When I was running my second company, I was out of shape.
I didn’t take care of myself, nor did I understand the importance of self-care.
To start with, I had been a smoker since I was 15. Although I had quit around 30, it had left a mark on my body. I didn’t exercise regularly. Didn’t have a schedule. I worked 18- hour days, and had a long, 1.5-hour commute one way. I ate decent food because of my wife, but didn’t pay any attention to my diet, nor did I have any knowledge of nutrition.
Worst of all, I developed an addiction to red wine. Like, a real addiction. I went from drinking occasionally and socially to drinking habitually and by myself. I would regularly drink a bottle each day, and on some days, two bottles.
Drinking was, of course, the result of stress—after 6 years of hard work, my second start- up was headed for a painful failure. The drinking lead to more eating. I would consume a ton of cheese and nuts late into the night. Drinking also caused me to not exercise, because, you know, it’s hard to run when you wake up with a headache.
The worst part was that I would get drunk at family parties, kid’s birthdays and at home, just by myself during the week.
One time, I was at a birthday party with family friends and fell asleep after downing a bottle. A friend of mine took a picture of me drunk, asleep, with my daughters and other kids running around me and playing.
When I saw that picture, I knew I had to stop. I said to myself, I am not going to be THAT guy. I am not going to be the DRUNK FATHER character. My wife and my daughters deserve better.
So I quit drinking. Cold turkey. I’ve not had an alcoholic drink in almost 5 years.
Since then I’ve also committed to exercising and eating well.
More importantly, I discovered what it meant to take care of myself.
I understood WHY making yourself P1 is critical to being a good husband and a good father, and helping hundreds of awesome founders build their companies.
Here is what I’ve learned, and I hope you may find it helpful as well.
1. Make taking care of yourself P1
In engineering, when you classify features and bugs into categories, you assign them a priority.
P1 means urgent—most important—needs to be done now. P2 means important, get it done soon. And P3 means nice to have, maybe one day.
This is the simplest, most important insight, but is something I failed at as a founder. And I see founders fail at this regularly.
Make yourself and your well-being the highest priority. Make taking care of yourself P1.
The most obvious reason is that if you don’t make yourself P1, no one else will.
YOU are responsible for YOU. Others will take care of themselves, but you need to take care of you.
Another reason is that you will perform better. If you don’t take care of yourself, work non-stop, drink, and don’t exercise, your performance will inevitable go down. Startups are marathons, and marathons are exhausting. You can’t sprint a marathon; that means you can’t work non-stop for years and years and be productive.
When you aren’t well rested, when you’re not eating well, and you’re sleep deprived, YOU WILL MAKE BAD DECISIONS.
But it gets better.
By making yourself P1, by taking care of yourself, you automatically DO BETTER FOR OTHERS.
You will be better both at home and at work. When you are rested, energized, and clear- headed, you will make better decisions. You’ll be better and more effective in all aspects of your life.
2. Create a Routine
Startups are inherently chaotic.
Chaos causes stress.
Chaos wears us down. Chaos is both beautiful and ugly. It is the oxygen, and the entropy.
The key thing is to control this chaos, at least somewhat, and have a schedule.
But the most important thing is to schedule time for yourself.
When will you go to the gym? AM, PM, during lunch? Put it on the calendar. When will you take a vacation? Plan it at least a quarter in advance and get it on the calendar.
When will you get work done? When will you commute? When will you strategize for next year? When will you create a list of target investors? When will you do sales calls? When will you mentor people? Regardless of what your job is, do at least a little bit of planning, prioritize, and most importantly, schedule your personal time.
3. Limit alchohol & coffee
When I took over Techstars NYC back in 2014, the program had an abundance of alcohol. Founders had bottles of scotch on their desks, we had kegs of beer in the fridge, and wine was served during happy hours.
Historically, the startup culture is a culture of drinking.
The stereotype of dudes in shorts with beer cans on their desks, hacking away into the night.
When was the last time anyone made good decisions while intoxicated? When was the last time anyone was productive after a heavy night of drinking?
Historically, stress in startups caused drinking. Drinking was the response to stress.
Clearly, this is the wrong solution.
The solution is not to drink in response to stress. Rather, the solution is to take care of yourself and reduce stress.
