27
19 Comments

Founder burnout: Hustle porn, burning out, and finding balance

I've hustled a lot in my career. I've also burned out a lot. There was a time when I would do these 36-hour sprints with no sleep, fueled by coffee and desperation. And I got a lot done. But it was unhealthy (though I didn't realize that at the time). My life suffered from it. And I have to wonder what would have happened if I hadn't made myself available for that kind of hustle. Maybe instead of me shouldering the burden, my priorities and processes could have evolved.

So I'm not a proponent of hustle culture. I think hustle porn sets an unhealthy precedent. But that doesn't mean I'm against hustling — on the contrary, I think hustling is important. For me, it's just about finding balance.

And since striking that balance is an ongoing process for me, I did some digging into burnout. Hopefully it'll be of use to those of us in danger of (or in recovery from) burning out.

Let's start with a quick look at hustle culture.

Hustle porn

According to Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit), who condemns it, hustle porn is the fetishization of people overworking themselves. It can be dangerous because it sets unrealistic expectations, inspires unhealthy (and often unethical) actions, and it burns people out.

But burnout existed before hustle porn and it'll exist after. And though I have my qualms with hustle culture, I've definitely seen some benefits. For one, it shows us that we can do anything if we work hard enough. And I have no doubt that it has been a driving force behind many excellent companies.

Interestingly, I found a number of indie hackers who successfully scaled back after hustling their way to newfound financial security. That's a tradeoff that many of us would be happy making. @NickFreiling, for example, worked the night his daughter was born and got some flack for it. His response was that, "...I fixed my website, which had updated and glitched out earlier that day. I didn't want to do it, but leaving my two biggest clients in the dark and my website inoperable for days just wasn't an option. Sorry. No, I wouldn't have to do this if my daughter were born today. Because PeopleFish is a steady, growing company. I can take time off."

So I'll set aside the debate around hustle culture for now. Let's get into the meat of the article: Burnout and what to do about it, whether you're a hustler or not.

Founder burnout

The term "burnout" was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 and was added to WHO's International Classification of Diseases as an "occupational phenomenon" (not a disease) in 2019.

A 2015 survey showed that 72% of entrepreneurs have concerns about their mental health. And in the US alone, burnout costs the economy $300 billion annually. So yeah, it's kind of a big deal.

And from what I've read on IH, Indie hackers burn out too. A lot.

I won't bore you with a definition. We all know what it is, and I'd wager that most of us have felt it at one time or another. But an article by @joumana taught me that it's often classified into three types: Frenetic (frantically working harder in pursuit of ambition), under-challenged (lack of stimulation and purpose), and worn-out (physical and mental exhaustion).

Yes, you read that right. You can burn out from a lack of stimulation and purpose :Exploding head: And now that I've learned that, I think I've actually been there.

Signs of founder burnout

I think it's important to address the signs of burnout because a lot of articles and comments emphasized the importance of spotting burnout early and course-correcting.

Of course, the warning signs are different for everyone. For me, a dead giveaway is avoidance. If I repeatedly lack the energy to see close friends or to do things I enjoy, then I need to re-evaluate where I'm putting my energy. Here are some other symptoms that can tip you off:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Physical symptoms (headaches, stomach issues, weakened immune system, back pain, muscle aches)
  • Change in eating habits
  • Increase in coping mechanisms (drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, etc.)
  • Inability to focus
  • Decreased productivity
  • Lack of motivation
  • Avoidance
  • Poor memory
  • Cloudy thinking
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Cynicism
  • Disillusionment
  • Self-doubt
  • Hopelessness
  • Detachment
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Declining social life — isolation
  • Abandonment of healthy practices
  • Escape fantasies

Here are a few short stories from fellow indie hackers about their experiences of burnout:

How to prevent founder burnout

The best way to deal with burnout is to not get burned out. Plain and simple. Here's how to not get burned out.

  • Optimize your lifestyle: Eat healthy, stay hydrated, decrease your caffeine intake, exercise regularly, sleep 8 hours a day, limit media exposure, and maybe even try journaling. A quick note on sleep — according to Stanford University, more rest and fewer hours of work is more productive than being tired but working more hours.
  • Optimize your work: Align your work to your values/expectations, know your priorities, plan your work, have clear goals, stop multi-tasking, take regular breaks (try the Pomodoro technique), automate, systematize, find the right co-founder(s), outsource/delegate, eliminate unnecessary work, fix recurring problems, add structure to your calendar, schedule freetime, organize your workspace, and take time off. For best results, regularly analyze where you're spending your time and how it feels.
  • Optimize your mindset: Set boundaries, stand up for what's important to you, try not to be perfectionistic, redefine success (and make it include non-business interests), practice gratitude for what you already have, grow your capacity for stress/uncertainty, and strengthen your foundation.

