Fighting micro-burn-out

This guest-post was written by Noah Kagan, Chief Sumo of AppSumo.com, the daily deals site for web entrepreneurs. He was formerly an early employee at Facebook and Mint.

I woke up and rolled over to the left side of the bed as I do almost every morning and snapped up my iPhone. My heart beats a little faster as I roll back over, my girlfriends naked back is showing and I click open the iPhone mail app.

Here we go…

Scrolling down to the “Purchased” folder, I clicked and waited for the “checking for mail.”

Downloading 6 new messages. WTF!

It took 6 months to get that deal and we just emailed 70,000 AppSumo.com customers and 6 whole buys two hours after the email went out.

Okay, let me see the hate emails we got “this deal is a piece of shit and you guys are scammers” and some loyal customers emailing “really disappointed in you Noah, hope next deal is better.”

Bummer.

I go have breakfast, read a book and finish the rest of my emails.

Then it hits me around 2pm, I feel like shit. I can barely push myself to work, I have zero interest in doing anything AppSumo related, my teammates are chatting in our group chat and I want to be doing anything but this.

Sound familiar?

It finally dawned on me a few weeks later that my daily feelings were fluctuating with our sales numbers. Ha. What a fricking weird ass way to live a life. I used to tease my girlfriend that I liked her similar to how the stock market did that day. Now I was living a depressed and unproductive day.

This is not something you are going to tweet about, “Woot! Feeling like shit, need to grab a shirley temple and play some disc golf.”

Why was I depressed?

This depression has happened before. After we rose to the top of building Facebook games a few years ago and then subsequently declined I had a quarter-life evaluation while living in Argentina. Thinking about how we are building stupid games for stupid people made me so uninterested in doing work.

Have you ever felt that way? Unmotivated to do anything in your business.

It may be called “burn-out” but burn-out is solved with time, relaxation, hiring and pacing yourself. This was different — an immediate, uncontrollable feeling.

What surprised me was I shared this with a close friend of how occasionally I felt depressed and he was like, ME TOO. In fact the more entrepreneurs I talk to the more I’ve found that this is not just common but practically required.

Editor’s Note: It’s nice to hear Noah say all this because if you see anything about him (blog, interviews, stories) you see he exudes confidence and defiance and, if the word weren’t already bludgeoned to death by comedy critics, irreverent. In other words, the last guy you’d think would be susceptible to having his emotions dictated by external forces, particularly those of thousands of faceless newsletter subscribers.

If it happens to Noah, it happens to everyone. At this point I wonder at people who deny they’ve experienced it — either they’re some amazing form of super-human — quite possible! — or they just haven’t gotten to that comfort level with themselves that they’re able to admit weakness.

Thank god I wasn’t alone. It happens to all startups. Our emotions ride like a roller coaster — we’ve all heard that phrase but it’s different when you’re actually living it.

I’ve thought to myself recently that the real successful entrepreneurs are the ones that can deal with difficult times the best.

After some time I’ve worked out some ways that have helped me best deal with this depression:

  • Step away.
    A few weeks ago, I woke up to one of those shitty deal days, did a few emails and just couldn’t stare at my computer screen anymore. So I went out and played disc golf for a few hours. I came back and still couldn’t work so I played more disc golf. Kidding. No, I met up with friends for dinner and drinks. Came back on Saturday and actually looked forward to doing some work.
  • Tiny bites.
    When I feel overwhelmed or uninterested I’ll try to do one small thing and evaluate how I feel afterwards. This gives me a sense of accomplishment and momentum. It may not always work but give it a shot.
  • Visualize.
    Have a checklist of things you want to do for the day. During the middle of the work day I’ve noticed I feel bad about what’s going on and it directly relates back to that I felt unproductive. Having my list of things I did that day and seeing them get done definitely reduces the depression that may set on from “wasting a day.”
  • One task.
    What I’ve realized on times that keep me from working it’s cause there is one task “cock-blocking” me from doing anything else. Instead of distracting myself with emails, I try to directly tackle that one task. 93.5% of the times it hasn’t actually been that bad. Most of the time it’s due to non-core things of the business. For example, I DID NOT want to deal with our tax situation for 2010 (it was complicated cause the company was just me and then we incorporated). Ultimately, our super advisor Andrew Chen said just pay a tax accountant. Problem solved and depression prevented.
  • Get a life coach.
    Mark Pincus (Zynga Founder) introduced me to someone who provided unbiased feedback around his business. She was extremely helpful in talking through my feelings, issues with the business and actions I could take to grow the business. Make it a weekly check-in.
  • Pinpoint.
    Try to identify why/where you are feeling depressed. For me, most of the time it stems from seeing our daily sales numbers. What helps in reducing the depression is to see how we can learn what went wrong with the AppSumo.com deal and write up how we can make it better next time. Another helpful thing is looking at metrics that are more positive or at a trending level instead of just drowning your sorrows in today’s numbers.

