Working extremely long shifts and gruelling hours is customary at banks and startups. But with proper discipline and training, it is possible to survive this work environment. Here are tips from an ex-Rocket Internet founder and investment banker:
The author established a Rocket Internet venture and has worked for several international financial institutions. He is a graduate of a well-known German business school and out of consideration for his current employer he wishes to remain anonymous.
All of a sudden someone touches my shoulder. “Hello, hello? Are you ok?” I jerk awake; standing in front of me is the janitor. I look at her with my eyes wide open and then glance at my computer. The screen is black. It is eight in the morning. At some point during the night I had fallen asleep on my keyboard.
I had three weeks, working on a hardcore project at a bank, behind me – that meant 120 hours per week and all nighters. On the day before an important presentation, my boss assigned me to finish the slides before the next morning. “You’re gonna stay and finish this,” he said. “We are in the home stretch now.”
After the startling wake up call, I start hammering away on the keyboard like crazy. I know without a doubt that my boss’ flight leaves before eight. I had no doubts that he would be picked up, the taxi would arrive at reception and the presentation would not be there. All that work for nothing. I look at my inbox and see ten emails from three different people. Where is the presentation, what is going on, they ask. I have to act quickly.
That morning, I somehow managed to print and deliver the presentation before my boss arrived. Those were the three most stressful hours of my life. To this day a framed copy of the presentation’s title slide hangs in my room. It serves to remind me of my limits – my body’s limits and my concentration’s limits.
This experience made it clear to me that I cannot just work 120 hours a week: I need discipline, I need routine, I need a plan. Anyone, doing this indefinitely without proper preparation, would break down. That is when I started to research the topic. How can I make it with less sleep? How should I organize my life? How do I prevent mistakes even when I’m sleep deprived?
Founders Don’t Take Breaks
I was always used to working a lot and I never asked myself why. I was in my early 20s when my job with Rocket Internet took off. I was tasked with building a successful venture.
The pressure wasn’t direct. None of my supervisors said I had to work 90 hours per week. Instead it was drilled into me that in half a year my startup would need to be a market leader in the country.
The result was that I worked, alongside other founders, long after our colleagues went home. We crunched numbers at night to see if what we had implemented was working. Other nights we stood in front of a white board and brainstormed: What is the right strategy? How could our competitors hurt us?
In the mornings, I was the first person in the office. As the day progressed normal problems always arose. At least once a week I had to mediate conflicts between colleagues, who were worried the other person was trying to ruin them. During that same time period, we had problems with IT. The website was constantly down and our customers were complaining. To put it simply, I was under constant fire.
Even after my transition to the financial industry it was clear that when a client says he would like to have the presentation finished by tomorrow morning – including a market analysis and 20 new pages – no one is going to say no. It is a part of the business ethic. Even here, 120-hour workweeks were more of a rule than an exception.
I am not the type of person who complains and tells his friends, “Hey, I worked another 120-hour week, everything is so stressful.” I cannot get behind self proclaimed “top-performers” bragging about their “all nighters.” That’s exactly what this piece won’t address. I don’t want to encourage anyone to overwork themselves, even though at some point during a person’s career it is unavoidable. Anyone who is oblivious to that fact will eventually experience a burn out.
These rules, that I researched and established over the years, are meant to help during those periods of intense work.
1. Train yourself to get a good night’s sleep
A week has 168 hours. If you sleep 7 hours per night that leaves 119 hours left for work. Many people fall asleep while watching their favorite television series and then doze off in the mornings. It is no wonder that they even though they spend nine hours in bed they are still poorly rested.
On average, I sleep somewhere between five and six hours. Over the years it has become less and less. Modern science tells us that most people need seven to nine hours of sleep per night on average. But science also tells us that the quality of sleep is more important than the length of sleep. That means we need to maximize deep sleep, or REM sleep, and avoid staying in non-REM sleep longer than necessary.
There are special alarm clocks that analyze a body’s movements while sleeping. By analyzing these movements, the alarm clock can wake you up at the most optimal moment in the sleep cycle. Once you’ve adopted a consistent sleep routine, it is especially helpful to use these alarms to identify what factors result in a better sleep. Experiment with exercise, food, lighting, meditation and sex.
2. Track your sleep
I use an app called Sleep-Cycle. With the app you enter a time range when you would like to be woken up, like between 07:00 and 07:30. A movement sensor in the smartphone lets the app analyze our sleep and wakes us up during the specified time period, but during the most optimal phase of sleep. Plus you can continually track REM sleep and enter what you ate during the day. The app shows the correlation between sleep and what foods are positively or negatively influencing the quality of sleep.
3. Sleep briefly but regularly
Sleeping briefly, but consistently, helps the body optimize deep sleep on its own. Someone who manages to sleep five straight hours can achieve the same quality of sleep quality as someone who sleeps nine hours. However, it is important not to randomly stay up all night or to sleep nine straight hours on the weekend. It is a matter of habit.
