Sometimes you have to stop doing things to make more progress.
2013 was a complicated year for me. Lots of things have gone well, but I struggled with a deep depression from January to May. My running has been erratic (no marathons this year) and I’ve struggled a lot physiologically, which at this point I think I’ve been able to determine is some version of what is called adrenal burnout or cortisol deficiency.
As part of trying to get back to a happy place, I decided to stop traveling. I haven’t been a plane for work since the middle of May. Yesterday was the first time I got on an airplane since June (when I went to visit my parents for their 50th anniversary). I’m on a two week vacation (one week completely off the grid) – something I do every year around Thanksgiving since my birthday is on December 1st.
My annual rhythm tends to run from 12/1 to 11/30 due to my birthday. It’s a much bigger marker for me than January 1st, especially since I still have some grumpy jewish kid behavior around Christmas. So – with a week to go in my version of this year, I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do differently in 2014.
I immediately flashed to no business travel. Waking up in my own bed at home for the past six months has been transformative for me. So I decided to continue to not do business travel in 2014.
But that’s an easy one, since I’m already doing (or not doing) it. So I’ve begun thinking about the next things I’m going to stop doing. Some are work related and some are personal. I’ve always been an abstainer instead of a moderator so things like “no alcohol” pop up to the top of the list quickly. But that’s less interesting to me at this point than things that are more profound in a business context, like “no travel.”
As I work on my list of things to stop doing, I’m curious about what, if anything, is on your list.
The phrase “work-life balance” is a vexing one. Some people think it is impossible. Others strive for it. Many entrepreneurs, and pundits about entrepreneurship, reject it as impossible. Others believe that figuring out how to balance work and life is a sign of a more enlightened entrepreneurial perspective.
In Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur Amy and I talk about many of the tactics we use to integrate work and life, which Amy loving refers to as “all the time that I’m not working.” We don’t often use the phrase work-life balance as we aren’t striving for a balance between the two, but rather an effective integration of them. I’ve been using the word “equilibrium” lately which feels different to me than the word “balance”, but I know many people will equate the two.
The challenge is that we are dealing with a very dynamic system that ebbs and flows continually. It’s early Saturday morning – I’m at the John Wayne Airport waiting for my flight home. I have an absurd amount of email backed up from the week. I’m currently on top everything in my portfolio, so I feel good about that, but I’ve got a long writing backlog. And there’s a bunch of things I’d like to explore. So I have much more work than I could possibly do this weekend, even if I spent the entire weekend working.
On the non-work front, I haven’t seen Amy (except for several times a day on Facetime) since early Tuesday morning when I left for Seattle. I miss her and Brooks the wonder dog. We have dinner with my brother, my partner Ryan, and their wives tonight. I have a 2:10 hour run on Sunday morning (I have a marathon next weekend) and a massage in the afternoon. And I want to watch last week’s episode of Scandal.
There’s no way to “balance” all that stuff or achieve any semblance of balance. But I can get to an equilibrium where I’m happy, Amy is happy, and I have fun. Sure – I’ll work some, but I’ll rest some also. I’ll spend some time by myself (mostly during my run) and I’ll get to go to bed and wake up with Amy each day. I’ll be in Boulder, a town I love, with friends who are dear to me. And I’m sure I’ll spend some time laying on the couch snuggling with my dog.
Next week will be completely different than this last week. Next weekend we are in Arkansas and I’m running a marathon. Amy will be there. Then I’ll be off to Boston for a few days. then DC, then NY. Alone again. I won’t be striving for “balance”, but I’ll roll with the ebb and flow.
Last week my friends at FullContact announced a new paid vacation policy and wrote a post about it titled Paid Vacation? That’s Not Cool. You Know What’s Cool? Paid, PAID Vacation.
FullContact will now pay an employee $7500 to go on vacation. The rules are simple:
If that whets your appetite, take a look at the presentation about the new policy.
Hiring great people is intensely competitive in my world. While part of this is around recruiting, a bigger part is creating an environment where these great people can periodically disconnect and recharge their batteries. I love the creativity of FullContact’s approach to Paid PAID vacation. And yes – FullContact is hiring.