Editor’s Note: This used to be the end of the article, but I noticed that several of Noah’s points involved input from advisors or coaches. In other interviews of Noah he’s alluded to mentors in other aspects of his business too, like getting SEO advice from the great Avanish Kaushik. So I asked Noah to explain how he was able to get advice from all these people who have made a big difference in AppSumo’s success.

Lately my support group has been key in the growth of our business but also the stability of my sanity. This is something that’s generally not talked about enough. In my previous business we had an advisor who was very well respected but I could hardly get the time of day for him to help me.

If you are looking for that support group or person here are a few things I’ve found useful:

A) Ask people you admire or respect who they turn to for help. This is how Mark from Zynga recommended that specific life-coach who helped me greatly. It can be hard to get attention from everyone but easy to get attention from people who make their living dispensing advice.

B) Make sure the person you want to help you has the time for you. (Enough said.)

C) Find people that you can benefit in return. I know it’s a bit counter intuitive but you want to make sure they can get something out of your relationship.

Editor’s Note: This might be the #1 thing I see people doing wrong when emailing me out of the blue for advice. It might make me sound like an asshole, but there needs to be something in it for me. That doesn’t mean money of course. For example, at least ask an interesting question, one that isn’t answered everyone on the Internet, one I haven’t answered in a blog post, one that would be fun to think about.

D) Test. The person may not be in your industry but find someone that understands you. Work with them once or twice and see how you feel after talking them. No need for marriage but a one time meeting to talk to them will help you see how you feel afterwards.

E) Have an objective. It’s great for the advisor to provide insights that you didn’t realize but it really helps coming with specific outcomes and issues you are trying to resolve.

Editor’s Note: This is another great one for cold emails. It’s easy for me to help someone who is able to communicate in five sentences what their conundrum is and precisely what they need help deciding, it’s often quick and easy for me to either give advice or show them where to look or even just explain what other questions they should be asking that would decide this for them.

Yesterday, while I was thinking about finishing this article I was having a tough day. It was hard for me to focus or gain composure of the things I needed to do. I left my home office, played disc golf, talked to an advisor and had dinner with my delicious girlfriend. There is no escaping how you’ll feel towards your business but you can be prepare yourself better to deal with the tough times.

What have you found helpful in getting through your tough times? Leave a comment.

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  • http://twitter.com/Stray__Cat Stray__Cat

    Actually I can’t comment. I would do anything not to comment on Jason’s blog. I could do actual work in place of writing nonsense in a small window.
    I was sharp and full of life when I saw it coming through the RSS reader but now, oh boys! ;o)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sid-Labs/100000804868370 Sid Labs

     Awesome one! Have you read Brian Tracy’s EAT THAT FROG?

    • http://appsumo.com noah kagan

      No. How is it? 

      • Andrew

         Very highly recommended

  • http://twitter.com/usabiliTEST Sergey S, CUA

    Nice post. I believe you’re more vested emotionally to your own ideas, less so when it’s a part of your job.

    In fact it happen to me this morning. I launched a BETA and sent a twit looking for beta testers. In the first .5 got two very qualified professional. Nobody for hours later… Like a drug: very high and a major let down hours later.

    Entrepreneurs love the emotional roller-coasters, otherwise why do they keep on riding it all the time?

