Raw thoughts from Alex Dong

Avoid ego depletion, aka how unproductive works can help avoid burn-out.

Startup life is stressful. Whether you’re the founder or the employee.  Facing uncertainty everyday will drain your passion and energy.  Slowly but surely, you will wake up one day morning and feel like doing nothing. Everything seems to be broken. The whole universe seems to evolve against you.  You could literally stare at the monitor for a while and forgot what you want to do.   Experienced entrepreneurs will take the pace very carefully so that they could have a sustainable productive day-after-day. Rookies will throw two 100-hour weeks and burned out for another.

I have been there many times. My first serious burn-out was so overwhelming that I almost gave up programming. I ended up traveling for 10 months before I recover and found interests in programming/startup again.  There have been many guides on “how to avoid burn out”. But the essence is the same. Indulge in something. Do something that’s luxurious for time-poor people.  The harder you push yourself to focus on work and put down other parts of life, the stronger the bounce off will become.

Today I ran across this post from a behavioral economist.   The research is about junk food and weight loss.  But the lesson can easily apply to entrepreneurs.  Dan first defined the concept of “ego depletion”

Eventually, when we’ve said “no” to enough yummy food, drinks, potential purchases, and forced ourselves to do enough unwanted chores, we find ourselves in a state called ego-depletion, where we don’t have any more energy to make good decisions.

Here is the solution. Tl;dr: indulge yourself in something that’s considered unhealthy, unproductive just to refill the bucket. Or just say to yourself: f**k it.

So how can we escape depletion?

A friend of mine named Dan Silverman once suggested an interesting approach during our time together at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which is a delightful place for researchers to take a year off to think, plan, and eat very well. Every day, after a rich lunch, we were plied with nigh-irresistible desserts: cheesecake, chocolate tortes, profiteroles, beignets—you name it. It was difficult for all of us, but especially for poor Dan, who was forever at the mercy of his sweet tooth.

It was daily dilemma for my friend. Dan, who was an economist with high cholesterol, wanted dessert. But he also understood that eating dessert every day was not a good decision. He contemplated this problem (along with his other academic interests), and concluded that when faced with temptation, a wise person should occasionally succumb. After all, by doing so, said person can keep him- or herself from becoming overly depleted, which will provide strength for whatever unexpected temptations lie in wait. Dan decided that giving in to daily dessert would be his best defense against being caught unawares by temptation and weakness down the road.

In all seriousness though, we’ve all heard time and time again that if you restrict your diet too much, you’ll likely to go overboard and binge at some point. Well, it’s true. A crucial aspect of managing depletion and making good decisions is having ways to release stress and reset, and to plan for certain indulgences. In fact, I think one reason the Slow-Carb Diet seems to be so effective is because it advises dieters to take a day off (also called a “cheat” day–see item 4 above), which allows them to avoid becoming so deprived that they give up entirely. The key here is planning the indulgence rather than waiting until you have absolutely nothing left in the tank. It’s in the latter moments of desperation that you throw yourself on the couch with the whole pint of ice cream, not even making a pretense of portion control, and go to town while watching your favorite tv show.

Regardless of the indulgence, whether it’s a new pair of shoes, some “me time” where you turn off your phone, an ice cream sundae, or a night out—plan it ahead. While I don’t recommend daily dessert, this kind of release might help you face down challenges to your will power later.