Startup Founders: How to Avoid Guilt and Burnout While Scaling Your Business

7 min read
How to Avoid Guilt and Burnout

Over nearly a decade, I’ve spoken with innumerable startup founders and executives, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s this:

Entrepreneurs are too often overworked and underleveraged.

When a CEO has too much demand on their time, their efficiency and productivity tend to drop. Or, at the very least, their perception of their efficiency and productivity.

This often creates the feeling of overwhelm we call “burnout;” that feeling that there’s simply too much to do and too little time. And eventually, the effects of burnout can entirely compromise the effectiveness of any leader.

Like Founder, Like Startup: The Challenge of Scale

Most successful startups go through a surprisingly similar process.

It all starts with a crazy idea. Then you raise money, build a proof of concept, and work hard on establishing product/market fit.

And one day, seemingly out of nowhere, that idea becomes a business. You’re on to something, and now the real challenge begins: Scaling that business.

And no surprise, there’s a ton of great advice out there to teach you how to do that. In fact, we’ve written a blog post compiling what we believe to be the best of the best resources. Check it out here: The 33 Best Blogs, Books, Videos, & Influencers on How to Scale Your Startup.

However: As much create content as there is for scaling your business, there’s almost none on how to scale yourself as a leader. And this is a problem because, as any experienced founder knows, a business can’t (sustainably) grow beyond it’s leadership.

As your organization begins to accelerate, so does the demand on your time. This leads to you, as the leader, working more hours than ever before simply to keep your head above water. Down the road, this can lead to some serious problems. For example:

  1. You’ll find yourself becoming more reactive to the huge amount of inbound that’s coming your way.
  2. As a result, you’ll spend less time on the proactive initiatives that move the needle most for your business.
  3. And finally, you’ll likely start sacrificing the most important relationships in your life simply because you don’t have the time to upkeep them. The first victims of this sacrifice? Often your family and friends.

Enter: The Guilt Trap (and the Inevitable Burnout)

Let me continue to paint the picture: On the work front, your growing responsibilities seem all-consuming.

You’re focused just on keeping your head above water and batting the ball back over the net as rapidly as you can. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you know this isn’t the best use of your time. You know you aren’t working on the projects (or focusing on the people) you want—and need—to pursue.

This often leads to a strong sense of discomfort and even guilt.

On the personal front, this guilt becomes all-consuming. It feels like you’re letting down the people you love (and the people that love you) more and more often.

And if left untreated, these symptoms put you straight on the highway toward burnout.

Some of you might be thinking, “Yeah, so what? That’s just the story of being a startup CEO.” It brings out your inner toughness and bravado as you think, “I just need to suck it up.”

And while there’s a place for that headstrong determination in entrepreneurship, it can also be incredibly dangerous. Because once you get into the world of overwhelm and overload—of too much work, not enough time, and the nagging sense of guilt—you’ve crossed from the realm of entrepreneurial pressure into unhealthy stress.

The Science-Backed Danger of Stress

Here’s the interesting thing about stress: From a chemical perspective, your brain perceives both stress and guilt as a threat. And when we encounter a threat, the older, more reactive parts of our brain kick in.

Suddenly we’re in fight-or-flight mode and, instead of using our brain’s full capacity to come up with skillful solutions to problems, we become very reactive to the circumstances in front of us.

When under the threat of stress, our brain’s creative capabilities drop dramatically. And if there’s one thing your startup needs to be successful, it’s your full creative potential.

But as you become more and more stressed, your ability to tap that potential decreases exponentially. So although you might say, “I’ll just tough it out,” you’re actually doing more long-term harm than good.

The Importance of Strong Social Relationships

So how do we counteract this natural tendency? The answer’s simple: We tap into our relationships.

Some people feel they deal well—even better—on their own. And while there’s something to be said for independence, the truth is that the most successful people almost always have strong social networks around them.

But don’t take my word for it: TED speaker Shawn Achor is a renowned Harvard lecturer, speaker on happiness, and expert on how social support relates to success.

And in The Happiness Advantage, Shawn states that when we go into “crisis mode” from stress, the first thing we tend to neglect are our close relationships (even though those close relationships are exactly what we need to make it through this time).

Social relationships aren’t just a luxury; they’re a vital part of our survival because they’re a proven source of happiness and a natural de-stressor.

With strong social relationships, we tend to have a more positive, proactive outlook on challenges. Without them, we feel isolated and that feeling of burnout and overwhelm becomes increasingly prominent.

Shawn also cites a study that shows the importance of positivity in the creative process:

A trio of researchers gave a group of experienced doctors a series of symptoms to analyze. The doctors were split into three groups: one primed to feel happy, another given neutral but medicine-related statements to read beforehand, and a control group who was given nothing.

The goal of the study was to see how fast they performed the correct diagnosis and also how well they avoided anchoring. (Anchoring is an inflexibility in thinking which occurs when a doctor has trouble letting go of an initial diagnosis in the face of new or contradictory information.)

As it turned out, the happy doctors made the right diagnosis much faster and exhibited more creativity. On average, they came to a correct diagnosis only 20 percent of the way through the manuscript—nearly twice as fast as the control group—and showed about two and half times less anchoring. What the study revealed is that even the smallest shots of positivity can give people a serious competitive edge.

The Irreplaceable Role of Relationships in Our Success

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? It’s twofold:

  • First: Scaling yourself as a leader is just as important as scaling your organization.
  • Second: The key to scaling yourself is building a strong social support system.

Success and happiness is possible, but only if you surround yourself with relationships that uplift and inspire you. The deeper your relationships, the deeper your sense of fulfillment, happiness, and positivity.

That’s why it’s so important to invest into your personal and professional network. In times of both feast and famine, keep developing your relationships. At the end of the day, those relationships are just as vital to your (and your business’) success as any other factor.

Want to learn more about building deep, meaningful relationships? Then I’d like to invite you to schedule a free 1:1 consultation with one of our coaches. Over the course of this call, we’ll dive deeper into your specific challenges and explore some potential solutions to help you take things to the next level. Click here to learn more.

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