Current strategies for maintaining balance as a startup founder
“Work/life balance” looks completely different now that I’m a founder. Here are some of my thoughts and things I’ve been trying.
Since moving back to New York after completing Y Combinator, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I balance time with friends and family, time for myself, and time for work. Now as a founder, I’m working more intensely than ever and finding balance has felt even more crucial.
Some struggles I’ve been having:
- Struggling to feel present while with my loved ones because I’m thinking about work tasks that need to get done
- Not spending enough time with my loved ones because I’m cranking on work
- Never feeling like there’s enough time in the day to get everything “done”
My goal is to have clearer boundaries for work and to use my work time more efficiently to help with these struggles. Here are some of the strategies I’ve been trying:
- Blocking time on my calendar for working late
- Prioritizing my todo list
- Giving myself grace
Permission to work late
This may sound like the default because I’m a startup founder, but I think that the trope of the founder who works all day and all night and only takes breaks to drink Soylent and use the bathroom is just not a realistic or sustainable model. There are certainly periods of time when this is necessary (this was me during Y Combinator and throughout our fundraising process), but working this way days on end for months at a time is a sure way to burn out. And building a startup is a marathon, not a sprint.
I have a whole life outside of my startup — family, friends, my partner, hobbies, etc — that still needs attention. So working late every night is just not something I can or want to do. However, working late is something that does need to happen much more often now than before, and I’ve often found myself feeling guilty when I make the choice to do so. As a result, it’s been important to give myself permission to have at least 2 late nights working each week and to block those nights on my calendar. For me this looks like working up until a ~12 am bedtime (I’m truly a night owl, so this doesn’t feel that late to me). This does a few good things for me.
It gives me peace of mind while I’m with loved ones or at a founder event that I have time set aside to do uninterrupted, deep work. This means that I can focus on my friends and family while I’m with them instead of worrying about when I’m going to have time to complete my todo list.
It gives my brain the time and space it needs to get creative. As I mentioned, I’m a night owl. I’m not sure why, but my brain switches *on* at around 8pm. One of my best friends calls it “night hype.” I get a burst of energy. I feel very motivated to cross things off of my todo list, and this is when I feel like the most creative version of myself. There’s a certain focus and clarity I have at night that just isn’t as strong during the day. I’ve been like this my whole life. It often feels like the rest of the world operates on a totally different schedule, so sometimes it’s difficult to lean into my natural rhythms. This is why it’s important for me to block this time on my calendar — it holds me accountable to spending some nights working in a way that feels good and natural for me. The calendar blocks also mean that I can schedule in social or rest time without worrying if it will conflict with necessary late night work sessions.
Prioritizing the todo list — daily highlight + top 3 priorities
This also probably seems like a given! But since becoming a founder, I have really struggled to feel like I’m getting enough done in a day. I would hardly ever feel satisfied with the days work. This is a normal feeling to have sometimes, but when it’s a daily feeling, it’s usually called anxiety :)
The problem was that I gave myself too much to do in one day and did not prioritize my todo list. This meant that only a few things got crossed off the todo list each day, which left me generally feeling unproductive and unsatisfied. This also meant that many of the most important tasks took too long to complete because they would slip to the bottom of my un-prioritized list. As a result, I would be left feeling anxious and worried about all of the important stuff that was left incomplete.
Eventually I had to come to terms with my own humanity :) I’m not a super human and just because I add an item to a daily list does not mean that I’ll actually have the capacity to complete it. After sifting through some Youtube videos on time management and prioritization, I found one that resonated with me. In it Ali Abdaal describes having a “daily highlight” — this is the one thing that needs to get done that day. For me I pick my daily highlight, then I choose to be satisfied with my day if that one thing gets done.
Now realistically, I can’t just cross off 1 item on my daily todo list and actually get enough done, but choosing the daily highlight helps me prioritize. What is the most important or impactful task that I can do today? Everything else is secondary. There are often days that I’m not feeling 100%. Some days I show up to work and I’m at 30%. Knowing what the most important task is for the day and getting that thing done is something I can do even when I’m running low on time, energy, or capacity.
When it comes to the rest of the daily todo list, I pick 3 other top items to complete and prioritize them. Now I know exactly what to do next when I’ve completed my daily highlight, but I’m also not drowning in an endless list of tasks. This really helps with not feeling so overwhelmed or anxious about the tasks for each day. It also dramatically decreases the chatter in my brain about everything else that needs to get done when I’m with my loved ones or resting. When I’m diligent about setting my daily highlight and prioritizing my todo list, I can rest easy knowing that I completed the most important tasks and that I’ll have clear priorities for the following day.
Giving myself grace
Transitioning from being a software engineer to a startup CEO means that the volume and breadth of my responsibilities has exponentially increased. There’s a lot to keep track of and there’s a shit ton to do. So there are certainly some weeks where working late happens 4–5 times a week instead of just 2 or days where my todo list is not prioritized and I feel like I’m scrambling through the day. In these moments, it’s important that I give myself grace instead of beating myself up. Building a company is hard. Every day is new and I’m facing challenges I’ve never faced before. Giving myself permission to mess up a lot has been a critical part of this journey.
If you’re a builder and you’re struggling with balance or have figured out tactics for working hard while not completely burning out, I’d love to hear from you! I’m new to this and always looking to hear how others are thinking about these challenges.
— Lindsey, CEO @ Onu