Quitting drinking was one of the best decisions of my life. I am the kind of person who has a hard time stopping. If I had a glass of wine, I would have to have the second, the third, the whole bottle.
For me, quitting fully was the best solution.
This may not be necessary for you. Many of my friends are able to enjoy their favorite wine, beer and scotch without over-doing it. The key, though, is to avoid using alcohol as a go-to mechanism when you are stressed.
The other problems with drinking are over-eating and under-exercising.
When you get drunk you tend to eat more, and then you get more drunk, and as a result, you can’t exercise the next day.
The problem is that alcohol is the trigger to other problems.
Alcohol is effectively the blocker for eating well and exercising.
Think about what makes sense for you and come up with a routine for consuming alcohol you enjoy in a way that works for you.
Lastly, re-think coffee. FWIW, I’ve given it up and just drink green Matcha tea. I find that coffee always made me tired. I consumed 4–6 cups a day. Matcha provides a much cleaner energy, as I think teas in general do. Now, I drink 1–3 cups of matcha daily and feel awesome.
4. Eat good, healthy food
We have an obesity epidemic in America. Over the past 50 years, our food industry has succeed in committing a crime against society with the mass proliferation of junk food—processed, unhealthy food.
While we are slowly starting to wake up to this nightmare, most people still don’t know what they should eat. The problem is particularly acute with startups.
We have lots of young founders who can eat junk food and still feel okay. The problem is two-fold—no matter what age you are, you still get damaged by junk food.
Junk food clogs up your brain, makes you crave more sugar, crave more alcohol, and exercise less.
Unhealthy snacks–and the habit of snacking itself—are bad. Here is how it goes—you sit at your desk all day, because you are too busy to get up. You order junk food because it is high in processed sugars and calories—your brain is craving that. You have all your high- calorie snacks handy.
It is a vicious cycle because your brain craves junk food because you are working non-stop.
Instead of getting up and going to walk and get yourself a healthy meal, you are stuck at your desk eating junk food.
Here’s the deal—you are less productive because of junk food. Your brain is more tired and your body will get bigger.
Recall the startup founders putting on weight? This is the reason—crazy long hours, stress, and alcohol all lead to eating unhealthy.
So what is the solution?
Recognize that you are what you eat. Recognize, as the father of modern medicine himself said, let the food be your medicine.
I became a vegan about 3 years ago, and I absolutely LOVE it. A plant-based diet has made me a lot more productive, and a lot more clear headed. I have a lot more energy, and I am so much more empathetic and effective at my job. (Full disclosure, occasionally I cheat—sometimes I have cheese and when I went to Maine I had seafood. Hey, I am not crazy! 🙂
Recently, I started experimenting with intermittent fasting. Hard to say what the long term impact will be, but so far, I absolutely love it. I have A TON of energy all the time. It really is incredible.
I finish eating by 7PM or 8PM and then I have Matcha in the morning with a bit of almond milk, and after that I have lunch around 1PM. All my eating happens between 1PM and 8PM window.
I am not saying you should be vegan, or fast. I am saying you should schedule time to think about what you eat.
Learn about nutrition. It is fun, and takes a couple of weeks. Make it a hobby. Come up with a way of eating that works for you.
Also, take time to cook for yourself and if you have a family, for your family. Even if you hate cooking, start by cooking 1 meal a week. Increase it to a few more.
Get Plated or Blue Apron or my favorite—Purple Carrot—and just make yourself food. Through the meditative practice of cooking you will become more mindful, more aware of what you eat, and more kind to yourself.
5. Engineer better sleep
This has been said a billion times—sleep is essential to well being. A good night of sleep not only refreshes you, it helps you be a better problem solver. You often wake up in the morning knowing the answer to a tough question from the night before.
Sleep is also absolutely necessary for your brain. For those who studied computer science and virtual machines, sleep is a garbage collection process. During sleep, pictures and memories from the day before get reprocessed and reorganized. Junk is discarded, and important things get committed to our long-term memory.
The other important thing about sleep is that it helps you be less hungry and more ready to exercise.
Unlike alcohol, which is the negative trigger, sleep is a positive trigger—less food, more energy, stronger muscles and, in turn, the ability to exercise more.
Think about your sleep patterns. Create a routine.
If you don’t go to bed at regular times you may have trouble falling asleep. If you work right before you go to bed you may have trouble falling asleep.
