The common mentality in my home country of Iceland is that “Icelanders are hard workers” and “if you’re not working hard than you’re lazy”. That mentality is slowly changing in a large part thanks to the open discussion about mental illness and an increased focus on the importance of family but I was raised up with this strong work ethic. In fact I always felt like my own worth was in direct proportion to the number of hours I worked so not surprisingly I worked long hours and I would even judge anybody who didn’t work crazy hours as being lazy or lacking ambition. The word stress wasn’t in my vocabulary and I never expect that it could cause me any harm, I was a hard worker and I loved what I was doing, there was no reason to worry about stress… or so I thought… now I know better.

Stress and burnouts

Before I share with you some advice on how to avoid stress and burnouts let us first take the time to better understand these words. Both of these words have a very loosely defined definition because it is difficult to quantify them and in small quantities stress can be a good thing that motivates us to work harder but in larger quantities it can have very harmful effects. The strength of burnouts can also vary tremendously and therefore a burnout often depends on the individual and the circumstances, you can experience burnouts that last for a few hours or a few days where you just don’t have much energy and have to rest up but you can also experience more extreme burnouts which can lead to physical and mental illnesses and might make you unable to work and stuck in bed for months. Because of the difficulties in defining these words we must be careful how we use them.

I like to think of stress as mental pressure, similar to the pressure we put on our muscles when we go to the gym. When we lift weights in the gym we are in fact tearing down our muscles so they can then grow back stronger during the following days. For this process to be successful we must give the muscles time to rest and grow back, if we don’t then we take the risk of damaging the muscles. So putting a bit of pressure (stress) on your mind is okey but if you put too much pressure or for too long of a time period you risk a burnout. When you sense that you are feeling too much stress or if you do get a burnout then listen to what your body is telling you and take a step backwards from what you are doing and give you mind a chance to recover. If you ignore these signs for too long then you take the risk of a serious burnout.

So here are some of the lessons I have learned from fighting stress and burnouts as a startup founder. Some of these advice might sound obvious but sometimes the most simple and obvious solutions are the best ones.

1. Good nights sleep

Make sure to get enough sleep each night. How many hours depends on the person but it’s usually between 6-8 hours, depriving your body and mind from sleep won’t increase your efficiency in fact the reverse is true. The better you sleep the more energetic and productive your day will be, and the more healthier you’ll feel.

Good sleep is all about creating the right habits and a relaxed environment. You should usually try to sleep the same hours of the night each day, for example 11pm to 7am, and try to maintain that sleeping routine even on the weekends. Once you have a set routine falling asleep and waking up will become much easier. Using blackout curtains can be a great way to help you get a better and less distracted sleep during the night and then I would highly recommend buying a daylight alarm clock to make the transition from sleep to awake smoother and more comfortable. Make your bedroom a sleep (and intimacy) zone only, that means keeping the bedroom simple and minimalistic and never bringing in your work related gadgets such as laptops, cellphones, tablets etc. In fact the only things that should be visible in your bedroom is a bed, nightstand, a lamp, daylight alarm clock and a single novel on the nightstand that you can read if you have problems sleeping.

With these methods your are taking control of your environment and structuring your sleep in a manner that will give you the best possible rest.

2. Meditation

I used to doubt that an activity which consisted of sitting and breathing could have an impact on my life, it felt like a waist of time and I really didn’t have the time to waist. When I finally did give it a try I was amazed at how much of an impact it had on me. We are often so busy with our lives that we go into auto pilot and start doing things without even thinking about them, kind of like watching our lives on fast forward. By meditating we are slowing our lives down to the normal speed and being more conscious about what is happing around us, giving us the chance to breathe and enjoy the beauty of life instead of running around like a chicken with it’s head chopped off.

So I would suggest you give it a try even if you have some doubts about it. There are some very nice meditation apps that make it very easy to start meditating and you only have to give it 5-10 minutes a day although it wouldn’t hurt to have it more than that. My favorite meditation apps for my iPhone are Stop, Breathe and Think and Mindfulness daily but there are also a lot of other great apps out there.

