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How I burned myself out and my road to recovery

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John Peebles, a founder of several tech startups and the current CEO of Administrate, shares his personal experience with burnout and the simple changes he’s made to keep it at bay.

  • Burnout is difficult to recognise if you haven’t identified it before.

  • Unaddressed burnout can result in missed opportunities.
  • The four-day work week is an effective tool for battling burnout.

Burnout is all too familiar to those in the startup community, even more so to founders who often have to make decisions from a position of uncertainty and volatility, says John Peebles, a US-born entrepreneur who runs EdTech startup Administrate.

We caught up with John to discover the ins and outs of burnout and asked him to share some coping strategies for dealing with chronic stress in the workplace.

What does burnout mean to you?

Burnout comes in several different forms. There’s the type where you don’t want to do this type of work anymore.

There’s the situation where you’ve worked really hard on something, you’ve finished it and now you need a break. But there’s a third type, which I think is insidious, where you’ve been working on something for a while, you haven’t had the time to rest and think meaningfully or deeply about the problem you’re trying to solve.

What makes it insidious is that it’s very difficult to recognise.

How did you recognise it?

I have clear memories of working routinely 20 hours straight in my 20s. At one point I was running three companies at the same time. When you’re young, you can do that. As you get older you lose that ability.

For me, when things start to feel a lot harder, particularly around questions of strategy or creativity, that’s when I’m burning out. Do I dread going back to work or am I genuinely excited about it? Am I energised by the problems that I’m trying to solve?

When I’m not burned out, I’m less concerned about the day-to-day tasks and I’m more focused on bigger problems.

What got you into this position and how did it affect your life?

In startups there’s infinite work. The work tends to be fairly undefined in terms of what’s important and urgent. And if you’ve always been successful by working really hard, you hop on this treadmill that just never stops.

In my 20s there were a lot of places I could have travelled to or experiences I could have had. I have these hobbies that supposedly I really enjoy, but I had nothing to show for them during that 10-year timeframe.

What impact did burnout have on work?

I missed learning opportunities that could have been really transformative. While in college, I was running three different companies, I was in a rock band and I was frantically trying to get my school stuff done in between.

I built this incredible e-commerce platform to power my business. The business ultimately didn’t work, but it had this amazing software that was configurable, fast, customisable and provided a great shopping experience.

It wasn’t until probably 10 years later when I reflected on the fact that, if I had simply focused on selling the e-commerce engine and used the e-commerce store as a demo, it could have been a real success. Bear in mind that this was a decade before Shopify or Magento or any other nice similar solution.

That’s the cost of burnout.

What are some ways you’ve learned to deal with burnout?

The first thing is to admit that it’s happening (and will happen) and then decide what you are going to do about it. I like working with high performers and they always tend to be on the edge of being a workaholic.

That is okay as long as you have some boundaries. That’s one of the reasons why we put in a four-day workweek at Administrate – it was an inoculation against the “hustle-oriented” culture that tends to develop in startups.

I’m (still) trying to develop healthy personal habits. The simple act of exercising and taking time for meditation or introspection has made a real difference. Also, I tend to set a timer as a reminder of when to take a vacation.

There’s always going to be an emergency, but the timer will remind you it’s time for a holiday.

Do you have any parting advice?

There’s a documentary about model railroaders on Amazon Prime. They interview people who have been instrumental to the hobby. It’s one that is dominated by retirees.

What I found interesting is many people mentioned that, if you don’t have a hobby when you retire, you won’t have much reason to go on. What would happen if you sold your company or were out of a job?

There’s more to life than work.

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