  • http://www.facebook.com/wilschroter Wil Schroter

    I’m not sure I know a single entrepreneur who doesn’t deal with this form of burn out.  You guys probably read the Elon Musk Wired article a little while back on his ride through the dark times of Tesla, divorce, and so on.  That was a much more severe version of what you’re talking about, but the fact that even Elon deals with the abyss is proof positive that this is very real, and very widespread.

  • http://www.turbo-keys.com Kort Pleco

     I actually had a fight with this yesterday. My girlfriend made an offhand comment that I took the wrong way, so it took me several hours to get back on track. I finally stepped away from the computer, sketched what I was doing on paper (new site design) and that got my inertia back up where I had a very productive day that included moving my site to a new host and getting the new design mostly completed. =)

  • Monji Dolon

    Like most things in life (relationships, fitness, etc), I think it’s a constant mental battle – the ones who can tough it out are the ones that eventually succeed.

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  • http://twitter.com/JeffPfaff Jeff Pfaff

    Thanks Noah.  Authentic and real.  We’re fighting this everyday.  Some days more than others.  It’s nice to see we are not along.  Always a fan of @appsumo:twitter ! 

  • http://twitter.com/ollieflips Ollie

    Enjoyed your post.  I agree, I think if you can understand why you lack motivation, you can short circuit it by the mere act of just ‘pressing on’, however uninteresting, slow or ineffective that feels initially.  Steven Pressfield would call it ‘ignoring the resistance’.

  • http://www.veerwest.com Cedric

    Ups and downs are unavoidable. I found that picking up a startup book (“founders are work” for instance) often works for me in getting me back in the mood. It forces me to step away from the computer and snap off from my unproductive mode without completely disengaging from work.

    Your ‘pinpoint’ comment is what resonated the most with me though. There are many things that are disappointing at one point or another:  low sales, unsuccessful marketing effort, lost customers, broken expectations, etc… and I sometimes fall into an avoidance mode, where if I just don’t look at a report, I can protect myself from harm. Of course, ignoring a problem is the worst thing you can do when running a business. Identifying the issue and coming up with an action plan is how I best recover from a micro-burn.

  • http://www.swaglove.com/blog Casey Schorr

     Great post Noah. It’s refreshing to see someone as confident and successful as yourself going through some of the same issues as the rest of us. One trick I started doing years ago was to *not* look at our daily sales numbers on a daily basis. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but in our business there’s nothing I can do in a single day to affect our numbers, so I try to look about once a week and pit our numbers against our 30, 60, and 90 day plan. I know the other employees and my co-founder look at the numbers daily, so if there was something catastrophic that happened, they’d catch it and let me know. It really helps me concentrate on what’s important- the things that will actually make the needle move have nothing to do with the day’s numbers.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=202413 Shane Walker

     You are not alone brother!

  • Shahar Or

    If you think that you are making stupid apps for stupid people and you’re not in financial hardship and this thought keeps coming up… Then perhaps think about it seriously. Because you _are_ making stupid apps for stupid people. Is this what you want to do for the following undefined time?

  • http://www.EatMedia.com David Cutler

    Mark sent this to me…. solidifying his place as a very good friend.

  • Louissavalli

    I love the tips – I’m figuring out similar strategies for micro burn-out as youv’e discussed.  Especially stepping away, and tackling one thing and seeing how I feel.  I usually find that after one thing, I can do one more, and then one more, and then I get going and feel good.  And if I don’t, which is more rare, I at least got something done.  Crap, the only reason I’m here is because I’m distracting myself from working.  Gotta go. 

    • Louissavalli

      I wanted to add one more thing – if you’re avoiding the “one task”, my strategy is to just determine the first step, and take only that.  And it’s the same as what I said before – after getting the first one done, you get momentum and go to the second, and soon enough you’re through that one task.  I think the “one task” phenomenon that causes us to avoid work and find distractions is popular and familiar.  I’ve been dealing with that for years.

      For me it’s rooted in an avoidance of challenges in general.  By working through it, I found myself succeeding more at work as well as taking on challenges in other aspects of my life that I’d previously avoided.

