You Shouldn’t Always Give 110%

Book Hatchery‘s small beta launched in October 2010. The following days were some of the longest, most exciting days I’ve ever experienced. By the end of launch week I had slept just 20 hours. As time went on the dust of our deployment finally started to settle. By the time December came around we finished our server migration to a scalable setup in preparation for future growth. This was our last big push of the year, so I started to relax. My energy level decreased rapidly. Lethargy set in. Tasks started to become a grind. I was burning out.

It wasn’t long before I came across an article by Anson MacKeracher posted on Hacker News which talked about avoiding burnout in a software startup. I read with interest as it was a fellow hackers account of grappling with this burnout problem. The article had me analyzing the last few years, and brought me to some conclusions I hadn’t paid much attention to until recently.

Burnout is not new to me. In fact, I’d say its been part of my modus operandi for at least six years. Until now I’ve always considered it part of the process. Step one: work really hard. Step two: keep working. Step three: if mission accomplished then burnout, else goto step two. Utilizing this method generally meant that whatever had my attention was done well. The consequence was that everything else was neglected in the mean time, so if I was not carefully managing my tasks then I could screw things up quite easily. This meant life was typically proceeding in a seesaw fashion. I was either working hard as hell or hardly working at all. The longer I worked my hardest the greater the burnout tended to be. This is rarely efficient. It can be helpful when working on projects, but for most things in life you really need to spread your processing power around.

Part of my issue stems from my upbringing. Somewhere along the way the idea that I should always be doing something productive became firmly ingrained into my brain. While awake I should always be pursuing whatever my primary goal is. Recently I always feel like I should be hacking. If I’m not hacking then I should be doing business things. If I’m not doing that then I should be reading or watching talks about topics related to startups. If I’m not doing that then I should be thinking about what needs to be done and the direction we are heading. If I don’t let up then I eventually paralyze myself.

After years of this cycle it had become pretty clear that I had a burnout problem. Eventually I stepped back and looked around to see if there was a better way, and it all boiled down to this: you simply cannot have one thing be your entire life. Even if you enjoy what you are doing you can’t give it everything you have. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I’m saying you can’t. Why? Sustainability. If you work at your hardest level, giving 110% to your task, eventually life catches up with you. Working your hardest makes your life unstable, just as overclocking a processor can make your computer unstable.

So, how do we avoid burnout? Well, as MacKeracher points out in the article:

The best way to stop burnout is to avoid it entirely through balanced behavior and thinking. Work effective hours, not necessarily long hours, and spend your free time pursuing rewarding hobbies and activities.

He is absolutely right. There is a difference between working long hours and effective hours. You do not need to work all the time. If you work at 110% of your capacity, pulling all nighters and tackling tasks one after another, you will be extraordinarily productive in the short run. However, you’ll need a significant amount of time to recover. On the other hand, if you work at about 80% of your capacity you will be able to work almost indefinitely and have time for other things in life. That is good for the long run.

For the record, burnout is not bad. On the contrary, it is absolutely necessary. It is mental feedback. If you burnout frequently then that is a sign that you could be working better. Take it as a sign to take breaks more frequently.

Also, I don’t mean to say that you should never work your hardest. There are times when you need to give 110%, or more if you have it. The idea is to recognize these times, put in the work, and then give yourself a break. Don’t expect yourself to operate at that level long-term without some consequences.


I think some of my difficulty is that entrepreneurship used to be part of my fun time activities I did outside of work. When I jumped into entrepreneurship full time it immediately monopolized my entire life. Now I’m in an interesting situation where I need to force myself to stop doing something I enjoy to simply live life. In the name of sustainability and long term prosperity I will be playing with the idea of ‘close of business’. This won’t occur at any particular time, but is instead supposed to be a floating reminder to put things away and save work for another day. Related to this will likely be some sort of work limit. I find 10-12 hours of work per day to be sustainable as long as I can stop myself from getting too wrapped up in things. Putting in that many hours is easy when you can break your day into various 3-6 hour chunks.

With the additional time I have I need to pursue things that interest me, and not just business stuff. Until a week ago one of my favorite side projects had laid dormant for almost five months and I had not written any C/C++/Lua in just as long. Part of my new regimen should include time (maybe one day a week, like Google does it) to just play with things I’m interested in.

Another thing that has often contributed to burnout is simply not pursuing ideas that come to mind. They often linger in my brain and feel like mental dead weight that degrades my capabilities. When I finally give into an idea it generally turns into a blog post (like this one). I’ve already taken a step by archiving links and ideas into drafts, but I have 20+ drafts waiting to be worked on. I think in order to quiet the mind I should spend some more time writing instead of ignoring my natural curiosity.

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