Thursday, November 26, 2009

Founders, turn off your phones. It's Thanksgiving.

I've  taken advantage of my self-important missions to save the world through software in some negative ways. I 'm guessing most founders do it; it's easy to be so intent on trying to serve your vision you end up overworking, working ineffectively, abusing relationships, taking advantage of the benefit of the doubt--all justified by your heroic sacrificial quest to save the world, or the tweets, or the whatever.

Stop. Just stop.

I just got off the phone with a fellow founder who is in the thick of it. He's out of money, he's got customers he can't serve very well just yet, and he's trying to make things happen while in DisneyWorld.

DisneyWorld. He's on vacation with his family, and he's calling me to talk through merging with another company that also has no money, but might bring a good rolodex. Amazing.

I made him promise me that he will promise his wife that he'll only be on business for an hour a day while on vacation. He said he had to answer customer questions, so we made it customer questions plus an hour. I have no faith in that promise--I'm betting  he'll break it right away.

Why?

We're afflicted, some of us founders. We jump into things to fast, we want things to work so we work longer and harder in the hope that more will be better than not, yet we have no evidence that overworking gets us there faster or more intact. In fact, we're less intact as a result.

It strains our relationships, it strains our bodies and minds. It's not healthy, and it's not productive.

So why do we do this?

I don't have a specific answer yet, and I'm certain there's variation among founders. Some founders are very disciplined, very methodical. They leave their work at work. They organize their lives better. I admire that, but I don't understand it.

Me, I have trouble opening mail. I once had a friend help me pay my bills for a while because I kept getting behind despite the fact I had the money. I just put things off, ignored the small stuff. Then the small stuff becomes big stuff, or damaging stuff, or painful stuff.

So I think personality type has a lot to do with it. I can be very disciplined, but I have to work at it. Last week was terribly unproductive for me. So Friday I packed up my work and headed to the family cabin for 4 days to focus; my wife understood and probably appreciated her own break with me gone ;)

After setting up I had nothing but me, the trees, and the lake to distract me. But it took me two days of restless work until I got into a pattern of undistracted, focused, disciplined work.

The results were great. And that felt great. And it had nothing to do with my surroundings--the first two days were no different from my work at home.

The difference was that I looked at the clock, and set a goal to work for the next hour without checking email, without browsing the web, without doing anything but what I wanted to get done. A lot of people don't have this problem, but I do.

So how does this relate to founders working crazy hours?

Every minute you aren't focused on your work, it's another minute you have to work later. That later is the evening, or early morning, or the weekend. You get that nagging feeling like you're behind, and you tell your spouse or family or friends that you have to work the weekend. Then you go in for 8 or more hours on Sunday and maybe get 4 of work done.

We put things off. We do other stuff. We rationalize. We research more than we need to. We form and express opinions to our sector, thinking we should be viewed as thought leaders. But we put off the important work. It gets done, but there's a lot of wasted time that comes with it.

And I don't think this is about laziness, or drift, or lack of ambition or intelligence. For me, I think it's about two things: the need to feel connected, and the drive to discover and learn new things. The first puts me in email and on Facebook. The second puts me to wikipedia, news sites, and the Kindle.

So. Here we are. It's 11:20 on Thanksgiving, and I'm up writing about this. I had a single, brief conversation with a friend who called today. I didn't code at all. I didn't surf the web other than to get a mashed potatoes recipe. I helped clean the house, made the mashed potatoes (from scratch, of course), and spent time with the family.

I didn't get an email from my startup client, or a call. That was good. But I bet both of us are thinking about what we need to get done, and when we can focus just on the work, at which time I'm hoping it only takes a few minutes to find that great focus that comes with discipline of mind, instead of two days. Because I really enjoy time with my wife, friends, and family.

Tomorrow, I plan to focus. I'll start by turning off my web access, and allowing myself 15 minutes at lunchtime to browse. Then back to coding.

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