Just Add Water (and Sunlight, and Sleep, and Gratitude): An Energy Management Playbook for Startup Founders

As the year wraps up, it’s abundantly clear that everyone is BURNED OUT. It’s a combination of typical end-of-year overwhelm, the exhaustion of existing during a dramatic and difficult year while still trying to achieve success, and the knowledge that despite recent hopeful news about vaccines, it’s clear that social distancing will continue. It’s been a very hard year, and while there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s going to take some time and struggle to get there.

At our latest All Squad Leadership Circle, as each of our portfolio company leaders shared their current focuses and challenges, everyone ended their discussion of sales successes and communication difficulties with the same note — “and everyone’s pretty worn out.”

I recently completed a course titled Leading Organizational Change, taught by Dr. Christine Porath at Georgetown University in the MBA program. Dr. Porath is a researcher, speaker, consultant, and author of Mastering Civility: a Manifesto for the Workplace. The goal of the course was to identify and develop the skills needed to thrive amidst change as a team member, manager, and leader. A major component of the course was the topic of energy management — that is, how to use practices that conserve and protect your energy to ensure you’re in top form to deal with challenges and stress.

Audit Your Energy

As part of our final assignment for class, Professor Porath challenged us to conduct an energy audit, tracking our energy on an hourly basis for two days on a scale of 1–10 and recording our activity during each hour. Then we examined the results to see what patterns emerged and traced them to specific circumstances or events.

When I completed the audit, the pattern was undeniable. My energy dips like clockwork around 12 PM and peaks around 4 PM. Not surprising — because I work and take school on Eastern time, but 12 PM is usually my first break in Zoom meetings and class all day, and 5 PM is right after I take my daily walk, often my first exercise and first time outside all day. An afternoon energy dip and a burst of energy after exercise and fresh air is not revolutionary, but seeing it charted on a graph made it click that this was something affecting me every day.

My 2-day energy audit graph

We know that the first step to solving a problem is identifying it and collecting the relevant data. For startup leaders who have a million things going on at once, it’s hard to remember what happened yesterday, let alone how your energy fluctuated throughout the day. But by tracking your energy, you can begin to see the patterns and understand how your energy or lack thereof affects your performance, efficiency, and mood.

On conducting your own energy audit:

Restructure Your Day

Ideally, now that you know have identified your energy peaks and troughs, you can begin to arrange your schedule to capitalize on that. For example, I should reserve 8 am-10 am, when my energy is highest, to work on projects that require focus and try not to schedule anything during my afternoon slump. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that much control over our schedule. Zoom meetings, family responsibilities, and other factors outside of our control mean that it’s usually not feasible to tailor our daily calendar to the ebbs and flows of energy. It turns out that I am always going to have Zoom class and meetings during that morning window.

What we can do is change other elements of our days to try to influence our energy levels. For example, my energy peaks in the afternoon after I go for a walk — how can I take advantage of that and try to avoid my afternoon slump? What if I split my daily hour walk into two 30 minute chunks and take the first one around 12 pm? My hypothesis is that the fresh air and sunshine in the middle of the day will revive me and give me a break to come back fresh for a productive afternoon. I spent the next few weeks trying it out and tracking how it impacted my mood — not shockingly, my afternoon dips were much less deep, and I was able to get more done throughout the day.

You should identify the things you can’t control on your schedule and the things you can, and work to arrange the things you can to maximize your energy. This isn’t about biohacking or obsessively controlling your day — it’s about developing an awareness of what activities or circumstances negatively or positively affect your energy and making small changes based on those patterns.

The Holy Grail of Energy Management for Leadership Performance:

Make a Change — Just One

The menu of self-care options can seem overwhelming. But I’d start with one of these three free practices:

  • Sleep: You need at least seven hours of quality sleep to thrive, and you’re probably not getting that on a regular basis. If it’s a struggle to get up in the morning, think about how you can set an earlier bedtime and stick to it. Move your phone charger across the room. Cut off your caffeine consumption at 2 pm. Treat your sleep hours as an immovable commitment on your calendar.
  • Get Outside: We know we’re all moving less in the Zoom world — and now that weather has turned cold, it’s even more likely we’re staying inside and sitting down. But we also know that getting outside for a short walk dramatically improves mood, energy, sleep quality, and overall health. So the question is how to fit more in. Can you bundle up and start your morning with a quick lap around the block? One of our portfolio companies has implemented daily “walking syncs” to get everyone up from their desks at 3 pm.
  • Gratitude: Routine gratitude is shown to lead to increased happiness. Taking a few minutes at the beginning or end of the day to jot down three things you’re grateful for and really thinking about why and how those things or people make your life better can dramatically improve your mood and outlook. Or you can make a point of expressing appreciation in person or over email or the phone to one person in your life each day.

All of these practices have been shown to be effective — so it’s tempting to pick all three and supercharge your self-improvement. But overloading on new habits means you’re more likely to drop all of them, so it’s important to choose one at a time. Implement it, track your energy, and tweak as necessary. Once you’ve built up a habit, think over the timeline of about a month, not a week, you can bring in the next fix.

On improving your sleep, moving more, and practicing gratitude:

Treat Yourself Like a Plant

A lot of these suggestions can feel obvious, basic, or naive. But it turns out caring for yourself and managing your energy is, in fact, pretty simple.

When you’re having an off day or month, take stock of how you’re caring for yourself and if you’d expect a houseplant to survive the same treatment:

  • Are you watering it (you) enough to be fully hydrated?
  • Are you giving it (you) the food and nutrients it needs to thrive?
  • Are you exposing it (yourself) to sunlight and fresh air?
  • Are you allowing time for recovery and growth (aka sleep and rest)?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the things we have to do to care for ourselves, but it can start from a basic place. Take a walk, drink some water, eat a real meal away from the screen, tell someone you’re grateful for them.

As you grow and scale your company, there are so many factors outside of your control — but a few that you can take control of. Pick one thing and use whatever time you can as 2020 turns to 2021 to make a small change, and you’ll reap the energy benefits in the new year.


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