  • http://twitter.com/justinthiele Justin Thiele

    I’ve definitely been there, and am trying to get better at it.I’ve been using 750words.com for a little while and that helps get stuff out. Similar to the ‘Pinpoint’ tip. 

  • http://about.me/AaronFranklin Aaron Franklin

    Building LazyMeter to help with this problem.  We automate the “visualize” step by automatically creating a playlist for your life each day, and then we show you how much you’ve done so that you feel good at the end of the day.  We think the problem with existing to-do list and task management options is that no matter how much you do, there’s more to be done; in contrast, we’re building the first task processor to set an achievable goal each day.  Apologies for the advertisement, but articles like this are what keep us going each day – we can’t wait to get the product to more users.

  • nxs

      entrepreneurs have add -> bipolar disorder -> ups & downs
    this is what you need, one day you can freak yourself into sth the other day you arent able to do anything productive. 
    a lot of ppl with add are self employed because of their special way of working.
    some cant participate in normal life, but achieve great  things.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Delphin/17502060 Dan Delphin

     It is rare that I ever comment on blog posts, something that I know I should do more, but just don’t end up doing… but I really appreciate this post. I didn’t necessarily think I was the only one experiencing this, but I’m really happy to have found this post on a day like today. I’m not alone! Thanks for the suggestions and keep up the great deals!

  • http://www.gochicorgohome.com/pub/about Cynthia @ Go Chic or Go Home

    This is an awesome post!  Micro-burn-out is very real.  

    When my partner and I were first beta
    testing it was  such a high to see users engaging, but then occasionally
    a handful of invitees would fall flat.  It would drag me down, and then
    in my irrational state I would start to panic about all of the invested
    time and money.  “What if people don’t like our website?!?”  Things are
    in a great place now, but those months of logging on first thing every
    morning (before I even got dressed) and letting what I found set my
    mood, ugh, that was crap.

    As an entrepreneur I find walking away from the computer for even half a
    day to be really difficult.  But after a while I realized that those
    e-mail typos and incomplete thoughts were making me that much less
    productive.  You have to go play disc golf, go for a run, etc in order
    to reboot your brain.  Also, completely agree with the “checklist”
    suggestion.  There is always WAY more to do than can be done, and it can
    feel so overwhelming that you end up bouncing randomly from task to task.  By
    the end of the day it doesn’t feel like anything substantial was
    accomplished, just bits and bites.  As a suggestion for folks, I use
    OmniFocus for day-to-day tasks and Open Atrium (Drupal-based) for PR and marketing
    management. In terms of Omni, the “Getting Things Done” approach is fantastic because it breaks projects into manageable tasks and removes the
    distracting “list” that so many of us have running in our head.

    Great post!!

  • Anton

    Nice…straight talk that works not because it makes sense, but because it is so real.

  • Anonymous

    Noah and Jason, thank you for sharing this. This is a really fantastic article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zaki.mahomed Zaki Mahomed

    wow – hits home

  • http://www.itarsenal.com/ Rob

    doesn’t get any more real than that, thanks Noah

  • B782206

    >> my girlfriends naked back is showing

    Was it really necessary to tell us that you banged your girlfriend last night?  In the opening paragraph?   How is that relevant here?

    • Dritzominous

      It’s a sensual visualization; it captivates the reader. 

    • Dritzominous

      It’s a sensual visualization; it captivates the reader. 

    • fomalhaut

      In my experience, sleeping with a naked girl doesn’t imply having sex with her.  Wish it had, though, but trust me –living a couple of years with someone can make wonders you wouldn’t believe when you’re 23 ;)

    • fomalhaut

      In my experience, sleeping with a naked girl doesn’t imply having sex with her.  Wish it had, though, but trust me –living a couple of years with someone can make wonders you wouldn’t believe when you’re 23 ;)

      • asmartbear.com

        This is so true. =X  Just wait until you’ve been married a year or two.  You go from having sex every other night to once a week, then once every two weeks, then after a while, she just forgets when we last had sex because it’s been so long.  BUT I NEVER FORGET.

