Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click here.
I am not a successful entrepreneur. I do not know the secret to life. I know that I love what I do but struggle with feeling content and balanced.
I'd ask other entrepreneurs about their advice and they would say within seconds you need to unplug or take a vacation, but applying that is difficult for me—I don't want to figure out the right way to take a break, I want to figure out how to appreciate the present moment.
I'm not an aspiring buddhist or a zen master either. I want to win, I want to be the best, I want to make some people feel stupid for not believing in us, and I love being at the front of the eternal fight that is a startup. But the counterbalance of the fight was difficult to find.
From all the research done about suicide and depression, the greatest predictor may be one simple thing: weather. There are higher suicide rates in places that have the least sunlight. So getting the most sunlight possible seemed like an optimal step for increasing my daily happiness.
The first time I woke up at 4 a.m. to try this, my mind was in a completely different place with a completely foreign feeling. I had a completely different initiative: To make the World’s Best Omelette. Like actually take my time with it and take pride in it. This was something I could have never done before.
If I had to boil this down to why I felt focused and unhurried at this time: Not one person is expecting anything from you in the next 4 hours. So the ability to appreciate the task at hand and thinking creatively seemed natural.
What I was depriving myself from was time in the day where there was no pressure and no expectations. For the same reasons that I felt most creative on Saturday mornings and on planes, 4 a.m. has become a place of productive peace. That feeling is why I love what I do. I don't need a vacation. I don't need to step away. I just need a couple hours a day before anyone else is up.
I can't quantify this feeling. Ben Huh of Cheezeburger.com openly talks about his suicidal thoughts when his first startup didn’t work from the pressure he put on himself. When I asked him about what makes him happy now, he cited a book called Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the "optimal experience" and what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of skill-expanding consciousness appropriately enough called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.
And when I asked our Philosophy PhD-turned-VC why I felt most productive on a plane, he opened his Moleskine to the opening cover where he had this quote from Pascal pasted: "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." In other words, not being able to go anywhere cuts away the need to think about new stimuli—and finally allows us to focus.
Making an omelette, coffee, playing guitar, exercising, listening to the Dan Patrick Show, learning a language, and getting some exercise all felt like optimal experiences when not in completion for mental bandwidth slated for the company. And by 6:45, I'm working on the biggest items on my plate that I can focus on without the threat of new stimuli for the next couple of hours. The second you check email or LinkedIn, an internal clock of new items immediately starts in our minds—a vicious cycle. Planning your day the night before allows you to feel on top of your day and even look forward to it. Attacking the hardest thing first and all the stuff I didn't want to do before 9 a.m. leaves the rest of the day to be very fulfilling.
I can only point to a book written by someone else and a quote from a philosopher to explain why a 4 a.m. start time has allowed me to enjoy each day to the fullest. In a competitive landscape where being relentlessly proactive and creative each day are minimum standards, the biggest threat to your business is if you stop loving what you do. Whether by waking up before dawn or truly vacating your vacation, building a schedule that protects your love for what you do is critical to optimizing the quality of your life—and your work.
[Image: Flickr user Anthony_lui]