And also, if you have your phone next to your bed, it may bother your sleep. Similarly, pause your inbox before you hit that pillow.
Our lives, our sleep, is increasingly stressful and subject to non-stop information flow. Take time to understand that there will never be less data or less information.
Take time to realize that all this information flood is stressful for our brains because our brains are information processing machines.
By keeping your phone away from your bed, by pausing your inbox when you sleep, you are giving your brain a breather—a chance to rest before it has to jump back into this increasingly harder battle with information.
Like eating good food and sleeping, exercising is an essential tool to make you more productive. More importantly, exercising leads to a more enjoyable, more clear-headed life.
My go-to exercises are running, yoga and strength training. I mix them up during the week.
Here are two key decisions that I made that for sure changed my life.
- Exercise every day
- Exercise first thing in the morning
While these may not be a fit for you, let’s unpack them both to see why this works for me.
First, exercise every day. Before I decided to do that, I had to constantly plan WHEN I would exercise. I had to keep track of days when I did and didn’t exercise. It was a lot of mental work, especially trying to remember which exercise I did when.
Once I decided to exercise daily, it became easy.
To be honest, I only end up exercising 5 or 6 days a week. Some days I just can’t do it—either I am too tired, or I have a packed schedule. But the key thing is, I intend to exercise every day, and that’s what gets me there 5–6 times a week.
Second critical decision that I made is I will exercise the first thing in the morning. For years and years I tried to exercise in the evening and time and again I stayed at work later, didn’t have energy and just could not make it happen. Similarly, I could not get out during the lunch breaks. Something always would come up. Remember, I have this sort of personality—I got into work and I just could not get out.
For me, exercising first thing in the morning is perfect for several reasons. First, I am able to actually do it, the routine works for me. Secondly, and more importantly, this makes me more mindful of myself. I get up, make a cup of Matcha tea, and exercise. This makes me think for an hour or so about me. My routine automatically makes me a P1.
The first thing, every day, before I give to others, I take care of myself.
This is a simple method, but it is very powerful, and works well for me.
It doesn’t mean this will work for you, so take the time to come up with the exercise routine, and the types of exercises that you enjoy.
Lastly, what do you do if you absolutely hate exercising? Two things—consider un-hating it, and at least, start with walking. Take a one-hour walk every day and before you know it, you will feel better and may get into other physical activities.
7. Take vacations
I now regularly take a lot of time off: 4–5 vacations a year, with my wife, kids and my friends. I also try not to do work on the weekends (although I am ALWAYS available to my founders—weekends, vacations and holidays).
First of all, I absolutely LOVE traveling and exploring the world. I firmly believe, as one of my friends said that happiness is a method of travel.
I also believe that travel is a mind expander and creativity inducer for your brain.
Much like sleep is an important short-term relief for your brain, vacation is a longer, equally important relief.
The key thing about vacations is to plan them in advance.
If you don’t, just like you forget to run out to get healthy lunch, your job will suck you in, and you may forget to go on vacation.
I tend to do my planning in January, and also quarterly. I like to plan the next vacation after I come back from one.
Whatever works for you—get it on the calendar, just have it planned, buy the tickets in advance for your long vacations.
Also, try to unwind on some weekends. I know that founders work weekends. That’s a given, but try to not work at least one weekend of the month. Do a shorter trip, hang out with friends, visit family, just unplug.
8. Make Self-care a Lifestyle
You know the saying—diets don’t work. You lose weight, then you regain a lot of it back after you stop dieting.
What works is a lifestyle change.
How you eat. What you drink. When you exercise, and how well you sleep.
What works is routine. What works are permanent changes. Not temporary fixes and bandaid solutions.
Realizing that you are put on this earth to take care of you is important. Realizing that if you don’t make yourself a P1, not only you will suffer, but your loved ones, your co-workers, and your startup is an important realization.
Take the time to think about your lifestyle. What is important to you? Are you mindful of yourself? How can you be happier and more productive?
How can you be more kind to yourself, and take the most basic care of yourself?
Answer these questions or yourself, make the changes and never look back.
Engineer, Immigrant. Vegan. 3x Founder, Managing Partner @2048vc. Previously ran @techstars in NYC. I write #startuphacks: http://alexiskold.net .