Work and rest in a startup

Written on 10th April, 2011
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I’m writing this from Javea, Spain. I arrived here a couple of days ago and I’ve been pondering the relationship between work and rest in a startup.

One reason I’m building a startup is to gain control over many aspects of my life. I like to hack my productivity, and I’ve found I don’t enjoy normal working hours or offices. If you’re working on a startup or have aspirations to create one, I’m guessing you can relate. By experimenting with these concepts, I’ve found I can get more done.

I find it particularly interesting to relate this to startups because there’s a lot of emphasis on crazy things like 18-hour days in startups.

Time, or energy?

Over the last year, I’ve realised that whilst time is limited and in some ways determines how much I can get done, what really determines my productivity is what I do and how I feel in the time I have. Energy plays a large factor in how we feel and how productive we are. I realised how important energy is in a book I read a short while ago called The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. The overall message of the book is:

"managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal”

In a similar way to the fact that you need renewal in order to grow muscles, we also need renewal in order to grow our capacity of mental energy. Here is how Loehr and Schwarz put it:

"Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand capacity physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually so long as it is followed by adequate recovery"

This idea that if we shift from trying to manage time to managing our energy we can achieve more and feel better while we do it has lead to me doing quite a lot of experiments with my work and rest.

Experimenting with work and rest

I’ve tried many techniques to squeeze maximum productivity out of myself. When I embarked upon my first venture I was working very long hours, far beyond the point where my productivity dipped. This was a habit I carried over from university as a result of deadlines imposed at university.

One of my weaknesses is that I over-estimate how much I can get done in a period of time, so it is easy for me to go far beyond my optimal levels of energy. I came across a comment in an article on How To Stay Healthy While Hustlin A Startup, and it really rings true for me:

"Skipping sleep for a few extra hours of work destroyed my morale, creativity and attitude."

A startup is chaotic enough, so does it make sense to put ourselves in such a state? Recently I’ve been experimenting with getting a good amount of sleep and regularly going to the gym. I stop working when I feel I’ve gone just beyond the point of my high productivity period. This idea of stopping or “disengaging” is something I’ve found to be very important.

Disengaging from your startup

Disengaging is probably one of the most challenging aspects of running a startup. Whatever I’m doing, I often find myself thinking about my startup. The thoughts can really affect productivity because you don’t get the renewal you need from the startup in order to return to the work with high levels of energy. I can’t put it better than Loehr and Schwarz:

"The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal"

The suggested way to improve our ability to “fully disengage” is by creating rituals. I have a ritual in the evening of going for a short walk and upon returning going straight to bed and reading a fiction book. It helps me disengage from the work I’ve done in the day and get the sleep I need to wake up refreshed and ready for the next exciting day.

Being here in Javea is fantastic because I can experiment with spending a little less time working and intersperse the work with going to the beach, playing some table tennis or taking a swim. Many find it odd that I would do any work at all from here, but I’ve realised over time that I feel the best when I have a balance of work and rest.

Have you thought about how your energy levels affect your productivity? Do you experiment with work and rest? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: rikstill