Coffee / exercise / food / sleep. Or: Finding balance at a startup.

There are just four pages in Drastic Change, the opening chapter of Hoffer’s “The Ordeal of Change”, but they’ve stuck with me for years. The chapter was written in the context of social change in the 1960s, but its succinct insights about human nature and reaction to change go far beyond that time and place.

I’ve worked at startups for my entire career. And startups are one of the most drastic change-y things you can throw yourself into: your role, the market, the technical infrastructure, the requirements—everything is in constant, radical flux. And in reaction to that flux, many people find themselves working very, very hard. Sometimes people are proud of how hard they work. Hoffer comments:

“A workingman sure of his skill goes leisurely about his job and accomplishes much though he works as if at play. On the other hand, the workingman new to his trade attacks his work as if he were saving the world, and he must do so if he is to get anything done at all.”

When I was in my 20s I was new to my trade (software engineering), and I acted like it. I overclocked by drinking coffee, eating convenience foods, sleeping less and skipping exercise entirely. It was easy to justify these things; I was changing the world. But truth be told, I was thrashing—I was employing false economies. If I exercised 30 minutes, I could sleep 30 minutes fewer and be much more focused at work. If I didn’t drink coffee, my mind would be more clear. If I slept soundly my creativity would flow.

Since understanding yourself is necessary to change yourself, try reading that chapter about how humans react to drastic change. Be honest with yourself about why you work so hard. Then try working less and take better care of your body. It will repay you with extra time, greater success, and a lifetime of use.

PS: I’m still not very good at exercising regularly.