Tactics against burnout

Being an entrepreneur in the tech space means working 60 to 80 hours a week and hustling from one opportunity to the next. That’s what many people think. That’s what many entrepreneurs in the tech space think. It’s what I thought, too, when I started freistil IT in 2010. The temperature started rising. It felt like a fever. And I mean that in the literal sense.

One busy day, my body started heating up and I started to feel weary and devoid of energy. It felt similar to a flu, but I had no other flu symptoms on top of the 40 degrees. I remembered that I had experienced this before. Back then, I went to a doctor and had blood samples taken. No conclusive results at all. Now that it happened again, I started to recognize a pattern: This was how my body alerted me that I was hitting my limits. So I dropped what ever I was sweating about, went straight to bed and switched to private mode completely. No email, no phone calls, no pondering business issues. Soon, the fever vanished and I slowly got into business again, carefully ramping up my workload. Since then, it never happened again because I’ve become much more aware of what drains me of energy and motivation, and because I learned how to replenish my mental fuel.

Andrew Dumont describes his experience with this issue in his blog entry “Avoiding Burnout“. These are his tactics to stay in good shape:

  • Morning Workouts
  • An Evening Walk
  • Fiction Reading
  • A Day A Week
  • Intellectual Hobbies
  • Small Wins
  • A Healthy Diet
  • Limiting Decisions
  • Yearly Unplugs

While I’m doing many of these myself already, the yearly unplugging is something of which I still need to make a habit. When work — even hard work — is fun and fulfilling, it’s sort of addictive. But Andrew is right in that work as an entrepreneur needs to be more than just hard:

It’s taken me years to realize that overnight success is fictional. Overnight success comes after years of hard, sustainable work.

The benefits of daily meditation

Being a leader in a growing business with all the duties and responsibilities is a challenge that requires me to learn new skills all the time. For every task that I get done, two new ones seem to grow back. I actually enjoy that. But I also realise the hidden dangers of losing focus and going into burnout.

That’s why I’m making it a habit to start my day with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation. Concentrating on my breath alone and putting all the thoughts whizzing around in my head back to their waiting line (again and again and again…) helps me keep my peace of mind and trains my mental muscles.

Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne lists “5 reasons as a CEO you should develop a habit of daily meditation“:

  1. You will easily handle the inevitable ups and downs
  2. It will save you time, by reducing procrastination
  3. You will have bursts of creative genius
  4. You will feel alive and healthy and have better sleep
  5. It will make you happy and you’ll find meaning

And If You’re Too Busy to Meditate, Read This.

Productive virtual meetings

At freistil IT, we’re not sharing an office. Instead, our work environment is completely virtual. “Coming into office” means logging in to our internal chat server – from home, from a coworking space or (quite frequently, in my case) from Starbucks. On our IRC server, we have channels for different purposes, for example the “virtual watercooler” without a pre-defined topic, or the “#incident” channel where we manage an ongoing systems outage.

This means that our meetings are virtual, too. We mainly use Skype (since there’s actually still no better alternative). While meetings that have all people in a room have their own problems (hands up if you thought at least once “Oh dear, please, someone shoot me now”), virtual meetings need even more effort to be effective.

On LifeHack, I recently found a great list of Tips for Having Great Virtual Meetings. The most important point comes right at the beginning of the article: “The three most important ingredients of a successful virtual meeting are trust, communication and ready access to information.” These three ingredients actually depend on each other and create the foundation of productive teamwork.

From the list of tips, these are the three I think are most important:

  • “Before the meeting, make sure attendees have all the preparation materials they will need and the time to review them.” That’s a prerequisite for every kind of meeting, virtual or not. The worst meetings are those where everyone comes unprepared.
  • “Solicit participation.” By keeping everyone engaged in the meeting, you can prevent people “spending their time more effectively” by checking email or Google Plus.
  • “Assign a meeting monitor.” Having someone focus on feedback coming in from the different participants helps that everyone feels being “heard” and connected.

There’s also a tip on the list that I disagree with: “Begin with a quick warm-up.” If all participants already know each other, I don’t think it’s necessary to spend (may I say “waste”?) time on things that don’t contribute to the purpose of the meeting. This reminds me of a story where, in a meeting at Apple, somebody started to chat about the weekend and quickly got interrupted by Steve Jobs saying “Can we raise the tone of conversation here?” I feel the same. There are other ways of letting colleagues know about each other’s news outside of meetings, for example in chat rooms or on an internal social network like Yammer.

Instead, I’d add this tip to the list: Keep the meeting’s agenda and minutes in a shared document that all participants can follow in real-time, for example on Google Docs. This keeps everyone literally “on the same page” and even spares the effort of having to write and send a protocol after the meeting concludes.

What’s your experience with virtual meetings? How do you make sure they’re not a waste of time and bandwidth?

Three tips to keep you sane in your business

I’ve been working in my own business for over 2 years now and I enjoy it very much. Success and fun in business is a great thing but what about the rest? Although — and since — there are more things to life, I sometimes struggle to keep the business from eating up all my time and energy.

In “Stay Sane While Managing Your Business”, I’ve found three good tips that can help prevent your work life from overwhelming you.

Tip no. 1: Cut Clutter

Even if you’ve never heard of entropy, you can see it in action everywhere in your life where disorder tends to grow. Clutter means extra work, so it’s important to fight it whereever it rears its ugly head.

Tip no. 2: Take Control

Never let go of the steering wheel of your ship, especially in heavy waters. Set yourself goals (both for your business and your personal life) and keep them in sight.

Tip no. 3: Have Fun

Fun is no extracurricular activity. “Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy. If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined.” (Johnny Carson)

If you have 5 more minutes, read the article for more details on each tip!

Family First

Founding my own business has proven to be a very fulfilling venture, but it’s also very time-intensive. Balancing my professional duties with the responsibilities of a father and partner actually is a challenge every day.

Over the years, I had many opportunities to experience how much the support of my family means to me. That’s why I follow Gary V’s advice in “Crush It” (which, by the way, did immensely influence me) and chose “Family First” as my rule number one.

Now, how do I put this rule into practice? The article “Manifesto for a Freelancer with a Family” on FreelanceFolder has a great answer with which I agree wholeheartedly! Author Brian McDaniel makes the following declarations, adding to each some concrete guidelines:

  • My Family Will Always Come First
  • I Will Keep My Marriage Healthy
  • I Will Pour Myself into My Children
  • I Will Keep Myself Healthy and Sane

I think having these principles really helps in making the right decisions and achieving something like “work/family balance” (I don’t like the term “work/life balance” since I regard my work an essential part of my life). That’s why I copied the Manifesto into my “Important Notes” folder and reread it from time to time.

I have to admit that there are still some points I’m struggling with, for example with “Be present. Not just physically, but completely present, even when I’m working.” because it seems to conflict with my very focused working style.

Since I know from experience that working as an employee can be as taxing on your family life as is working for your own business, I recommend reading Brians article to every professional that has (or intends to found) a family.