@randfish recommends what he calls "chill work." It means what you think it means, but here are a few practical points: Build your job around your life (not the other way around), trust yourself and your co-founders to get things done, focus on the outcomes (not the input), do less but do it better, and set priorities.

If your business isn't seeming too chill right now, though, don't feel bad. @channingallen points out that, "...the elephant in the room, it seems to me, is that you don't get to chill until you've created a stable living for yourself. It's one of the important risks you take on when you trade a full-time job for running your own business."

Going back to Rand for a moment, he mentioned valuing output over input. I think @nyuman said it well, "The sin of #HustlePorn is that it focuses 100% on inputs. The best entrepreneurs I know are ruthlessly focused on output, inputs be damned."

And here are a few more indie hackers weighing in:

  • @mvrck says to think about how much actual work you're doing, since so many of us trick ourselves into thinking that we're productive and busy. They advise automating, systemetizing, and eliminating.
  • @bdavis says you have o schedule things in — work, exercise, social activities. Schedule it ahead of time. And check in on yourself weekly.
  • @pawelkomarnicki says to "combat burnout by identifying and fixing stressors and by balancing the activity that burns you out."
  • @gordon says "Taking time each day to enjoy the small things and be grateful is key."
  • @jasperflour says, "Relieve the pressure to perform and you’ll see an improvement in your quality of work. Decrease the stress and exhaustion, and your reward will be an increase in creativity and focus. An easy way to get started is to create a mindset goal. A place where you’d like your mind to be set when you’re working. My personal mindset goal? Always be in a place where I can just have fun with it. Once I shift my mindset to just having fun, the true work reveals itself. If I stop having fun, I take a break. If I can’t have fun, the work’s not for me.

That's a lot of preventative measures and I don't want this to become a novel, but it's important to remember what I mentioned earlier: Some burnout comes from a lack of stimulation. In that case, slowing down might not be the ticket. Perhaps finding your fire and getting to work on something you love could be the way to find the energy that you need. Here's an article on finding your purpose.

How to recover from burnout

Preventative measures are important, but burnout can happen even with the best of intentions. So what can be done when you're in the throes of it and to bounce back afterward? As it turns out, you can tap into the preventative strategies. But here are a few other ways to recover:

  • Admit that you're burned out
  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Feel your emotions — maybe cry, if you can
  • Unplug
  • Get into nature
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Be compassionate with yourself
  • Nourish yourself and hydrate
  • Be social
  • Try to laugh. A number of studies have shown that laughter boosts energy.
  • Do something that gives you energy, like a hobby
  • Shift your perspective
  • @rcoold advises doing something completely different, like cooking. That helps them regain their excitement.
  • @thatbberg said, "...There's really not much else to do but rest. It can be like having a cold in that way."

And once you're ready, figure out why you burned out. As @EliteTech3306 said, "...if we want to deconstruct how we got to this stage, we shouldn’t pay attention to what we stopped doing. We need to understand WHY we stopped doing those important things to begin with." Then scale back and fix your processes.

Burnout resources

Here are a few books that have been recommended:

  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown: "The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. It is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter."
  • Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: "He combines rigorous scientific research with a rich array of examples of writers, painters, and thinkers to challenge our tendency to see work and relaxation as antithetical. "Deliberate rest," as Pang calls it, is the true key to productivity, and will give us more energy, sharper ideas, and a better life"
  • Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness: "The result is a life-changing book in which readers will learn how to enhance their performance by a myriad of ways including: optimally alternating between periods of intense work and rest; developing and harnessing the power of a self-transcending purpose; and priming the body and mind for enhanced productivity."

It's not a book, but while researching this, I came across the Burnout Survival Kit by @joumana — it's a solid free resource, so check it out.

What about you?

I'm curious — how many of you have burned out before? And how do you prevent burnout and/or recover from burning out?

Have you ever burned out?
  1. No.
  2. Maybe once or twice.
  3. More times than I can count.
Vote
  1. 4

    As someone who is feeling burned out right now, I appreciate this post more than I thought I would. Thank you for the resources as well!

