist, which I unequivocally am. I hope this post helps other people (especially pessimists) working in startups overcome this problem of burnout. One of the things I remind myself of most often when I’m having what seems like an unbelievably bad day, is that at least 50% of the rest of the company is also having an unbelievably bad day. It’s not me, it’s not even the startup, it’s just the nature of startup life.

This being my second startup, I’ve learned that resilience is probably the most important trait to have if you want to work in a startup or do your own startup. The people who end up staying with a startup till it becomes a real sustainable business are not necessarily the most talented, hardworking, passionate about the company, or, in my opinion, not even the luckiest. They are simply the most resilient.

Have you struggled with startup burnout? How did you deal with it? I’d love to hear from you!

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One thought on “4 Ways to Prevent Startup Burnout

  • June 23, 2015 at 18:15

    Not sure how I’ll deal with it yet, but these are great tips

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