How choosing to be overworked makes being overworked more bearable.

It’s 4am and I’m sitting here with my laptop, trying to think of how to describe being a woman who co-runs a tech start up. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the flu, last night my wife went up to bed while I stayed downstairs running last-minute tests on a new user interface and I’ve somehow got to write three articles in amongst my back-to-back meetings today. I’ve been up this early every morning for the past three weeks working on side projects I can’t seem to stay away from and teaching myself to code so I can do my job better.

It’s intense: somewhere on the spectrum between “I’m not quite qualified for my job” and “My baby is three weeks old”. Unlike having a baby though, this is not a lifetime thing. Every morning, I get to repeat this truth to myself: “This is the life I am choosing. If I don’t like it, at any point, I can stop it. Get a job. Do something else. I’m in control of how I spend my day”. Some mornings that sounds like calm optimism. Sometimes it sounds like a half- crazed invitation to anarchy. But it always feels powerful and freeing. See, running a tech start up is full on. I get bored easily so I like intensity, but I’ve hit burn-out before so it’s important for me to feel like I have an ‘out’.

At university, I embraced intensity so hard I got sick. Like proper sick. My brain and body just sort of…gave up. After six months of shrinks, doctors, nutritionists and failing papers, the cleanest way out was to swap cities. My next move? I transferred to Auckland Uni, then promptly got sick again. Good one, me. After that auspicious start, working 80hr weeks in Advertising should’ve rung some alarm bells but, you know, I was still tiny and I loved how hard-core it all felt. Every campaign was crucial. Every ad was the best thing anyone had ever done. Babies were probably going to die if we didn’t win pitches. You get the idea.

So I got sick again. This time though, I got made redundant, just in time, and finally Got It. You can’t live that way. It’s not sustainable. The last six years of owning and running businesses has taught me that you can have intensity in a safe way. You can take risks, jump of cliffs and feel like everything is scary and exciting all day long. But there are two newish rules I’ve implemented to protect against that scary body-shut-down thing:

First, when I feel the pressure rising, I make myself take a couple of hours to map out a realistic alternative to my current situation. What if I just quit? What else could I do? What would I get paid? How much would I like it?

By the end of this mapping, I always come to the same conclusion: I love my business, the problem I’m facing is fixable and I don’t want that other stupid job anyway. You know how people say marriage is about waking up everyday and deciding you want to be with the other person? It’s kind of like that.

The second rule is to keep things in perspective.

My wife (who doesn’t actually have to go to bed alone all that often) is a big believer in naming The Worst Case Scenario. Facing down a big risk? What does the worst case scenario look like? Having a really shitty time? Let’s just change it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? And you know what? The worst case scenario’s almost never that bad. So you lose everything you own and move in with your mum in Hawkes Bay. The weather’s great there! Our baby will get to grow up with chickens and ducks! We don’t need to own all that stuff we have anyway – there are polar ice-caps melting people! My business is important to me. Desperately so. But let’s face it, if it goes under I’m not going to die. No-one I care about is going to die. And the lessons you’d learn if your business went under? Better than any business degree could teach you.

Anyway, Richard Branson says you’re not successful until you’ve lost a million dollars so you know, there’s that.

I love learning and working in the tech start-up word. It’s exciting watching girls start to demand and deliver a bigger, more noisy presence in this weirdly male-dominated world. I love having business partners to share the adventure with. Mostly though, I love how business has taught me to value my own attention. I choose what I spend my time on – that decision is all mine. If that means I want to create a bit more intensity by getting up at 4am every morning so I can give that attention to more things, that’s my choice to own.

And that’s empowering.


Written by Keren Phillips