I’ve embarked on a new adventure as CEO & Cofounder of Referly – a startup that is helping anyone earn rewards for referring products they love and generating purchases. We are in the YCombinator class this summer. Learn more at http://refer.ly
Lately I’ve been waking up really early, and working “farmer hours” (StarCraft caster reference – there are farmers who have 9-to-5 schedules, and gamers who get up late and stay up late). It started back in October when I made my first extended trip to London to launch Twilio into the European market, and then I would come back and keep the early morning schedule so I would be awake to talk with the team and partners I was assembling. I needed an alarm clock at first, and I would set it for 6am and 7:15am.
If I woke up at 6am and felt good, I’d hop out of bed. If I woke up and felt crappy (usually if I’d had some drinks the night before) I would get up, brush my teeth and wash my face, and give myself permission to go back to bed until the next alarm. I used the 2nd alarm only 3 times in the first two weeks. Something strange happened.
I started waking up naturally, before my 6am alarm. I woke up feeling good, and I really prefer waking up without the blaring sound of an alarm so I was able to gracefully put my mind and body together. The most amazing thing, when you work in tech, is that from 6am to 9am NOTHING HAPPENS. Of course there is news, but there are few emails or phone calls that you’re expect to handle during that time. None of your employees or coworkers are awake. You’re completely free to do whatever you want, for a solid 2-3 hours.
I also have a healthy disdain for mortality – and I truly appreciate now what adults used to say when I asked them why they got up so early. “I can rest when I’m dead” is the refrain. My previous sleep schedule had me getting up between 8am and 10am (with multiple alarms) and going to bed around 1am. My schedule now has me getting up at 6am or earlier (without an alarm) and going to bed to at 11pm. I always believed I was one of those people who just needs 9 hours of sleep, but I am now easily rested on 6-7 per night and reclaiming 2-3 hours a day. So assuming I’ve reclaimed 2 hours of waking hours that is 730 hours a year – and I use about half of that time to do work, so I’ve given myself about 45 more 8-hour workdays in a year. More time to hustle!
I adhere to this schedule 7 days a week – I don’t see the weekend as a time to “catch up on sleep” as many people do. Partly that is because I don’t really have a weekend and haven’t for many years while doing startups – Referly is the third in a row. Saturdays are the “light day” on our team, but for me I find it much easier to just get up the same time every day. On the weekends I let myself waste time on sites like People.com or Pinterest, which I severely limit during the week (thanks to RescueTime which helps me monitor my social media use and make sure I am using it in a goal directed way for the business). I also tend to use the weekend early hours to catch up on all the feeds I have set up on Flipboard, or stuff I’ve saved through the week to read about the industry/competitors/etc.
I had another habit I wanted to break – checking my phone for texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, and news as soon as I woke up. I wanted to stop doing this because it pulled me into the reactive world of other people’s needs, focuses, and demands on my sacred morning hours. I got a dopamine hit from scrolling through all the tweets mentioning “Twilio” overnight, and on rough mornings looking at that was great motivation to get out of bed. But it was becoming a crutch. I needed something else to look forward to in the morning that was more internal.
We moved from SOMA to Potrero Hill 3 months ago (and just moved to Mountain View this weekend), and both places offer something I didn’t have in SOMA – a place to safely take a long walk before dawn. For me, early morning sunlight and birdsong feeds my soul. I don’t entirely know why it is so soothing, but I spent the first 19 years of my life with nature in my day-to-day routine and I don’t think I considered the impact of moving somewhere so urban. When I was a kid, my mother would clip roses in the front yard wearing her robe and slippers soaked through with dew, and a coffee cup. She was always so proud of her fresh vase of fragrant blooms on the table, and I see now that this was her morning ritual before my sister and I woke up and made the house crazy with our energy.
My routine was simple, roll out of bed and throw on the nearest sweatshirt, walk down the huge hill to Starbucks and grab breakfast, walk halfway up the hill and sit on the stoop of the pilates studio and watch the sun rise over Oakland, walk home and sit on the fire escape drinking coffee for 10-20 minutes and think about anything (basically meditate).
Adrenaline & Stress
Waking up stressed out is the worst – its great to have a sense of urgency around the day, but I went through periods where I was so anxious to get started on work that I would literally make myself sick. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think about when you wake up late for a flight or a really important test or meeting and that wave of disgusting panic rolls through your stomach and makes your body shake. A few times it was so bad that it would quite literally bring me to my knees.
The most annoying thing about this, is that it gets in the way of exactly what you want to do: get to work! I really have no idea how many people are afflicted by this feeling, and for me it tends to come and go with how much other pressure I have to deliver on business goals, but I did talk about it with a handful of people and discovered several successful people who suffer from this overblown sense of urgency first thing in the morning. The best analogy someone gave me to work with is that adrenaline, once in your bloodstream, is like any other powerful drug you can take — you need to learn how to trip. Once your body has dispensed you a jolting dose you really have no choice, so you can either enjoy the ride or exhaust yourself by fighting it. Much easier said than done, but here is what works for me and of course I am not a psychologist and your mileage may vary:
0. Preventative – make peace with the limitations of time and your body -if you are giving 14 hours of work plus active monitoring and engagement to your startup online then you are maxing out. If you feel like this isn’t propelling you forward then re-assess *what* you are doing, don’t blame it on *how much*.
