People often think that because I have a self-care startup, I have to live a perfectly balanced life. I even assumed I knew the limits and habits I had to put in place to take care of myself while running my business.
However, despite having spent the last three years building Silk + Sonder, thinking about self-care every day, writing monthly notices for our members, and even being the voice of audio meditations in the our app, I recently came across an exhaustion like I had never had it before.
It wasn’t caused by a major company event or a life crisis, just the typical requirements of being a founder. Every day, he switched between general thinking and short-term firefighting. He was constantly making decisions about operations, product, marketing and growth. He had been saying yes at every meeting and was constantly finding another problem to address.
Without really realizing it, my self-care habits began to fall apart: I didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t eat the right foods, and I felt pressured to keep the people in my life happy even though I had less social time than ever before. . . I was exaggerating, but as a founder, I’m so used to operating outside my comfort zone and facing challenges right and left that I didn’t think of anything.
Until one day I woke up with a headache so intense that I couldn’t even look at my cell phone. I took some Advil and waited for it to fade when I finished my morning diary, but I found that I couldn’t even look at the words on the page. When I started feeling nauseous, I knew something was wrong. I managed to send a text message to my assistant to clear my calendar for the day, then I sent a message to a founding friend for advice. “I think you’re experiencing exhaustion,” he said. I was in disbelief because I always associated exhaustion with increased anxiety, not debilitating exhaustion.
I spent the next eight hours lying on the couch doing absolutely nothing. I needed to disconnect, but even my unplugging tools, such as a book or a podcast, seemed too exhausting.
After a day of rest, luckily he was ready to get back into action. But he knew that if he did not address the root cause, he would be incapacitated again before he knew it. And while good self-care and old-fashioned stimulated my immediate recovery, the long-term solution involved profound changes in the way I approached my job.
These are the strategies that have helped me escape and avoid the burnout cycle ever since.
I started to reevaluate my energy needs
Immediately, I learned that I needed to make some adjustments in the way I spent my time in order to better protect my energy.
Make my calendar work for me
First, I looked for ways to rework my calendar. I tend to work better when I have two or three hours of concentrated work a day, but before exhaustion I had been ignoring this structure. So I blocked a few uninterrupted hours of work each day and looked for meetings that I could cut off from my calendar, such as recurring logs where updates could be shared asynchronously.
Use an energy map to delegate
I also reviewed how I spent my time creating an energy map – writing down all my daily and weekly tasks and classifying which ones loaded or exhausted me. I knew I wanted to devote most of my day to activities to give energy, so this became an instant guide for what I needed to delegate. I realized that looking for candidates and making screening calls was a waste of time and energy, and could be easily delivered. To this day, I will create a new map when it looks like my to-do list is getting out of hand.
Reserving time for me
Eventually, I looked for ways to re-engage with my wellness needs. I started booking training classes all week so as not to neglect exercise and was more intent on spending the weekends filling my cup with activities like doing a diary, reading and having fun social outings.
I’ve worked on strategies instead of reacting
One of the problems with my exhaustion was that I had fallen into reaction mode, constantly playing catch-up with every question, need, and problem that came my way. I knew I had to be more strategic about how I approached the needs of my business so I could focus on the most important tasks, rather than being thrown in a thousand directions.
Choose a main goal every day
I started by adopting a technique that we recommend to our Silk + Sonder planners, in which you choose one thing to do every day that will make the rest easier. I like to focus my only thing on expansive creative thinking for my business or tasks that make me a more effective CEO. I know that unless the company is literally on fire, these should take precedence over other tasks that come up throughout the day.
Set realistic expectations with my team
I also had to be more transparent about when I could answer questions or review submissions from my team members, even if it wasn’t on time. I’m always tempted to stop what I’m doing and address their needs, especially when they prevent them from doing something, but I’ve found that communicating realistic timelines has been better received than over-commitment and under-delivery (or working on land to deliver anyway).
Empower my employees to make their own decisions
Finally, I’ve been working to stay away from all business decisions. If a teammate comes to me to ask for input in an area I don’t know much about, I’ll be honest with them that, although I’m happy to talk about it, I trust their experience. This helps them empower them with the knowledge that they can make decisions without me. Around, it’s been better for them, better for me, i best for business.
I am constantly building new positive habits
Finally, I have found that the path to creating healthy habits to avoid exhaustion is a continuous one. Not only have I had to adjust or re-engage with habits periodically when I feel that exhaustion is increasing again, but I have had to remind other people in my life of my needs. After all, I am the best advocate for my own well-being.
Reducing notifications and checking messages on time
For example, to reduce the temptation to change the context and change the intended priorities, I turned off Slack notifications and email previews from my phone and computer. I’m aware of my tendency to invite distractions, especially if they help others move faster, but I’ve noticed that my involvement can often wait. To preserve time for flow and creative thinking, I check these accounts a few times a day in my calendar. I use this same approach to my personal life, reminding my fiancé and family members that just because I’m not in a meeting doesn’t mean I’m available for personal or home-related questions.
Training my team on when to deal with something as urgent
People know that if there is a real emergency they can text me or call me, but I’ve also been working to train my team to know when something is really urgent. I encourage you to ask yourself, “Is it so urgent that whatever Meha is working on, does she have to stop right now to help deal with it?”
It’s hard to do that when you feel like everyone is looking at you, but ultimately, I think the founders are putting more pressure on themselves than they need to. I have found that my team appreciates my trust in them as well as my transparency regarding my needs. In fact, they respect that they prepare me to do my best for them and for the business.