Behavior Design Can Beat Burnout in Your Startup

Feb 10, 2021
Burnout - woman in the city

Sean Higgins knows how to keep people motivated and on track: he’s the CEO of BetterYou, the digital coach that helps people optimize their day. In this article, Sean offers actionable advice for how to use behavior design to keep your team strong and avoid burnout. 

As founders, our natural response is to do more. Running behind on the month? Start calling customers. Is that feature not going to ship in time? Better get the team fired up or strap in yourself to help work on it. This small scale heroism seems fine when you are a small team. But if it takes you 80 hours a week to get something done, you’re either not that good at it, or could use some help managing your time. Founder burnout is a top reason why companies don’t make it, so how can your team hit the deadline without you needing to jump into the trenches every other week? 

Behavior Design and Your Startup

You think about user experience when it comes to your product, but how about with your projects? There are three components for any behavior: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. Motivation is how a certain action relates to an aspiration or core motivator. If you’ve ever signed up for an online course, that first day you were probably pretty excited (the 20th day, a different story). Ability is the difficulty of the task at hand, and a Trigger is something you encounter that reminds you to do the task (this can be a post-it note on a desk, or background on your laptop). 

So how can this framework help you ship more, faster, without as much burnout? 

Strategy 1: Focus on ability not motivation

Too often in founder land we try to “rally the troops.” A jolt of motivation can help in the short term, but relying on motivation by itself is foolish. This is because motivation changes over time. Did you miss out on sleep last night? You’re probably not as motivated. Did you hear some personal bad news about a family member? You’re probably not as motivated. Instead of trying to hype yourself and your team into action all the time, focus on ability. How can you make the tasks the team is doing easier? 


  • Have your team naturally share where they are stuck at a five minute stand up.

  • If you have subject matter expertise and can show a team member the way you’d like something done, you grease the runway for them and others.

  • Relax the design to ship a feature faster and build improvements into future releases.

Strategy 2: Find places to add triggers and make defaults more productive

If the team can do the action and want to do the action, but they’re still falling behind, they might be getting sidetracked. With the average person spending 3.1 hours/day catching up on messages (email, Slack, etc.) it can be easy to lose sight of where you need to be spending your time. Make this prioritization the default. Add triggers to your workflow so that it’s easy for people to get brought back to what’s most important when things come up.

Example: Change your Slack loading message to this week’s big rocks for the team. This way when everyone loads up to start their day the first thing they see is their priority — not a bunch of red dots or unreads. 

Strategy 3: Turn your team into accountability partners

When you go running with a friend, you’re 65% more likely to hit your running goal every week. This accountability partner helps you find success. You can take this entire idea and apply it to your startup. By having show-and-tells with the team on a regular basis (monthly, bi-weekly) you give the team a chance to share what they’ve been working on. This adds motivation (you don’t want to let down your team), but the real benefit is that it adds triggers to your day. When you see your co-presenter for the show and tell, they’ll remind you about your project. When they ask how your slides are coming, they remind you of the project. These triggers can sometimes be the difference between getting lost in shiny objects and finding your way. 

3 Quick Tips to Reduce Burnout

While you work on the strategies above, here are a few quick tactics you can use to reduce burnout at your startup.

01. Set the Slack default to away

If you don’t trust that your team is going to be able to handle the project. You hired the wrong people. Besides there are dozens of ways to spoof slack activity. So set the tone and use Away, especially after hours. This sets the tone that you do not always have to be working.

02. Change the default for meeting times to 15 minutes

Defaults are powerful as people usually pick the option that’s in front of them. By changing the default meeting time on your team’s calendars to 15 min you will save them hours every week, guaranteed

03. Have specific goals to provide motivation and direction

If you can’t get 70% of it done, you don’t have a goal, you have a dream. By helping the team set very specific goals (call 200 prospects, close 2 deals, take feature X into review by the 30th) you give them the ability to see their own progress, this helps them stay motivated as they near the finish line.

People will tell you that if you struggle with focus, you should have more discipline. With discipline you have to make intentional effort, you have to be motivated, you are putting your self control on the line every single day. With design, you do what needs doing without even thinking about it. When was the last time you consciously thought about brushing your teeth or taking a shower? 

When it comes to getting things done, design eats discipline for breakfast. 

And isn’t that what startups are all about?

About the Author
Sean Higgins

Sean is the CEO of BetterYou, the digital coach that helps people optimize their day. Prior to that he founded ilos Videos, a video productivity software, and was EIR at Techstars. His teams have gone on to help hundreds of organizations speed up their day.