Why ditching ‘founder guilt’ is an act of self-care for your startup

As a founder, you are the driving force behind your business. Particularly in the beginning, the lines between non-work and work life become very blurred, with all of your available time and energy consumed by juggling the myriad roles and responsibilities which fall your way.

Our self-worth as founders can become tied to the success of the startup – and this can take its toll. But we’re only human and running at full speed 24/7 is not sustainable in the long run. Over time, it can leave you feeling burnt out, and can have a significant impact on your wellbeing. A staggering 92% of entrepreneurs report struggling with their mental health. Yet, when we take a step back to reset and recharge, we’re often hit with an equally debilitating feeling: guilt. 

When launching my own startup, ‘founder guilt’ threatened to rear its ugly head whenever I considered taking time out to tend to my own wellbeing or spend time with friends and family. With so much to be done to get thymia off the ground, sparing even a few minutes for myself didn’t always feel possible. thymia always took priority, which made the balancing act of work and home life difficult to maintain. 

I’m a neuroscientist by trade, so I know that ignoring stress and keeping yourself constantly switched on leads you straight down a path to burnout. To fend off founder guilt and keep burnout at bay, I knew that I needed to set firm, non-negotiable boundaries that would protect my time and help me balance my own wellbeing and the hustle of the startup world.

Here’s my advice on setting boundaries and absolving yourself of founder guilt for good.

Keep a designated ‘work outfit’

Physical distance creates mental distance. Crossing a physical boundary and entering a new environment actively resets your thinking (this is also one of the reasons you may sometimes forget why you entered a room or went down the stairs!).

When it comes to creating a strong physical separation between ‘work’ and ‘play’, the easiest first step is to try to set a separate environment in which you work, such as an external office or a separate room in your home. However, if like me, you are not lucky enough to have a completely separate workspace at home, there are some other simple hacks you can use to create those physical boundaries.

Try limiting work to just one area, like the kitchen table, and when you are not at the table, make sure you are not working. Set aside specific outfits to wear for work and change into your relaxation clothes the moment you finish. On my phone, I have a separate ‘work profile’ which connects me to my work emails, calendar, and Slack messages. At the end of the day, I switch the profile off (and it requires a password to switch it back on so I don’t accidentally ‘just check my emails’ when I should be relaxing). I’ve even found that keeping a designated ‘work mug’ helps me click back into work mode whenever I return to my desk. 

Find what works for you and stick to it. Building these associations over time will help your brain to switch off much more easily when you need to take a step back. And whatever you do, don’t work in bed!

Define yourself with other attributes

One of the reasons founders can find it hard to switch off can be that we tend to define ourselves by our role. If you think of yourself predominantly as a founder, then subconsciously you can feel the need to be constantly working on your startup in order to live up to your title. But finding other attributes to define yourself with can help you to commit to taking time out. For instance, you may also like to play music, go out hiking, or simply curl up with a really great book. You are not just a startup founder; all of your other interests also deserve your time.

Don’t be afraid to hit your OOO

Just as building your own physical boundaries between work and play can help you switch off and get the most out of your rest, signalling your break to others and guarding against interruptions is equally important. 

Even when we’ve stepped away from our desk, it can be impossibly tempting to ‘just check that one email’ – especially if you’re getting notifications sent straight to your phone. But it’s a slippery slope. Being constantly connected can prevent you from properly switching off, making it much harder to manage stress in the long term. 

Enforcing radio silence will feel selfish at first, but it will give you thinking distance and time to genuinely refuel. Evidence shows that your brain continues problem solving for you in the background. Giving it the time and space to do this might just lead to a lightbulb moment for that problem you’ve been grappling with all week. You can turn on your OOO guilt-free – you’ll thank yourself later! 

Make plans with your non-startup friends

There is no doubt that surrounding yourself with a reliable group of fellow founders can provide an invaluable source of support and advice when you’re launching your own startup. But spending time regularly with your non-startup friends is just as vital. 

These friends can act as a portal to the other areas of your life that you might be neglecting while focusing on your startup. And it can stop you from constantly comparing yourself to other founders’ success or feeling guilty for not working at the same rate as them. 

Practise what you preach

Your team looks to you for leadership, and this is just as true when it comes to wellbeing. Setting your own boundaries, and encouraging your team to do the same, can help build a positive, transparent culture, in which every colleague feels valued and supported. 

The startup world moves fast, and it can be incredibly difficult to slow down as a founder. But taking a step back and setting non-negotiable boundaries that enable you to do this without feeling guilty, is vital. Not only will it help fuel your creativity and recharge your batteries so you can work at your best, but it will support you to more easily manage the stress that comes with the rollercoaster ups and downs of building a business. Actively tackling founder guilt is an act of self-care, not only for yourself but for your business too.