Staying Healthy and Sane At a Startup
I did a lot of things wrong while at Twitter. First and foremost, I took pretty terrible care of myself during our crazy early days (2007 - 2008). I’d had intermittently demanding jobs before, but nothing like the unrelenting stress and chaos of a fast-growing startup. I was a wreck for most of those two years, and I wasn’t even working the insane hours of, amongst others, our head operations guy at the time.
During that time period, I was constantly getting sick. I had nothing resembling a consistent sleep schedule. I’d pile on weight from stress-eating, then burn it off from stress-not-eating. Relationships fell apart. My code was adequate, but I was scatterbrained, and I produced little that was up to the quality I expect from myself. Generally, it sucked. I sucked. And I promised never to let work get the best of me again.
Most sensible people take a vacation between jobs. That wasn’t really an option for me when I left Twitter to join BankSimple earlier this summer. The company needed to raise its Series A (which we just closed), and I was too excited about getting started to sit around for half a month. But while I opted not to take a break, I knew that I’d have to change my habits in a big way in order to survive this time around.
Here’s what I’ve been doing–or at least trying to do–to stay healthy and sane while working on a startup. It’s not rocket science. It may work for you, and it may not. But these strategies have been helpful for me, so I thought I’d share, in hopes that others have an easier time of it.
This is a no-brainer: get as much exercise as you possibly can. I try to exercise daily. I work out for three reasons: stress relief, energy, and long-term health. The last reason is self-explanatory, but the first two are worth explaining.
Startups are stressful. Exercise combats stress. Punchy meeting? Code that just won’t do your bidding? Sweat it out. I’m not a naturally athletic person, and going to the gym is usually utterly unappealing after a long day. At the end of a good workout, though, I always feel calmer than when I started. Exercise boosts my mood and makes me more able to see negative or combative situations from a more positive perspective.
Startup life will sap your energy. At first, it’s easy to operate on sheer enthusiasm. Over time, though, even the most exciting job becomes work. Working out can tire out the muscles, but I find that it energizes my mind. If I exercise regularly, I don’t get antsy during the day. This lets me focus for longer periods on tasks that may not be thrilling but have to get done, like piles of paperwork or project planning.
Personally, I belong to a gym, and I do a mix of cardio (elliptical, stationary bike) and weight lifting, with some basic stretching on either end. I listen to podcasts while I work out to make the time go faster, and to sometimes learn something. Ninety minutes in the gym can feel like wasted time. Of course, maintaining one’s health is far from a waste, but for geeks, time not spent working or learning usually feels squandered. Taking in a brainy podcast at the gym combats that feeling.
Later this month I’m moving away from my current neighborhood and, by extension, my current gym. I’m considering ditching a traditional gym for frequent CrossFit classes, and perhaps a return to Krav Maga, which I studied briefly years ago and enjoyed. The more I’ve gotten into an exercise routine, the more it starts to feel, well, routine. Both CrossFit and a martial art have the promise of adding appealing variety, and of avoiding the dreaded “fitness plateau” (which I’m currently in no danger of reaching).
Point is: exercise. It works. It’s the most straightforward of the recommendations I’m making here.
My metabolism sucks. My ancestry is primarily a mix of English and German, and as a result I’m genetically optimized for storing fat through a chilly European winter (also for arch looks and laconic humor). If I don’t eat carefully, I gain weight, and if I gain weight, I look and feel like crap. Without strict rules about what I can and can’t eat, I’ll find myself eating whatever’s around, particularly when I’m stressed from work. To combat this, I set very clear guidelines about what I eat and drink, and when.
Programmers notoriously live on caffeine and sugar. I refuse to cut the caffeine out of my diet, but the biggest change I’ve made for myself is cutting out refined sugar. Basically, the only “sweet” in my diet comes from fruit, or small quantities of chocolate. The only exception I make for sugar is in the occasional cocktail, but I’ve limited those, too (see below).
I’ve also removed most “bad” carbohydrates and starches from my diet. I avoid bread, pasta, white rice, potatoes, etc. So yes, that means no sandwiches, no noodles, no fries; none of a lot of things that I enjoy. These restrictions seem like more of an ordeal when I’m hungry, but by the time I’m done eating something that fits the guidelines I’ve set for myself, I’m no longer feeling deprived.
In essence, the diet I’ve ended up with is something akin to the South Beach Diet, but not taken to an extreme. I don’t count calories, monitor the glycemic index of the foods I’m eating, or try to aggressively induce “phases” of weight loss. I just try to eat fresh vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, nuts, and fresh fruit. This regime removes a huge number of readily available and hideously unhealthy foods as meal options. Being able to say, “nope, that’s just not in the category of things that I eat” is helpful when confronted with a menu or grocery store full of choices.