4. Take power naps
People who cannot manage with six or seven hours of sleep might find 15-minute power naps in the early afternoon helpful. The Sleep-Cycle app has a sister app, Power Nap, that helps with exactly that. And in Germany, companies of a certain size must provide a couch, meant for pregnant women, in a private room – these can be a big help.
5. Use routines to avoid mistakes
In my opinion, there is no way to always stay concentrated. The human mind just becomes weaker over time. With every hour of less sleep, each hour of more work, every mental exertion and every decision, your concentration diminishes. To combat this, it is helpful to adopt a routine. This routine will help keep you from making mistakes, even in your weakest moments.
Furthermore it is necessary to be aware of your own weakness. For example, if I know that I often transpose numbers, I need to make sure to check every number again. If I have the feeling that I am simply too tired to do a final check and polish an assignment, I find a room where I can take a 30-minute power nap, in order to ensure I am more focused afterwards.
All of these things are tricks that you learn over time, either by analyzing your own failures and weakness, or learning from a colleague’s own experiences. Working at a bank is perfect for this: There are always colleagues who have been working in this profession for years and can provide tips.
6. Print, Print, Print
A good tip is to print things out. This is especially common at banks where everything is printed a final time and checked thoroughly. They know they are tired and prone to errors, but they know mistakes are not permissible. For example, if I am worried spelling errors managed to creep into my emails, I will print the email one more time and read it through carefully before I send it.
7. Save speculation for the weekends
Even more important is the question of how I stay motivated. Nothing is worse asking yourself in the middle of the night why you are actually doing all of this. “I could be now… Earlier I was… Other people are doing…” These thoughts won’t bring you any further.
The most sensible thing to do is to create a rule for yourself. Thoughts of this nature should be stopped immediately and you need to force yourself to keep going. I made it a habit to plan a time on Saturday or Sunday when I could address all these thoughts. I lay on the sofa, dream and ask myself if this is what I really want.
These musings won’t help me at four in the morning. The job still needs to be done. And it isn’t as if I will quit my job or the company at this exact moment. In the end, I am only hurting myself with these thoughts. And knowing that this slot on the weekend is designated for you to get to the bottom of the situation, gives you the opportunity to calm down and breathe a sigh of relief. It is a bit like a cheat-day for bodybuilders: A day where you can take it all in.
8. Don’t waste time
Many self-proclaimed performers say that if you have a hard job or career, you will need to make sacrifices in order to be successful. Social interactions and a good personal life are absolutely critical – I couldn’t live without it. But what is not feasible for this lifestyle are time-intensive or useless hobbies. Someone who follows the German football league every weekend or watches Netflix every night, loses time that could be used for social interactions. And people who drunkenly stumble through clubs on the weekend will not be successful in this job environment.
It sounds a little twisted but a social life can also be planned and managed. People with strenuous jobs, above all things, need discipline. Waking up with the snooze button is forbidden.
9. Drugs don’t work
A few of my acquaintances working at a startup or a bank use cocaine or other drugs to up their work performance. In my opinion, this is dumb. The body will eventually crave more and you will develop a dependence. Role models at my company – who work hard and with success – live disciplined lives, and don’t drink alcohol in excess. Drugs compensate for something they cannot achieve on their own.
10. Find a goal
I am constantly asked: “Why do you do this to yourself?” Then next question is: “Couldn’t you earn your money in an easier way?” I don’t understand the question. Nobody would pose an artist, who sits in his studio all day long and works as if he is obsessed, this question. Or an athlete, who after an intense week goes training one more time. It is always about the dedication. A founder wants to see his venture go through the roof; this is why he works day and night. And a banker? A banker works for a deal like an athlete works for the world championship. After a deal is closed the feelings of happiness are the same as receiving a real trophy. You become a deal junkie – every day a new game. And the money? The money is the score.
11. Hide your inner dreamer
Nearly every week there is another article about the 4-hour workweek and other concepts, like the 6-hour day. I am a big fan of Tim Ferriss and his ideas about working less, but the concept starts with the basic assumption that you work in a low-wage country and passively use the internet to pull in a steady income that will ensure a good quality of life.
Most people don’t want to live in Thailand and they don’t have great E-book ideas. And many people want to start their careers as a banker, advisor or a founder. A company like Zalando is not possible with a 4-hour per week commitment and using virtual assistants from Romania. Bill Gates didn’t take a single day of vacation from the time he was 20 until 30. This is an extreme example, but Microsoft is also an extreme outcome. Think about this principle: How many hours of work do I need to reach my next goal? There is nothing worse than dreaming of a 4-hour week, while working your 9th week of straight overtime.