When my alarm goes off an hour before sunrise, I’m always deeply asleep and I never spring out of bed, full of energy, ready to face the day.
But I get up, change into my exercise gear, and drive to meet my personal trainer, Maddie, no matter how I feel.
I don’t do it because I have a will of iron, a healthy diet and at least eight hours of sleep a night. I do it because I know Maddie’s also woken up early and left her husband and young son asleep to meet me in the dark and make me move my body. I’m her only client at 6am and if I’m not there on time I’ve let her down, left her standing alone in the dark, thinking about what a lazy bastard I am and how much she’d like to be back in bed right now.
It’s because I want to avoid that guilt that I get out of bed at that time twice a week. It’s a life hack I use to make sure I get some exercise, and that at least two nights a week, I’m much less likely to work or go out late the night before, much less likely to drink alcohol, and much more likely to get to bed before 11pm.
Over the years I’ve learned that external accountability (being accountable to Maddie, or my cofounder, or my board, or my son, or my Forever Girlfriend) helps keep me, if not on the right track, then at least on a better track than I would be otherwise.
The exercise I wouldn’t do otherwise, and the sleep, diet and work/life balance changes that arise from needing to be ready to exercise, help me be more resilient: I can draw down on those reserves, when I need to.
When I’m part of a team, I try to work with my teammates to find the life hacks that will help them become more resilient too.
One important trait to develop is a growth mindset — believing that your abilities and intelligence can be developed through effort and learning, rather than being fixed traits. With a growth mindset, you and your team will be better able to handle challenges and setbacks, and continue to learn and grow from your experiences.
Habits you need
The first habit to develop is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable because you’re aware that you’re not great at this, yet. Most of us come out of the education system and a few years of work experience feeling like we’re a competent professional. But startups need from us many skills we haven’t developed yet, and experiences we haven’t had. For you, those might be software engineering and brand marketing — for me it’s always been financial management and sales process.
When I feel discomfort because I know I’m not great at what I’m doing, that’s because I’m working on developing a new skill, and through practicing that new skill, I’m developing important experience in that area.
I may not ever be the in-house General Counsel of my startup but knowing a little about the law will help me work with lawyers, just as learning a little basic software development might help me brief and manage the software engineers I will eventually need to hire. When I’m uncomfortable, that’s not a sign I need to stop until I find someone to be my cofounder, it’s a sign I’m learning to become a better founder.
Another important trait is self-awareness. This means being aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how they may impact others. By being self-aware, you and your team can better manage your emotions, communicate effectively, and build stronger relationships.
Being open about what you learn from developing better self-awareness can help you figure out what areas you need to be uncomfortable with next, and it can also help you become more coachable — a valuable trait if I’m looking at you and your startup with an interest in your application to join an accelerator program, or potentially investing in your company.
In addition to developing these traits, there are also habits you and your team can adopt to help build emotional and physical resilience.
As I touched on before, an important habit is regular exercise. Exercise improves mood, reduce stress, and boosts overall physical health. Encouraging your team to prioritise regular exercise can help support their emotional and physical resilience, and the best ways to do this is to lead by example and to adjust processes and availability to make space and time for them to exercise.
Another important habit is regular self-care. This means taking care of your own physical, emotional, and mental health. This can include activities like getting enough sleep, eating well, practicing mindfulness, and setting aside time for relaxation and fun.
Everybody’s self-care practices will be different, but while you tell yourself that bingeing an entire series while smashing down a jumbo sized serving of junk food and then sleeping in until midday is not actually self-care. For me, it’s playing a musical instrument, going for a trail run, or some time spent bodysurfing. If I sleep better, for longer, afterward, it’s self-care. If I wake up exhausted, hung-over or unready to face the next day, it probably hasn’t really been self-care I’ve been doing.
By taking care of yourself and encouraging your team to do the same, you can better manage stress and maintain your emotional and physical well-being.
2 essential principles
In my own life and career, I’ve found two principles to be essential in cultivating my growth mindset and developing healthy physical and emotional self-care habits: finding someone to be accountable to, and measuring metrics.
Getting into the habit of measuring and being accountable for key metrics helps with my growth mindset because most of the processes in my business are multi-stage and the final goal may be weeks, months or even a year away from where I am today. But I won’t get there unless I make forward progress every day. So if I’m only counting the achievement of my end goal as “success” then, knowing myself, I probably won’t have the determination to stick with the process for that long — I need something on a shorter time scale.
By measuring all the key metrics that lead to the achievement of my final goal, I can break my startup’s ‘Everest campaign’ of startup success into a series of ‘ridge-top ascents’ that I can measure and establish some sub-goals for. Maybe I can pay attention to how long it takes me to lug equipment and food up from Camp One to Camp Two, and since I’ll have to do that ten or twenty times in the course of a climbing season, if I get faster over time, that’s positive progress — something I can use as motivation and inspiration.
Most of us can benefit from creating situations in which we’re being held accountable to someone, and we care about not letting that person down.
Break a large project or a long journey such as learning a new skill, improving your fitness, raising a round or closing a first customer into a set of smaller ‘ridge ascents’ that you repeat frequently, and in a way that you can measure your key metrics.
Report on your metrics to the person you’ve chosen to be accountable to, whether that’s your cofounder, your team, your spouse or life partner, your mum, your investors or your board of directors.
A chain is only as weak as its weakest link and a team is only as strong as its least-accountable team member, so once you’re practicing healthy accountability, it’s time to start sharing those habits across your team.
Most people will need frequent reinforcement in order to develop a new habit, and most will respond best if given the opportunity to respond to positive rewards as well as negative feedback for failing to be held accountable or achieve the baseline key metrics they’ve agreed to.
I also believe that the weakest link will never get stronger on its own. The way to get the least-accountable team member up to the performance of the rest of the team is to make the rest of the team accountable for getting them there. Don’t let anybody define themselves as being “the person who always lets the rest of the team down”.
Make sure that the rest of the team work together to make sure that person becomes our inspiration, not our sea anchor.
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