Why Rest Is the Secret to Entrepreneurial Success
The surprising power of downtime: Here's why the most successful founders work the least.
Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land mammal. These feline sprinters can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in three seconds flat. Explosive speed enables them to take down an antelope, but when they’re not hunting, cheetahs expend as little energy as possible.
In fact, researchers found that cheetahs burn about 2,000 calories per day -- the same as an average-size man. “I guess both humans and cheetahs rest a lot to offset high-energy activities,” biologist Johnny Wilson told National Geographic.
Cheetahs work hard to capture their prey, but they quickly compensate for each burst by hiding, waiting and resting. Clearly, they don’t have startups to run, but I can’t help but draw a parallel between these big cats and modern founders.
In the early days of my 12-year entrepreneurial journey, I was the anti-cheetah. I thought success required 16-hour workdays. I was constantly building, growing and hustling. Over the years, I’ve learned that busy and successful are not the same thing. Yet, many of us spend the whole day sprinting, to the point where we’re stressed and exhausted.
According to Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, busyness has become a widespread health issue:
“Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep, and mental and physical fatigue.”
As I’ve built my company, JotForm, I’ve learned that when we know how to balance work with restorative rest, our productivity can skyrocket -- and we might even catch more antelope.
The roots of busyness run deep.
Scholars believe Homer wrote the Odyssey near the end of the 8th century B.C. In book 9 of this epic poem, Odysseus describes the island of the Lotus-eaters, where the natives spend their days lounging and eating the intoxicating lotus fruit.
Once Odysseus’ crew tries the fruit, they forget about home and long to live out their days on the idyllic island. Eventually, Odysseus drags his men back to the ship and locks them up to break the spell.
Talk about a parable for laziness. It seems even Greek philosophers prized industry, and yes, busyness. Today, everyone from founders to football coaches despise anything that implies complacency. We’re always pushing to do more, to improve ourselves and to stay constantly in motion.
Subconsciously, we even evaluate peoples’ worth based on how many hours they work or how “in demand” they are. We prize "busy" above all else. At a certain point, however, we have to make a choice: Do we want to be busy, or do we want to make an impact?
Nothing is more precious than time. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Escaping the cult of “busy” means taking time to rest -- and it requires us to step back and re-evaluate what matters most. I’d like to share how I’ve learned to reject the frenetic pace of startup culture, and how you can, too.
Start small -- and take breaks.
Busyness robs us of precious hours: to think, play, explore, nurture relationships -- and to rest.
“There is a simple way to take back your time: Do less,” journalist Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson wrote in John Hopkins Health Review.
“And yet, those two words are perhaps the most challenging call to action. Doing less means understanding your priorities and constantly defending them against the encroachments of the status quo, which dictates that busyness -- and material wealth and value -- is best.”
As Dickinson says, it’s not easy to reverse our mental conditioning. Doing less isn’t as simple as it sounds. That’s why I recommend starting small. First, take the time to discover your peak hours, then take breaks throughout the day. Not only will you feel better, but these short rest periods can actually improve the quality of your work.
In fact, regular breaks can prevent decision fatigue, restore motivation, increase productivity and creativity, and consolidate memories. Breaks that involve even five minutes of movement can also improve our health and well-being.
Taking time to grab a coffee or chat with a team member is far from “doing nothing,” but it’s an important way to step off the metaphorical treadmill and re-establish your priorities.
Reserve time for reflection.
Some of the greatest founders, innovators and creators set aside large chunks of time just to reflect. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates first took solo Think Weeks -- seven days spent reading, strategizing and reflecting -- before the idea spread through the company. Today, Gates credits those weeks with generating some of Microsoft’s top innovations.
Other founders, like Skillshare’s Mike Karnjanaprakorn, have now implemented the practice. So have Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Ferriss. Even people who can’t take a full week for reflection often thrive when they set limited working hours.
The late Dr. Maya Angelou, for example, always drew clear boundaries in her schedule. The legendary writer, poet, singer and activist arrived at her desk around the same time each day. Afterward, she set aside work to spend time with her family.
“I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon,” Angelou said in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
“If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.”
Challenge your body.
Rest doesn’t necessarily mean lounging out on the couch, watching Netflix in a glassy-eyed trance. The most effective downtime also involves physical exertion, whether that’s a long walk, a hike or a bike ride. Restorative activities can help to balance out more brain-intensive work.
Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, says rest is a necessary form of mental restoration. And exercise is one of the best ways to recover the mental energy we need to perform at peak levels.
“There are so many people who find that a workout, a long hike, clears their minds, helps them calm down, gives their subconscious mind opportunity to think through problems,” Pang told Scientific American. “What all of that teaches us is that exercise is a really important form of rest.”
Embrace the digital Sabbath.
At least one day a week, give yourself a technology break. It’s not easy to cut the psychological strings, but going device-free on a Saturday, a Sunday or another day of your choice can give your mind space to wander, while enhancing your creativity.
If a full day away from screens and notifications feels challenging, you’re not alone. But remember that a stressed, tired brain can’t generate fresh ideas. We’re also more likely to make mistakes and overcomplicate solutions when we’ve exhausted our mental reserves.
As the late Steve Jobs once said, “Simple thinking can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”
VC-backed founders get the lion’s share of startup press. They make headlines with record-breaking funding rounds and dominate the top of TechCrunch. Outside investment can provide essential startup capital, but it can also tie founders to the pressures of hockey-stick growth targets and boards eager to recover their cash.
Instead of the 24/7 grind, I chose to bootstrap my company with a slow-and-steady approach to growth. It has taken time, and it hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve built a stable business that can even function without me. Most importantly, I have full control over my work and my life.
If that sounds like a privileged position, you’re absolutely right. I’m grateful for the ability to spend a whole summer with my wife and my newborn baby, for example, and I’ve worked hard to reach this point. Bootstrapping isn’t the right approach for everyone, but it can help you to maintain your freedom and live a more balanced life.
Work to live, instead of living to work.
Even in a conversation about rest, we still tend to look through the lens of productivity. We’ve become obsessed with maximizing every minute -- and that’s fine, as long as we reclaim that time for our lives, not necessarily our work.
No matter how excited we may feel about our businesses, or each new project, a rich life also includes family, friends, exploration and adventure, in whatever proportion you desire. I certainly don’t want to regret relationships that fell apart while I was staring at a screen, or the opportunities I missed in the world outside my office.
Try to leave work at work -- even if it’s in your home. Give yourself the gift of restorative downtime. And balance thinking hours with time spent in motion. Just like the cheetah, we can sprint to bring down the antelope, but then it’s time to rest.