Startup work-life balance: The toxicity of busy


“How are things going?” they ask.

“Busy,” you reply.

“Busy is good! Better than the alternative!” they fire back.

This is an exchange that every startup founder has experienced many times.  But is “busy” really good? 

Sometimes—in fact, often—we’re too busy and are actually struggling.  I call it The Toxicity of Busy.  I think this might be an American business phenomenon, and it’s a destroyer of work-life balance. We are so obsessed with productivity and chasing the next big thing that busy becomes a desired state.  Almost a badge of honor, and even more so in a startup.

Did you know that the United States has the second-highest GDP per capita*? Or that the average US employee works 435 more hours in a year** than employees in Germany?

Startup founders are seldom asked how they personally are doing.  It’s usually more of a discussion about revenue growth, employee count, funding, and even the dreaded exit plan question.  They can rattle off their Q4 strategy, interesting deals that just closed, and upcoming roadmap.

Consider these questions:

  1. How are you? No, really, how are you?  Are you happy?
  2. When last did you take a day off?
  3. When was your last vacation? (Be honest here—did you take your laptop?)
  4. Was it longer than a few days?
  5. Can you go a whole weekend without doing any work?
  6. What sports are you currently playing?
  7. When last did you peruse the grocery store for fresh produce and cook a healthy meal?
  8. How are your personal finances doing?

I’m not saying you need to be doing all these things.  Running a startup is hard work and it typically takes extraordinary effort to succeed, but at least consider them and ensure that you’re consciously incorporating some work-life balance activities.

My startup work-life balance journey

In my startup journey, I worked every weekend for the first few years and never took more than a few days off each year.  Then, as the business grew more successful, I stopped working on weekends and slowly increased my yearly vacation from one week to a few weeks per year.  My hours during the week were long days (usually 10-12 hours per day, first in the office and often the last to leave).  I did exercise a little, but not enough.  I would do it differently if I did it over again. I repeat I would do it differently, and I’d consider work-life balance from the get-go.

I used to open my one-to-one meetings (typically a 30-minute meeting with each of your direct reports, once per week) with a question: How are you doing? Then, I’d really listen to their reply. I like to believe it helped to encourage balance. It also helped me better understand the individuals on my team.

Some startup founders I’ve worked with have found work-life balance through meditation or nature or exercise or hobbies.

Give it some thought and find your balance.  Also, let’s encourage others to do so, and maybe we can all stop chasing busy.