Sleep and good food are underrated

One of my clients was feeling under the weather last week. Motivation was down, stress was up. Instead of an attitude of optimism and cheerfulness, the world was melancholy gloom. Overall, a bad scene, and not one to set a good tone within the business–a CEO’s mood can infect the entire company. The problem? He wasn’t getting enough sleep, was working through his normal exercise time, and was making up the energy deficit with coffee during the day.

This is an all-too-common spiral. Too much work means too little sleep. Too little sleep means a drag on energy, less productivity, less creativity, and a sudden fondness for Starbucks. All that caffeine-induced energy makes it easy to work on into the night… and the whole thing starts over.

Unfortunately, chemically induced energy isn’t enough. Our bodies and our minds need time to recharge. Sleep rests your body, and it also gives your mind time to explore and file everything that’s happened during the day. The eighth hour of REM sleep, in fact, is where much of the most intense dreaming and creativity happens. Chemicals can keep your body awake, but your mind won’t produce your best work unless you’ve had time to recharge.

It’s all too easy to let the occasional late night slide into a habit of not taking care of yourself. Breaking the downward spiral can be mentally difficult, but it’s quite simple in practice: leave the office by 6:30 pm every night, even if stuff doesn’t get done (the world won’t end). Get a full night’s sleep. Throw away your coffee maker. And start the day with a glass of water or juice. By the next week, you’ll start feeling a lot better.

One reader asks:

I totally agree with it in theory, but I don’t see it being feasible for my startup any time in the near future. I was just wondering if you had insight into how other companies follow this?

I actually do believe companies would survive. The "savings" from pushing people hard are usually short-term. You may need all-nighters in an emergency, but over time, too little sleep impairs thinking ability. In a knowledge-intensive business, poor thinking can be deadly.

Though startups often get away with a year or two of very intense work, you’re risking burnout if it goes much longer. And burnout’s unpredictable and hard to manage. You can easily ask a healthy workforce for occasional bursts of intense work. But when someone flips into burnout, they literally can’t get started again. They stop caring, and often check out completely. At best, burnout is unmanageable, and it worst, it can be a complete disaster.

A young workforce can take longer to burn out, but it still happens. Twenty-year olds can be hard on their bodies without feeling the effects as severely as we older folks. Several of my MBA classmates have been going full-tilt for a decade, and at least one had his first heart attack from stress and overwork (so said his doctor). These are folks in their mid-30s. That’s pretty young, career-wise.

One way to promote health is lowering the workload. It means saying "No" to work that would hurting people’s health. It means building systems to save work, separating out the "must do" from the "we’d really like to do," and setting realistic client expectations if you’re a service business.

But even if you don’t lower the workload, sacrificing quality of life for short-term progress may be a fantasy. The basic math suggests that damaged immune systems still don’t get the desired results. If someone loses three days to sickness that could have been avoided, that is equivalent to them having worked one hour less per day for an entire month (assuming ten-hour day, five-day workweeks)! It may be better to cut the extra hour off in the first place, and keep people in good health.

Scenario 1 Scenario 2
10 hour days 8.8 hour days
3 days sick no days off
risk of spreading sickness n/a
low quality of life high quality of life

The scenarios are equally productive, but scenario 2 is probably a lot more fun for the individual and the company.

Most startups are run as pressure cookers. I suspect it’s a misguided romantic notion that confuses movement with progress. A company I worked with closely took pride in their overwork, though any experienced project manager could instantly see the overwork came from poor scheduling, poor resource allocation, and a lack of attention to infrastructure that would have sped up later projects. The haste to get early contracts out the door sacrificed the opportunity to build systems for later productivity and later quality of life.

Because people think startups require sacrifice, they ask themselves, "How can we keep running the company the way we currently do, but avoid burnout?" The answer: you can’t. At best, you start giving out sabbaticals, which in one fell swoop lose the gains of several years’ worth of overtime. That’s the wrong question, and the wrong question will always lead to the wrong answer. The question to be asking is, "How can we run the company in a healthful way?" The answer will depend on your company, your people, and your culture.

It’s possible. My formerly caffeine-addicted CEO runs two companies staffed by people in their late-30s to fifties, and they don’t need 100 hour weeks. But it takes care, planning, and constant attention to workload, infrastructure, and the like.

So in short, I’m sure that there are limited times–especially in startups–when deadlines and circumstances demand Herculean effort. But part of building a sustainable business is learning how to channel part of that effort into systems and structures that reduce the need for such effort in the future. And even in startups, the gains from super-effort crunches are only gains in the short term. Most of them are more than made up for by decreased productivity, decreased creativity [which necessitates later rework], and time lost to sickness and required vacation.

This month, take steps to restore your life to an upward spiral:

  • Commit to getting enough sleep every night for the next two weeks. Find out how that changes your outlook.
  • Each day, substitute a glass of water or juice when you would normally drink coffee or soda. Learn to distinguish between caffeine energy and energy from health.
  • Help your long-term balance by scheduling four weeks of vacation next year. Do it now. Yes, I know that "there’s no convenient time" or "emergencies happen." There’s never a convenient time, and there will always be emergencies. Schedule your vacations and stick to them, realizing that the world around you will do its best to keep you from taking them.