    1. 2

      Really glad you found it helpful. Good luck navigating the burnout — I hope you find a way to take a step back and recover. 😴🚀

  2. 4

    Thanks for a nice article

  3. 4

    Thank you very much for writing this. It's a great and important post that I hope reaches as many people as possible in the community!

    1. 2

      Thanks! Glad you liked it. 😃

  4. 3

    Nice article, thanks for that!

    I've written about burnout too, it's more for developers but maybe it can help: https://thevaluable.dev/burnout-software-developer/

    1. 2

      Nice, looks like a solid article! (Dig the use of legos in your imagery too 😃)

  5. 2

    Love it James - I'm getting into the personal growth / mindset coaching space as a founder & community builder (after having received a lot of exec coaching in the past and benefitted from online communities in other domains) - I think about this stuff and have been having a lot of convos about this subject - would love to connect!

    1. 1

      Nice, good luck in the new space! 🚀

  6. 2

    Thanks for writing James - Quick question: How do you go about "Growing your capacity for stress/uncertainty?"

    1. 1

      That's a very good question 😅 I'm no expert, but happy to share my understanding.

      I think of capacity as how energy affects me. How much energy can I hold? How much energy do I have access to? How much energy does stress take? From what I understand, capacity and tolerance are built through challenge— learning where my edge is, and getting right up to that edge for as long as I can tolerate, then easing up before I go over the edge. That can be done with difficult business tasks like marketing, for example. But it can also happen through practices like yoga asana, breathwork, etc. The idea is to stress oneself consciously (or be conscious about it when stress happens naturally), but only allow it to get to a point, and then rest/recover/resource. Over time, the stress will take less energy, and capacity should grow. I've learned a lot in this regard from the content of a guy named John Wineland — highly recommend checking him out.

      I find it's valuable to balance that kind of work with "resourcing" myself — essentially, just doing things that fill me up. Stuff that makes me really present in the moment and gives me more energy than it takes.

      I'm still iterating on what works best for me. But currently, I wake up early to do my practice which includes meditation, qi gong, affirmations, journaling, and then structuring my day. I challenge myself to do things that feel uncomfortable. I exercise, eat well, and try to get a good amount of sleep. I get into nature most days. And I try to do things I love.

      I also frequently fail at all of these things. 😂

      1. 1

        WOW! Thank you for such an insightful answer. I'll be sure to check out John Wineland. Also, your morning routine definitely would be a challenge for me to do. I had to try meditating and journaling. However, found I prefer to journal of an evening, so I can reflect on my day. So now the main things I do every single morning without fail is make my bed - Been doing this since secondary school and setting a daily highlight/ intention aka what one thing do I want to get done today - Can be either personal ( game, gym or read) or professional (work task/ project)

        1. 1

          My pleasure! I never got into the habit of making my bed, but I've heard it's a really helpful practice. And setting an intention for your day is a great idea, I may have to try that 😃

  7. 2

    Nice and important write up.

    When I talk with fellow founder friends or aspiring entrepreneurs I usually recommend to 'hedge their happiness' == building multiple pillars of their personality

    • "me as a founder"
    • "me as a colleague"
    • "me as a friend"
    • "me as a family member"
    • "me as a partner"
    • "me as an athlete
    • "me as a hobbyist"
      ...

    You get the gist. That way you have something to fall back on when the founder/professional pillars break apart.

    I wrote about it in a bit more detail here: https://twitter.com/artlapinsch/status/1378324136372625411?s=20

    Burnout is no joke. Thanks for writing this important post.

    Stay happy, stay healthy.

    1. 3

      100% agree with this concept. You should never base your identity on one thing because if you lose that one thing it can cause major problems in your mental health. Happened to me in my early twenties when I got made redundant from my first office job as a Marketing Executive.

      1. 1

        Thanks for sharing Janinah, hope you have resolved this experience and have a broader foundation by now.

    2. 3

      Love that. Thanks for weighing in! 💪

  8. 1

    Everything in mainstream is porn.
    If reading about hustle will become boring
    people will get hooked on something opposite like, doing literally nothing.
    Oh wait, law of attraction was invented 100 years ago.

Trending on Indie Hackers
We've bootstrapped to $1.6m ARR in a crowded market. AMA. 45 comments We just reached a major milestone: $500k ARR 🔥 24 comments I bought Twitter•fm. What should I do with it? 7 comments Tiiny Host hits $2,000 MRR 📈🎉 7 comments Building MVP, looking for a sparring partner/accountability buddy 6 comments We are LIVE on Product Hunt 🚀🚀 4 comments