1. Forgive Yourself – you wake up a ball of stress, heart pounding, hands sweating and thoughts immediately fly to “ugh not this again, why can’t I just get control of myself and this won’t happen anymore…” you have to let it go. You are already in this, don’t pit your mind or body against itself. But how to let it go?
2. Talk to Yourself – You need something to occupy your mind while you quickly get through the rituals of getting ready for the day – I am a big fan of talking to yourself. Stop worrying about if your spouse or roommates will think you’re crazy – you ARE going a little crazy, and this can help. Things I talk to myself about range a lot, but most of them are topics that I can easily get lost in that distract me from my stress: practice introduction of myself and company – even going so far as to mock interview myself, practice a talk I’m working on and extemporaneously come up with next content, talk through my plan for the day, week, sprint, launch etc. in step by step detail, describe in detail something I saw or learned recently.
3. Triage the Damage – Generally my anxiety falls into two camps: things I can control (yay!) and things I can’t control (damnit!) which means that for the things I can control there are actions I can take, and I need to capture what those might be so that they can become work items. But the bigger thing is to deal with the things you can’t control. Anxiety isn’t a freak accident, its your bodies way of throwing up a major red flag – and its going to keep throwing it up until you acknowledge it. Things you can’t control might be: a conversation that you had that went poorly, a situation you wish you could go back and handle differently, a sense of foreboding about a decision that was made where you felt a red flag but didn’t raise it, an argument you had that you fear damaged an important relationship irreparably.
4. Apologies & Thank Yous – (This section could be a whole blog post on its own) So imagine you’ve triaged the stuff you can change, and that’s in your working queue and you’re on your way to the office feeling much more composed. Don’t forget the last step – now you have this nagging frustration with something you wish you could redo/undo. For this example let’s say I lead a team brainstorm session last night, and now I am worried I marginalized the concerns of one of my team members in the interest of getting to action items faster. I’m concerned that I sent a message to the entire team that I’m not actually looking for their creative ideas, and that I’ve got my own agenda and just want them to rubber stamp it. Ugh – these are the worst, when actions and intentions don’t line up.
I’ve been an employee and managed people for over 10 years now, and it is a humbling thing. I’ve resolved hundreds of conflicts, had hundreds of really difficult conversations, given and received painful but true negative feedback, and one common thread that runs though a lot of this is a need for better appreciation on both sides of the table. As a manager, I need to make sure I’m saying thank you often [for something meaningful and specific] and “I apologize” [and clarifying intent vs. action] occasionally (instead of never). Its not weak to say you’re sorry. Its honest. Being honest is the best possible way to earn and keep the respect of the team.
So that’s great as a manager, but what about as an employee? The same rules apply but with a twist. If you aren’t getting the appreciation or treatment you believe is right, you need to ask for it. Take an active role in the relationship with your manager and let that person know how they can win your trust and respect. Conversations like “I felt that when you said _______ you didn’t understand/appreciate/listen/etc. and that makes it difficult for me to do my job” or “I am working hard on _______ and want to make sure I’ve shown you how its make an impact against [some goal]” are awkward, but they need to happen. Especially – ESPECIALLY – in a startup with a bunch of 20-somethings who have never managed let alone been employees until 2 years ago. This is basically “managing up”.
I remember being a little kid and crying when my Mom told me to “go say you’re sorry to your sister for pulling her hair”. I also remember my parents had to remind me to say thank you, and I could be really stubborn. That kind of mystifies me now, and I see other young kids do it, but saying sorry and thank you get a lot easier now that I do them a lot more often.
Don’t Waste a Single Moment
I’ve seen the incredible power of time passing and the importance of the small choices we make every day. Its crazy to realize the success or failure of a company is a collection of days and the things we decided to do or not do on those days. But that’s it. It really is like poker or chess – trying not to make mistakes that will undermine days, weeks, years of effort. Trying to take our days, weeks, years and make them add up to something meaningful. We are what we focus on. Never have I seen this more clearly than at Twilio, where the company’s ability to focus and move toward several goals with singular determination is what makes it so formidable. I will spend my entire life working to build companies like that, because in that environment you never feel your effort is wasted.
Things that look like small actions can be huge in sum, and every moment is another chance to turn it all around.
Waking up early has changed my life. By reclaiming a couple hours a day I can take the time to be thoughtful, solitary, and answer the hardest questions. Edit: I can also fall asleep at night (though I still struggle sometimes), knowing I have reached the physical limit of what I can achieve in a day and that I have maximized my opportunity to win. When I am unsure what is next, I can work through it with a little less pressure from the outside world. And when I know exactly what I need to do, you will never catch up to me.