Are you “too busy?” When someone asks you how you are doing do you immediately respond with something like “I”m incredibly busy?” If the answer is yes, go read the amazing opinion piece in the NY Times by Tim Kreider titled The ‘Busy’ Trap. I’ll wait.
I’ve spent the last month at my house in Keystone in Maker Mode. I’m about to submit the final draft of “Startup Communities: Build An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In Your City” to my publisher on Thursday. I’m closing two new investments in July. I’m running my 22nd marathon in Missoula in a week after raising $11,487 as a Random Act of Kindness for Justin Salcedo from Devine, TX who has testicular cancer. I’ve stayed on top of the 250 to 500 emails a day I get and have been responsive to all of the companies I’m an investor in.
Sure – I’ve been “busy”, but I don’t feel busy. I wake up each morning without an alarm clock and have found that I’ve been sleeping 9 to 10 hours a night. I’ve spent more time with Amy than I have in a while and as a special bonus get to sleep with her every night. We go out to dinner a few times a week. We’ve watched a bunch of movies (all of the Avenger series, Kill Bill 1 and 2, and a few others.) I’ve read a couple of books. We’ve had a great time with a few friends who have come up and spent a night or two with us. And I’m in front of my computer a lot.
I’ve been to Boulder twice – once for Big Boulder (for 24 hours) and then last week for two days. Each time I felt ridiculously overstimulated. I was overscheduled, busy all day long running from thing to thing, and without any time and space to think. These trips were the only ones where I used my alarm clock (on my iPhone) to wake up an I ended up with 6 hours of sleep each night. Busy, busy, busy. And in Boulder, a tiny little town of 100,000 people.
When I reflect on these trips, I stayed on top of my work but I wasn’t productive. Or creative. Or particularly happy. Ok – I had fun – I like all my friends and all the people around me, but at my core I felt exhausted at the end of each day. I felt the pressure building up of the things I hadn’t had time to work on. And one these couple of days in Boulder I didn’t feel like I had time and space for anything else.
In contrast, as I sit here on a Sunday morning, I feel free. Amy is out for a hike, I’m going for a two hour run in a little while, and then I’m going to spend the afternoon working on my book. I have inbox zero (four new unread emails have appeared as I wrote this) and nothing is backlogged other than some additional writing I want to do. When I look at my schedule next week, there are a few things on my calendar during my manager hours (1pm – 4pm each day) but they don’t feel oppressive to me. I’m completely relaxed about my Thursday book deadline – totally comfortable that I’ll get there. And I’m excited about running my first marathon since the 50 mile race I did in April.
We are creating the Busy Trap ourselves. I think it’s a way of avoiding our fear of death. If we are in the Busy Trap, we don’t have to spend time alone, or thinking about ourselves, or thinking deeply about the stuff we are interested in. By always being tired and overworked, we get to claim that we are “productive” even if the things we are doing are pointless. We get to prove our worth by being able to declare how busy we are. But, in a lot of cases we aren’t really doing much.
I work hard. I work a lot. And I have in the past month. But I don’t feel “busy”. I don’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t feel oppressed. I feel like I’m doing some of the best work of my life so far. And I’m having a lot of fun.
Have you fallen into The Busy Trap?
I’ve described this magic approach to staying connected with family when you are far away three times in the past few days. The first time was to a set of entrepreneurs in TechStars New York who were from Vancouver and have spouses and significant others back home. The second time was to an entrepreneur at the NewMe Accelerator who has a spouse and kids in Atlanta. The third was last night to a team of entrepreneurs we are in the midst of closing a financing with. Since it came up three times in rapid succession, I decided it was time for a blog post describing it.
If you find yourself in this situation, where you are deeply engaged in something for an extended period of time (say – an accelerator) and your significant other – and kids if you have them – are somewhere far away, I expect you’ll do the equivalent of a Skype call each day. There will be periodic emails, texts, and phone calls as well. While these are all good, in many cases they increase the loneliness factor. You are deeply immersed in what is going on and no matter how hard you try to be present, will often be distracted during your Skype time. And you’ll get off the phone, or video, feeling more homesick then when you got on. No matter how homesick you feel, the people on the other end, who are immersed in their life, but often not having the same kind of deeply intense experience you are having, will be missing you more.