    • Anonymous

      forever alone eh?

    • Caesium

      forever alone, huh b872206. dont hate. i rather liked the reference as it reminded me of my morning. 

      mmm good.

    • Wxl51

      Wow! If that’s all you can comment on I feel sorry for you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Flameater Emerald Waters

      Could be the reason for the depression :D

    • Dude

      err, he’s telling a story… *that’s what happened*

      i can understand how someone like you who will never wake up to a naked back might be upset  by this though

  • Jonathan

    I go through the same, and have for every company I have built. It’s not bipolar, it’s the opposite of total concentration. I just work through it, but sometimes have to excuse myself and take a hike. Literally. It’s something I find especially difficult as I often hit this period right after big success, or when I hit my goals. It always seemed like odd timing.

    My compliments for braving this post.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Interesting point about the timing being after a positive; I’ve experienced the same.

      Theory: Now that a big thing is “done,” you’re faced with picking the next big thing. And you just spent all that effort on the last thing. It’s daunting and the path is unclear; bad combo.

      Also there’s the anti-climax behind any big achievement.  After selling a company you don’t feel as amazing as you thought.  After playing a massive stadium, bands often report feeling depressed, because they realize that “this is as big as it’s going to get.”

      What you’re saying isn’t quite as grandiose but could be a smaller version of the same effect.

      • http://www.gochicorgohome.com/pub/about Cynthia @ Go Chic or Go Home

        Great point about how “wins” can sometimes bring on the blues.  I’ve experienced this on two occasions with our company  – after reaching 2 significant milestones.  I also felt down the day after completing my first marathon.  Post-race blues are common, albeit counterintuitive.  

        I think it’s the cliff effect.  You push and push to accomplish something, and then the momentum falls right off a cliff.  Your daily sense of purpose (with respect to the event, company, etc) vanishes.  Most folks need a sense of purpose to drive them so when it’s suddenly taken away the emotional effects can be negative.

  • http://thomasknoll.info thomasknoll

    Noah! As always, I appreciate your candor.

    I have ditched my to-do list, for a do list. I just write down what I am doing and check it off as soon as I’m done. If I begin to get distracted from my current task by a nagging thought of something I don’t want to forget, I’ll jot it down on the do-list quick, but get back to my task. And, then I either work on that nagging task next, or file it off into the proper queue. 

    At the end of every day, I get to look at a DONE list. And then I write down the *one* thing I want to do tomorrow. 

  • http://pattygolsteijn.nl Patty Golsteijn

    This happened to me recently as well. It lasted a few days/weeks with different days. I was completely bummed out, because I had no idea what was happening to me. It’s really great to see that I’m not the only one. 

    I did a few things to try to get over this: I talked to someone. Just to talk really and get things out of my head. Also, I started to let things go. I stopped focusing on feeling this bad and trying to find out why this was happening and then I just accepted it was there. I felt better immediately. Then I started to do something small from my to do list which helped me find back some productivity and feeling good about that. I continued from there.

    Worst thing though is that you don’t know if it’s something temporary or if it’s going to last and that you should actually see a professional about it. 

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  • http://www.corporatepreneur.com Dale

    Dang makes me want to meet his girlfriend.

    • http://appsumo.com noah kagan

      She’s hot :) 

      Didn’t realize people would comment so much on the girlfriend thing. 

  • http://nononsensemusclebuilding20.com/ Mike Lyons

    I found that forgetting about the current project for a few days and starting another small one or doing some updates for an old one helps me relax and fight the stress away. Also having friends around or plating with my dog are fantastic mood changers…

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  • http://twitter.com/jeremyhamel jeremyhamel

    Great post Noah!!!  I know I talked with you about this not to long ago, it so important to me to be very productive each day and when that doesn’t happen I get super down.  Stepping away to go to the gym or  meet friends for drinks always helps…and talking to people like you of course!!

  • http://over40innovator.blogspot.com Roger Toennis

    Yes. Like today. I just burned out of the micro burn though by calling 3 people on my team and pumping positive energy and appreciation on them. It reflects back on you and you feel better.