I’ve gone a step further and restricted my alcohol intake to only days that don’t precede work days. So, in a typical week, that means I only get to drink on Friday and Saturday. This has been the hardest dietary change for me to make. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I love booze; not to get drunk, but just for the wonderful range of flavors and creativity exhibited in good beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails.
Though I miss my evening drink, this change has been worth it. Cutting out alcohol for most of the week means a huge savings in calories. Avoiding drinking before work days means that I’m fresh and ready to go in the morning. I’ve found that it’s harder to get to the gym when I’ve had alcohol the previous night, so avoiding booze helps maintain my commitment to exercise.
The point of all these dietary changes is primarily about achieving constancy. Yes, it’s nice to lose some weight, but by sticking to the above rules, my energy level throughout the day remains the same. Removing the sugar and carbs means that I don’t peak and trough. I generally feel less ruled by food, and it’s easier to make dietary decisions now that I have a framework.
This is probably the most important of the changes I’ve made. Regular meditation is absolutely essential to maintaining quality of life for me. It keeps me calm and focused, and helps me sort out personal and professional conundrums.
The meditation technique I use is called Natural Stress Relief, or NSR. Yes, their site looks goofy and dated, and maybe even a bit sketchy, but have a Google around and you’ll find out that NSR is reasonably well-known and accepted. It’s dead simple to do: sit normally in a chair, clear your mind, silently repeat a monosyllabic mantra for about fifteen minutes, clear you mind again, and you’re done. Repeat twice daily. I found it worthwhile to get the official PDF + MP3 guide on the technique, as in practice it’s slightly more nuanced than my quick description, but thankfully not by much.
I chose NSR after doing some research on different techniques. There are many ways to meditate, and also many different goals to meditation. Being a devout agnostic, I’m not looking to commune with the spirits, become one with a deity, or reach enlightenment; I just want to feel like I’ve got my head screwed on straight. Most of the techniques out there are either derived from or actively grounded in religious practice, but not so with NSR. It’s completely secular, and has no goal other than improving the mental state of the practitioner. I like the method’s simplicity and its pragmatism.
The hardest part of meditation is making the time to do it. Realistically, you need about fifteen minutes per NSR session. While that doesn’t sound like much, adding that time to your morning and evening routines is harder than you think. It’s entirely worth it, though. Meditation cuts right through feelings of being stressed-out and overwhelmed, and neatly organizes thoughts and emotions. More than once, I’ve been meditating and have had the solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with pop to the forefront of my mind. That’s time well spent.
In a way, meditation is an investment in the quality of time spent not meditating. Even if you don’t have any magic moments of clarity while sitting there with your eyes closed, you’ll probably find that the rest of your day just feels better when you meditate regularly. At the very least, meditation makes my work time more productive, and that alone makes it worthwhile for me.
I’ve always been reasonably well organized, but time management is distinct from organization. I’ve found that time management has little to do with “lifehacks” and how you manage your email inbox and more to do with prioritization, saying “no” to people, and clearly communicating the expectations you have for yourself and others. I’m less crazed this time around the startup block because I feel that I have a better grasp on how to manage my time, both during the workday and when I’m off the clock.
A big part of this shift was realizing that time spent in front of a desk isn’t necessarily useful work time. If you’re burned out for the day, stop working; go relax, exercise, or meditate, and come back to work with renewed energy and focus. That’s an easy policy to get behind, but harder to put into practice, particularly in traditional office environments. American culture at large is no stranger to a Puritan work ethic, and that labor fanaticism is magnified all the more so in the startup “community” through legends of all-nighters and weeks spent sleeping under desks. Get over the guilt and bullshit, and realize that you’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive if you manage work time on your terms.
This is probably the section where my advice is the least clear. From my perspective, time management is less a set of techniques than a mindset, albeit one assisted by social skills that allow you to defend your time and sanity. If you’re totally new to the idea of time management, this talk by “last lecture” professor Randy Pausch will get you started. Once you’re set with keeping a calendar, working through a task list, and batching your phone and email sessions, the broader mindset of time management is acquired through experience. You’ll figure out what works for you, and where you need to draw boundaries.
Of course, everything in moderation, and all within reason and good taste. Though I’m trying to cut out sugar, I didn’t turn down a slice of wedding cake at my friend’s nuptials over the weekend. If I’m catching a 6AM flight, I’m probably going to miss my morning meditation session, and maybe miss that day’s workout, too. I just try to keep the good habits going, and recover from lapses as quickly as possible.
I hope at least some of the above is helpful to someone. It goes without saying that everyone is different, and what works for me may be disastrous for you. But, if you’re working on a startup or about to embark on one, I’d encourage taking the opportunity to examine your habits and see if you can’t improve yourself as much as you’re trying to improve the world around you.