Go to the drug store – Wallgreens, CVS, or whatever the nearby equivalent is. Buy a large package of 3 x 5 index cards and some Avery labels that you can print out. Swing by the post office and pick up some stamps for post cards. Go back to the office and print out the mailing address for your sweetie and kids at home on the labels. Put the labels and stamps on each of the index cards. When you go home at night, put the stack next to your bed with a pen.
Each night, before you go to sleep, take five minutes and write a short note on an index card. Write about one special thing that happened to you that day. Draw a doodle or a picture. Tell your family that you love them. During this five minutes, think about one thing that is special about them, why you love them, and why they are important to you. Now, go to sleep. In the morning, read the card when you wake up. On your way back to the office drop the card in the mail.
After a few days a steady stream of cards will start showing up at your house far away. If you have kids, they’ll run to the mailbox to see if something new came today. Rather than a single Skype at the end of the day, there will now be something special that shows up in the middle of the day. And – it’ll be from the past – talking abut something that happened a few days ago. The connection will be through both space and time, using a media (postcard) that current generations rarely use any more.
It’s magic. I did this in college with my parents who I missed a great deal. Several years ago my mom sent all of the postcards from my freshman year to me. It blew me away that she’d kept them and I relived a bunch of past moments sitting down and reading through them with Amy. Some are awesome, some are silly, and some are totally crazy, but they were all a part of me and what I was thinking at the time.
If you like this idea, don’t wait. Go do it right now. And tell me how you like it. Or feel free to drop a post card in the mail to me every now and then.
My twitter stream this morning had a conversation between Kara Swisher and Chris Sacca about a TED video from Jill Bolte Taylor. Kara recently had a TIA (minor stroke) and wrote about it. The conversation between them prompted me to watch the TED Talk by Jill Bolte Taylor about a massive stroke that she’d had. Taylor is a brain scientist, which makes the whole discussion even more incredible as she had a chance to study and think about her own experience of having a stroke.
I strongly encourage you to invest 18 minutes of your life in this. It’ll change how you think about your brain, as well as possibly a few other things.
I’m off to run the Zeitgesit Half Marathon in Boise, Idaho with my friends Mark and Pam Solon. It’s another beautiful day on planet earth.
I’m back in Boulder after living in Paris for the month of July and Tuscany for the month of August. I had an incredible time in both places, got a lot done, enjoyed being with Amy continuously, and had a very successful experiment of “working in some other place for a month” that I intend to repeat many times over the course of the rest of my life.
David Cohen (TechStars CEO) and his wife Jil were two of our many visitors in Tuscany. We stayed at a magical place called Casetta run by Xenia Lemos who we now consider a lifelong friend. David did a ThisWeekIn TechStars segment with me while we were together at Casetta in which you get to see the place, watch me swim laps in a pool while David interviews me about Occipital, the book Venture Deals, volatility in the stock markets and how entrepreneurs should think about it, and then some thoughts at the end of work-life balance.
I had an awesome time, but I’m glad to be back in Boulder.
I go off the grid four times a year for a week at a time. During these weeks I put up a vacation reminder that says I’m off the grid, not checking email or phone, but if it’s an emergency I can be found by my assistant Kelly. While I leave her email and phone info in the vacation responder text, she still checks my email to make sure that nothing critical is going on. While this works well, Josh Kopelman blew my mind with his awesome vacation responder a few weeks ago.
I am currently out of the office on vacation.
I know I’m supposed to say that I’ll have limited access to email and won’t be able to respond until I return — but that’s not true. My blackberry will be with me and I can respond if I need to. And I recognize that I’ll probably need to interrupt my vacation from time to time to deal with something urgent.
That said, I promised my wife that I am going to try to disconnect, get away and enjoy our vacation as much as possible. So, I’m going to experiment with something new. I’m going to leave the decision in your hands:
- If your email truly is urgent and you need a response while I’m on vacation, please resend it to email@example.com and I’ll try to respond to it promptly.
