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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The Worst Parts of Start-up Life (and How to Work Through Them)

We all hear the attractive things about starting your own company or joining an early-stage start-up: Follow your passion and live the life you want to! Sell for $1B and spend the rest of your days like a rock star! You don’t have to wear pantyhose ever again!

And we hear about the very obvious drawbacks of start-up life: the initial pay cuts, the long hours, and the possibility of living on the streets in sweatpants if your company fails. But there’s a whole slew of smaller issues that pretty much no one talks about. I had certainly never heard about them before I co-founded our interior design start-up, Havenly—but I’ve experienced every one since.

So, here’s the scoop. If you’re thinking of taking the leap and founding or working for a start-up, here’s your insider’s look into some of the worst things about this way of life—and the solutions that’ll help you get through.

Start Up Life Exaggerates Your ADD (Even if You Don’t Have It)

Every morning, I spend at least 45 minutes feeling like a lost puppy, with my mind wandering in 20 different directions, trying to figure out what I have to do first. The number of things that end up on my plate on any given day is so daunting that it’s almost natural to not get anything done at all since I don’t know where to start. And when I do finally pick a project and get to it? Two dozen other things suddenly get sent my way.

The biggest thing I’ve learned that helps to manage the juggling act is to become serious about prioritizing. As simple as this may sound, the to-do list has quite possibly saved my life (or at least my blood pressure levels). Every morning, I make a detailed list of every single thing that is on my plate for that day, big or small. That way, I have a visual aid that I can scan down and use to help prioritize my daily tasks.

I also make sure to set a schedule. When we first kicked off, I worked from home, so it was easy for me to slide down the slippery slope of going with the flow when it came to my daily routine. Some days I’d get up early and get to work, others I’d sleep in or start my morning with an episode of Pretty Little Liars. Some days I’d take a break in the middle of the day to work out or run errands, and others I’d work straight from 8 AM to 7 PM. The point is, I had no structure to my days—and it wasn’t working.

Even if you are your own boss, set a task schedule in your calendar outlining when you’ll work (and what you’ll work on) and when you’ll stop. It will prevent you from having to constantly make decisions about how you should be spending your time, and it will infinitely help with your focus and productivity.

Life Ambiguity is Stressful, Even for the Best of Us

When you sign up for a start-up, especially an early-stage one, there’s no way to know what will happen. Even if you have a fabulous idea and you’ve raised a ton of money, it still might fail and you’ll be out of a job (remember There also may be new ambiguity in your personal life: I’ve moved four times in order to do what’s best for the business.

No matter how strong or independent you consider yourself to be, it is hard for anyone to live in this state of constant ambiguity. And if you’re a founder, you are responsible for the job security, health insurance plans, and overall well-being of the team that you lead. It’s easy for this unknown future to freak you out a little bit.

My advice here is simple: Take it all one day at a time. Breathe. Talk to someone you know who has gone through the start-up crunch before (in my case, it’s my father). Take a break. These basic relaxation techniques are easy to scoff at, especially if you’re someone with a strong work ethic, but they’re invaluable to your sanity.

Nobody Will “Get” It

If you’ve chosen to work for a start-up, I know that you care deeply about what you’re doing and think your company serves the most obvious need in the world. But as much as your mission may resonate with you, there are plenty of people out there who won’t understand what you’re doing. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me, “Oh, that’s not going to work,” or, “You left your job for that?”

It can be hard to see a great idea from the outside. If the guys from Twitter had asked me in 2006 what I thought about a social media site where you only were allowed to post 140-character messages, I would have laughed in their faces. Wouldn’t you?

So, how do you deal with these people? I would highly suggest not slapping them (only for possible legal ramifications), but this situation is actually an easy one to combat: Don’t listen to anyone. Just let the criticisms roll over you. They’ll only distract you from what you have going on.

I know—easier said than done right? The naysayers and critics can really get to you, and you probably have some nagging doubts about your business yourself! If you’re having trouble letting go, try setting a specific time to address it. Someone once told me to set aside 20 minutes every Sunday to doubt yourself and deal with criticism—and then spend the rest of the week running as fast as you can toward your goal.

Start-up life certainly has its ups and downs, but in the end it’s worth it to see something that you’re so passionate about become a reality. And if you’re aware of the challenges you’re going to face—and have a plan for dealing with them—you’ll be on your way to start-up success.

Photo of woman at start-up courtesy of Shutterstock.