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  • MatchLites

    OMG, people are tripping on the girlfriend thing.  I mean, I personally do not agree with sleeping or living with a girl before marriage but I don’t freaking care about that, I am not his judge!!!!! I mean, this is absolutely the best article I have seen written ever, no joke!!!!! I respect people for being open, honest, and freaking straight to the point. Keep pumping them out Noah!

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  • Shaney

    Love the blog.. but have to say… now I feel even worse! 

    My ‘done’ list  has ‘successfully avoided doing anything’ on it.

    You guys are all talking about how you have got/get out of your micro burns by doing stuff …  I am really happy for you…,  but I am still stuck in…

    ” This is all really really exciting,  it might actually work… can I pull it off?  YEs… but quick…do something else…. anything else!”

    I think I need a mentor/life coach!  Thank you Noah for the suggestion!

  • Bootstrapbob

    Hey, one of the best posts I have ever read. Super-realistic and no holds barred.

    Any entrepreneur who say he/she doesnt feel like this from time to time is lying. Period.

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  • Alen

    If you want to be a success, owning your own business can be a very rewarding endeavor but, owning your own franchise takes the guessing game out of it.  Someone already made the blue print to follow, so all you need to do is follow the plan.
      I speak from experience.  My company, Hardtops, was listed as one of the top 150 business opportunities to beat the recession by Home Business Magazine.
    I say be your OWN boss!  Own your own franchise.  The Business Opportunity Program at Hard Tops allows you to open your own bathtub refinishing or countertop resurfacing distributorship immediately.  Only an 8-day training session, personally see how your trainer runs his business on a daily basis, including sales and marketing; with one-on-one training. Start out right with the knowledge, experience, and tools to be a success at owning your own business.  I’ve got all the information available for review at http://www.hardtops.com/business-opportunity.com if you want to learn more. 
    There’s also a pretty good article about the kitchen and bathroom remodeling industry at http://EzineArticles.com/6287572.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timidkoreanboy Albert Hahn

    Awesome post… I translated some of the main points for the Korean audience in my blog.  

    One concept in Korean culture that struck me as the functional equivalent of a “life coach” is that of a “mentor” (스승, or “seu seung” in Korean)– and having one is something I found to be invaluable in those times I am feeling completely out of gas.

    In any case, thanks!

  • http://e-healthtips.net e-healthtips.net

    entrepreneurs have add -> bipolar disorder -> ups & downs
    this is what you need, one day you can freak yourself into sth the other day you arent able to do anything productive.

  • http://twitter.com/TrentInfield Trent Infield

    I read this post after listening to Noah’s Mixergy interview so I feel like I can really relate to Noah’s story. I think the most telling part of the post was that the depression was tied with being unproductive. I know that in my experience a lack of productivity breeds more of itself and that stepping away and then doing the “one task” is a solid remedy. Even better is reaching out and doing a task not on your to do list so you feel like you have power over your tasks and not the other way around

  • Wes

    - I’ve experienced the same problem in B2B sales.  During the first 5 years of my career how good I felt directly correlated to what my sales number for the month looked like.  Even if I was number one in the company YTD if my numbers for the month were bad I didn’t feel fulfilled.  I think this is something 99% of high performers deal with and the solution is to recognize the problem and come to a point where you can say WTF.  My personal happiness is more important than money or recognition.

    – When I was doing well I would also get tripped up on parts of the job I hated doing but felt I could do more efficiently than others.  I’ve learned to focus more on the aspects of the job I enjoy.  If I find myself in a funk I will delegate all of the work I hate doing for a few days or a week.  I’ll go do the parts I am passionate about and be grateful I can make a living doing things I enjoy.  I also realize getting away for a few weeks a year is a MUST for high performers.

  • http://blog.asmartbear.com/rand-take-money.html nicole

    Working online can be quite tough, especially when you can’t be sure if something will work. When you fail, it tends to be tough to get back on the high horse and go back to work. I know, I’ve been there. I think we all need to take a deep breath, and just move on. Failing is part of learning, we all do it. 

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