- If you think someone else at First Round Capital might be able to help you, feel free to email my assistant, Fiona (firstname.lastname@example.org) and she’ll try to point you in the right direction.
· Otherwise, I’ll respond when I return…
From now on, I’m going to set up an account at email@example.com and leave this in your hands. Powerful – and fucking brilliant.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter has an excellent post up on the HBR Blog titled Should Leaders Go on Vacation? Recently, I’ve seen plenty of commentary in the popular press (especially Fox News articles) about the inappropriateness of leaders taking vacation. Kanter does a nice job of dissecting the dynamics around leaders going on vacation and suggests the leader address five questions in the context of the vacation.
I’m a huge believer in the importance of vacations for leaders, entrepreneurs, and everyone else. I work extremely hard – usually 70+ hours a week. This is simply not sustainable, at least for me at age 45, over a period of time longer than about three months. I eventually burn out, get tired and cranky, become less effective, and get sick. Vacations are a way for me to recharge, build my energy back, explore some different things, spend extended and uninterrupted time with the most important person in my life (Amy), and just chill out. This vacation usually takes the form of a Qx Vacation that is off the grid which is now well known to everyone who works with me.
Amy and I ordinarily spend the month of July at our house in Homer, Alaska. While this isn’t “a vacation”, it’s a change of context that has become a very important part of our routine. I work while I’m there, am completely connected and available, but have a very different life tempo. And – most importantly – zero travel.
This summer we spent July in Paris. We both love Paris and went there to just “live.” We rented an apartment in the 8th, ran in the local park, shopped at the Monoprix down the block, ate lunch at all of the nearby restaurants, and had some amazing meals out. But mostly we just hung out, worked remotely, and spent time together.
I’ve had a fantasy about renting a house in the Tuscan countryside and spending a month in Tuscany for many years. We decided to do it this summer and we turned our month in Alaska into two months in Europe. However, rather than travel around and be tourists, we just lived. We had plenty of friends visit, but we spent the days exercising (I ran a lot), reading, writing, and working.
I plan to write at least one post about what I learned in my “summer in Europe” after I return to the US next week. It has been an amazing experience, especially since I was completely connected to my regular work, yet was able to observe a lot of activity from a distance and reflect on what I really thought was going on.
In the mean time, if you are a leader, entrepreneur, or anyone else, I hope you read Kanter’s post and think hard about both the value of time away and the expectation setting around it. Life is short – make sure you live it.
I did eventually solve my Paris smart phone problem. Here’s what I did.
But none of it matters. Because after two weeks without a smart phone, I simply don’t give a shit anymore. In general, I hate the phone and try to stay off of it. I spend my time in email, IM, and Skype when I’m in front of my computer, which is a lot. However, when I’m wandering around between things, I’ve actually started to realize the joy of looking around and noticing all of the other humans staring at the little pieces of glass they are holding in their hands. During dinner at a restaurant, I’m enjoying the idea that I’m unreachable while I shower 100% of my attention on my beloved and anyone else I’m dining with. And, when I go to the bathroom in a restaurant, I’m actually enjoying the notion that I’m not going to return to the table distracted by the emails I’ve scanned while doing my business.
Basically, except for Google Maps, I haven’t missed the phone one bit the past two weeks. And, given that I haven’t had Google Maps, I’ve gotten to wander aimlessly around a few times, using the old fashioned approach of asking for directions. Each time, I’ve ended up where I needed to be pretty close to when I was supposed to be there. Refreshing, retro, interesting – call it whatever you want – but even for this directionally impaired American it worked out ok.
I now have 3G access again everywhere I go. But I don’t really care. I’m hardly using it (at least I haven’t the past few days). I’m going to start turning off my phone at meals completely and see how that goes for a while. Or maybe I’ll just leave it in the apartment since I’m with the only person (Amy) I want to be talking to anyway.
I learned a lot from this experience. But most importantly, I once again learned the value of thinking about the problem differently and challenging a key assumption. Do I really need my phone with me and email available all of the time? Clearly not.
I’m going for a run now in the rain in Paris. Without my phone. See y’all in a while.