3. Physical Exercise

We live in comfortable times, we have roofs over our heads, heating, air-conditioning, easy access to food and various other luxuries that make it very easy for us to go through the day without having to use our bodies too much. Because of this our bodies start numbing up and even turning off therefore we need to find ways of stimulating our bodies and the only way to do that is through exercise and allowing it to feel cold, warm, hungry, tired and alive. Go out for walks, runs, play basketball, swim or just anything you enjoy, just make sure you do at least 20 minutes of exercise each day. I’ve also been slowly starting to try cold therapy which consists of taking cold showers and ice baths, it’s suppose to help energise the body but I’ll share more about that later on.

4. Share responsibility

Find the right people to work with and if you’re founding a new startup don’t do it by yourself find good people that you trust to co-found the company with you. When a company starts to grow and expand into new markets there is a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the founders and by having co-founders you are able to divide that responsibility instead of it all resting on your shoulders. I had no problem with running a small company by myself but as soon as I started working in more than one country the whole thing become more than I myself could handle and I wished I would have had co-founders with me. Don’t make the same mistake as I did and find good people to work with from day one.

5. Have a life outside of work

I think this might be one of the most important lessons I learned in the past years. When you put all of your time and effort into building your company you neglect your friends, family and significant other and that leads to your business becoming your whole life. In my case I didn’t even have any hobbies/activities that weren’t directly related to my business so when my company failed my whole world crashed. Everything that I had lived for over the last 6 years turned into nothing and I didn’t know what to do with myself as I didn’t have anything else to focus my attention on, no hobbies or friends that could take my mind from my failure. So even though it might be necessary to work long hours when you are first starting up your company try to make sure that you turn that into regular working hours as soon as you can as nobody can work 12-14 hour workdays for ever. Work smart instead of hard and try to work no more than 8-9 hours per day and then spend the rest of your time with family and friends, doing things that make you happy.

6. Psychologist

Psychologists are specialised in helping people work through mental problems so why not use these specialists when you’re having mental problems? You would call a plumber if your pipes were leaking, you would hire a mechanic if your car was broken so why wouldn’t you see a psychologist if your not feeling well mentally? Are you worth less than your car or the pipes in your home? For some reason I find that many people are for some reason embarrassed about seeing a psychologist but in my opinion it’s a sign of strength because the strongest people are the ones that are willing to work on themselves. It can take a few tries with different psychologists before you find the right one to work with so I would suggest you continue trying out different ones until you find the one that you feel comfortable with.

Regular appointments with psychologists can work as preventive measures as we all have things we have to work on whether we realise it or not. Then during difficult periods you might have more frequent appointments while you work through the difficulties. A good psychologist will help you pinpoint the things you have to work on and then provide you with the right tools to work with. One thing to keep in mind is that psychologists are not a quick fix, it will usually take about 10 sessions to work through any one issue and most of us have more than one issue we need to work on.

Many people rely on drugs to get them through stressful and difficult times but I prefer to face my problems with the help of a psychologist as I find that to be a more permanent solution to my problems and I feel that drugs often just delay the problem to a later date, however sometimes you need both.

7. Listen to your body

The final and maybe most important thing is listen to your body and your mind. Before you burnout you will get multiple warning signs from your body telling you that you should slow down, keep an open mind and listen to these warning signs.

Good luck

Try to live a balanced life and take good care of yourself, having to go through painful burnouts is very difficult and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Hopefully the lessons mentioned here will help you avoid the pain of such burnouts but if you do happen to go through burnouts just keep in mind that your body and mind are exhausted after too much pressure for too long a period, give yourself the necessary time to recover and recharge before you start working on fixing the problem. There is nothing wrong with taking the time off to recover from such an illness, burnouts are not you being weak it is an illness that has come because off you being too ruthless with yourself for too long so just as with any other illness there is nothing wrong with you taking the necessary time to recover. You might need to take a few days, few weeks or even a few months to recover properly before being able to start working on the problem and there is nothing wrong with that.  Try to find the right psychologist to work with to get you back on track and expect that the process of working through this might take months, you over did it with work and stress and now you must pay the price.