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Attaining The Impossible: Work-Life Balance For Startup Founders

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Founding a startup is unbelievably hard. You have limited time, resources and money, so you need to do what’s important. For that, decide what matters today.

Founding a startup is, for most people, an exhausting process. Young entrepreneurs and first-time CEOs believe it’s a sprint, so they need to work, work, work to show they are 100% committed to success.

Usually, this is how it goes: Jimmy gets overly excited by an idea, rallies a fantastic team, and he starts working 10 hours a day from his 1-bedroom apartment. Hard work pays off, and he gets accepted into a top accelerator. With Demo Day hanging over his head, 10-hour days transform into 16-hour days straight from hell. As time passes by, any semblance of a balanced, fulfilling life goes out the window.

However, what Jimmy didn’t realize is that, actually, startups are a marathon. And in a marathon, if you don’t control your pace and think long-term, you burn out and can’t finish the race.

The Theory of Ego Depletion

Will power is not only overrated, but a finite resource. According to Wikipedia, “ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower draw upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which would be considered a state of ego depletion”.

What this means is that we start each day with a limited number of decision-making points that, once depleted, leave us cognitively impaired and unable to perform at a productive and effective level.

As a result, we should carefully pick what we work on to maximize productivity, say ‘no’ and automate or delegate repetitive tasks that don’t require thinking or creativity on our end.

Let’s see how we can do that.

Wake up early and do your best work in the morning

For me, waking up at 7 am (which is ridiculously early by Latin American standards) has been a game-changer.

First, most people’s peak productivity is a 2-hour window right after waking up. According to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, and author of Predictably Irrational, “one of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity”. Second, the rest of the world is at sleep, so there are no external distractions that can kill your focus – an email, a phone call, a phone message or someone at the door.

This allows you to get into that ‘sweet spot’, in where you are doing your most productive work yet there are no external distractions. The feeling of getting up before the world starts making demands is liberating. As an added benefit, when everyone is rushing to work, reacting to email and stressing out, you’ll be 2 hours ahead.

Decide the ‘3 things that matter today’ and focus on them one at a time

I picked this habit from Tim Ferriss a couple of years ago. In his post ‘Productivity Trick For The Neurotic, Manic-Depressive and Crazy (Like Me)’, Tim suggests picking 3 to 5 important tasks to do in a day that are making you uncomfortable, and focus on those: “they’re often things that have been punted from one day’s to-do list to the next, to the next, to the next, and so on. Most important usually equals most uncomfortable, with some chance of rejection or conflict.

This allows you to overcome only the important tasks that will move you and your startup one step forward. The important thing is to block a certain period of time and only focus on that, while letting the other stuff slide by.

Danny Halarewich is the founder of LemonStand, an amazing eCommerce software solution, and Piktochart fan, offers the some advice on this: “Focus. Don’t work on too many things at once. Switching contexts eat up time and mental energy, which kills productivity, creativity and discipline.

Stop Reacting

18 months ago, I went through some of my darkest hours. I felt that everything needed my immediate attention so whenever a message hit my inbox, I rushed to respond to it. I was obviously wrong. It was the illusion of productivity, but in reality, I wasn’t getting anything done.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I tried disabling my email notifications and focusing on work during the morning, and responding to customer service requests and other emails in the afternoon. The result: it felt like I had an extra 8 hours everyday, I got more stuff done, and customer happiness increased.

If you start your day reacting to email and putting off fires, you’ll start your day chasing a golden rabbit you’ll never be able to catch. Without even knowing it, you’ll find yourself at 8pm, still answering to email and with nothing to show for a full day’s work.

Email is a real threat for work-life balance. A study released in 2012 shows that, when it relates to temptation, email is more addictive than tobacco and alcohol. In addition, people who don’t look at email on a regular basis are less stressed out and able to focus on a single task for a longer period of time. Stop reacting to it.

Avoid late night work

Unless you are an experienced night owl who knows for a fact that their productivity increases 2x if they work at night, when no one else is awake, you should avoid it.

First, your body is biologically designed to sleep at night, when it’s dark. Our internal clock recognizes that fact, and starts sending us alerts that we need to go to bed. Ignoring those alerts can mess up with our body.

Second, late night work impairs your ability to wake up early the next morning, messing up your whole productivity routine. You’ll start the day reacting to email, putting out fires and rushing to the office. Buffer has an amazing policy on this – they only hire people who prefer waking up refreshed over that extra, late-night hour of unproductive work. You are half as productive.

One last piece of advice: if you are a night owl, at least use f.lux. It’s a handy little software that changes your screen color based on the time of the day.

Some Final Advice – protect your ‘magic hours’

Founding a startup is unbelievably hard. You have limited time, resources and money, so you need to do what’s important. For that, decide what matters today. You won’t get everything done, so pick the 3 goals that you know will move the needle for your business. No more than 3 goals. Then ask yourself: will that let you end the day feeling like you accomplished something? If the answer is yes, then use your “magic hours” for those three things.

Protect your “magic hours”.

What is your recipe for a perfect work-life balance?

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