Dealing With Stress in a Startup

Dealing With Stress in a Startup

There was a fantastic TED talk I watched a couple of months ago. It was given by psychologist Kelly McGonigal titled, “how to make stress your friend.” It’s done wonders on my perspective of what stress is, how to think about it, and how to transmute stress into fuel for living.

The video is 14 minutes long, and I’m sure it’ll help you extend your lifespan by at least 14 minutes, so go ahead and watch it. I promise there will be a zero net loss in time. I’ll wait here while you do.

This message couldn’t have come at a better time. Tutum is currently an early stage startup that’s working on securing its seed round of funding.

It also doesn’t help that we’re located in New York City. The city has this aura about it…Everyone is moving at a million miles an hour, and everyone loves talking about how busy they are. Stress and workload are worn like badges, proudly displayed and hinted at during every interaction.

“How are you doing?”
“Oh man, just absolutely swamped. Only slept for 5 hours yesterday; looks like today will be the same. What about you?”

I’ve found most people in this situation (myself included!) will exaggerate how busy they are, only perpetuating the stereotype. People want to be a part of the same club, and the entrepreneurial membership requires shouldering an unhealthy amount of stress.

It seems like everyone around us is working at an inhuman pace. All this is compounded because I’m afraid of falling behind, which creates stress. If there’s 24 hours in a day, and company B is spending 14 hours a day working, how am I supposed to compete except to work 14 hours a day also?

One way is to understand effectiveness versus efficiency. Scott Hanselman has a great talk about How to Scale Yourself where he explains the difference between these two often confused words. He describes effectiveness as goal orientation. This is picking a goal, and doing that goal. Efficiency is doing things in an economical way, process-oriented. He says, “Effectiveness is doing the right things, but efficiency is doing things right. That means effectiveness is picking a direction and efficiency is running really fast in that direction.”

I think a lot of people in the startup world just think they have to run really fast at all times. It doesn’t matter where they run, they just have to. Kind of like Forrest Gump.


Without a solid plan in place, you can quickly find yourself 30 miles in the wrong direction spending the next week to backtrack.

Working smarter is certainly better than working harder. I previously talked about the 19 Productivity Tools I Use for Maintaining Sanity in a Tech Startup, and some of these can help with the efficiency piece of the puzzle.

But I will say that there are times when you have to put in ungodly hours when you have a big deadline or a small window in which to execute. But that shouldn’t be your day to day modus operandi.

While Tutum was at Techstars we saw this as a 3 month window to get as much done as humanly possible. We worked 7 days a week, 14 hours a day. Sometimes more. But this kind of pace isn’t sustainable, nor can your body physically or mentally perform at a high level working like that.

Now that Techstars is two months behind us, we’ve shifted into a somewhat normal work schedule. We’ve given ourselves weekends off and holidays. A couple of us have even started planning vacations! Baby steps.

However, I think it’s easy to go from one far end of the spectrum, where you’re taking on more and more stress as a sort of entrepreneurial crucible, to demonizing stress and doing everything you can to extricate it.

As with most things in life, I think achieving a balance is optimal. And once you have balance, something really exciting happens: you can start using stress as a tool, and wield it like a giant sword with a landmine strapped to it. Something powerful enough to even kill a white walker.

If you didn’t watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk (I forgive you), she was trained as a health psychologist to combat stress, and make stress the enemy. She was telling her patients that stress led to disease and sickness. However, after reviewing a 30,000 adult study that spanned 8 years, she found that stress may not be so evil.

The study asked two questions, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” And then they used public death records to find out who died.

Here are the results:

People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.

People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

The researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you. That’s over 20,000 deaths a year.

This estimate makes believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States in 2012, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.

This means receiving stress can actually be healthy for you, as long as you have the right mindset about it.

I think stress is not only healthy, but it’s a requirement for peak states in life. When you’re in the zone. When you’re so focused that everything else becomes blocked out. When you can’t seem to miss and you shatter the preconceived notions of your own ability and limits.

Have you ever been in the middle of a sports competition and on the way to the basket/goal/end zone you had this moment where you were so intently focused that time seemed to slow down. You saw the “Matrix” for just a split second.

These moments aren’t possible without stress.

You don’t have to live in fear of too much stress, it’s your bodies natural tool to overcome nearly any obstacle. We just have to be confident we’ll know what to do with the tool when our body gives it to us.

I think intermittent moments of stress can help us perform at our peak. But you don’t want to maintain a high level of stress all the time. A couple of quotes I find really insightful about dealing with chronic stress:

Stress is wanting something to be different than the way it is

And the Serenity prayer that many 12-step programs use. I think it’s really powerful without religious context as well:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

If you take a moment to reflect oh what is most important in your life and really take stock of everything from a bird’s eye view, you may find your priorities aren’t in line with your “true” priorities. Said in another way, if you just found out you only have one year to live, would you still be concerned with all of the things you’re currently concerned with? Would your day to day activities change?

We all go about our day with a sense of invincibility. All of our actions, thoughts, and decisions are made from the perspective of an infinite timeline. Even though we may logically know that’s not the case, it’s usually how most of us operate.

Having said all this, here’s my plan for myself. Instead of worrying and becoming preoccupied with stress, I’m going to live my life as if stress doesn’t exist. Instead of making decisions based upon avoiding or moving towards stress, I’m going to make decisions based on what matters to me. And that’s it. Any stress that comes along with it, I’ll trust myself to handle it.

I don’t want to feel like I’m not doing enough if I’m not feeling stressed out, and I don’t want to avoid picking up a new project because of the possible stress it may bring. If stress comes along, it means my body is giving me a tool to meet the challenge ahead of me.

Thank you stress. Thanks for being there for me when I need you most.

Have you thought about your relationship to stress? Would love to hear your perspective. Share in the comments!

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Posted in Productivity, Startup
3 comments on “Dealing With Stress in a Startup
  1. luxagen says:

    Wow. The author jumps straight from “stress is correlated with death in people who believe that it’s harmful” to “fearing the harmful effects of stress can kill you”. I cannot believe people still blithely invent chains of causation like this based on purely wishful thinking.

    Alternative interpretations of the facts:
    1. There is a section of the population for whom stress is inherently harmful for genetic (or other) reasons outside their control. On some level their awareness of that leads them to believe (correctly) that, for them, it is inherently harmful.
    2. There is a section of the population that tends to respond to stress with bad habits (e.g. not sleeping enough) that are harmful to health. Again, stress is (indirectly) harmful for those people and their belief is therefore true in a sense, but in this case it’s controllable with the right attitude and lifestyle adjustments.

    I’m sure there are other possibilities – my point is not to enumerate them but to point out that uncritically choosing an appealing explanation for a known correlation is highly irresponsible:

    If (1) is true, the author is actively encouraging that section of the population to risk their lives, and will contribute to the deaths of some members of that group who take the thesis to heart.
    If (2) is true, the thesis, and take-home soundbite, is true, but for the wrong reasons, and the misemphasis will hamper people’s efforts to apply this knowledge.

    One of the reasons that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing is that attempting to exploit a known correlation without even exploring the space of possible causations, let alone testing them properly, can easily lead to perverse outcomes.

    The scientific method does not stop at identifying the correlation – it’s only the beginning of the process. What the author is doing here is no better than unintentionally contaminating the results of a medical trial through faulty testing protocols, and it’s pseudoscience because the claims are unjustified by the data.

  2. timabell says:

    It seems to me like this article is attempting to justify the destructive stress involved in startups when really it should be acknowledge just how massively destructive to people and relationships it can be. I would point you to “killing the crunch mode”:

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