Europe Union
Published: 12/02/2024

How To Grow as a Founder Without Sacrificing Mental Well-Being? Tech Excellence Podcast with Sana Ross

Tech Excellence podcast with Sana Ross

In the first live episode of the Tech Excellence podcast, our communications manager and host, Monika Dawidowicz, interviewed Sana Ross – an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and, most importantly, peak performance mentor who calls herself a “neuroscience nerd”, and it is a justified claim. They discussed the dangers of burnout and how to balance hard work at a startup with a healthy lifestyle to avoid it at any stage.

Key takeaways

The ugly backstage of success

  • Akin to cooking, success has a messy background. The shiny outcome is built on difficult sacrifices on multiple fronts.
  • People are often looking for one universal method to be successful while maintaining all other aspects of life in equally good condition, but there’s not one way to achieve that.

Keep it simple and smart

  • Simple and smart everyday decisions will help balance out success with health, but it requires effort.
  • Success won’t happen overnight, and hard work should always be accompanied by a healthy lifestyle and decent sleep.

Find a daily routine and stick to it

  • Finding a daily routine that works for you is mistakenly diminished and overlooked, but it’s an integral part of work.
  • Big successes take time; ignoring anything in between leads to discouragement and burnout.
  • Appreciating little wins and dividing large tasks into smaller chunks helps to stay on track and build a road to bigger goals and successes.

An essential part of success: sleep

  • Decent sleep is the foundation of success.
  • Sufficient rest helps you focus on daily tasks and tackle them head-on.
  • Lack of concentration can lead to mistakes and rash decisions that may stand in the way of succeeding.

Eat and have regular breaks

  • Skipping lunch to do some last-minute work is not a good idea – taking time to eat and rest will aid in staying focused and effective.
  • It’s healthier to distribute work into shorter time slots (between 25-30 minutes) and take breaks to restore than to do all the work at once hours at a time. Taking a break for a walk or a few minutes of relaxation will do more for efficiency and well-being.
  • Taking a short walk or doing other activities will help the brain recharge and develop new ideas.

In case of burnout, don’t hesitate to take time off

  • Having time off when you feel overwhelmed is not only encouraged but necessary.
  • No success will happen to a person who lost their spark. Unwinding and resetting will help you get back on track. 
  • Finding support in your team members will also help you recover, as they will be eager to take some burden off your shoulders.

Watch and listen


Monika Dawidowicz: Okay, sounds like a great idea. Because sometimes coffee is associated with productivity. So, if you want to be productive, you need to grab a coffee and a coffee and a coffee. I am trying to become more of a matcha person. But like slowly experimenting. So, in the morning, it’s a strong espresso. And then I’m slowly trying to step off the caffeine from the coffee. 

Sana Ross: Okay, so my way, you basically you’re reading my mind. I don’t know what’s going on between us. But today, I wrote- I have my newsletter on LinkedIn. And today I’m writing about the coffee and the flow state. So this is magic between us right now.

Monika: Okay, I haven’t managed to read the new issue of your newsletter just yet today. It’s not yet live. 

Sana: Tomorrow morning. 

Monika: And I see a comment from Michał that he’s a coffee fan as well. Yeah, we’re live on LinkedIn for those of you who are listening to us broadcasting. So yeah, like feel free to add your comments. And there will be a Q&A session at the beginning. So make sure to stay with us till the very end. And I think I’ll give you some time to maybe tell us more about yourself, your background. And how did you come up with that neuroscience thing in business? 

Sana: Well, I always was a person who-I’m a bit lazy, you know. I don’t like to work too much. I really love what I do. I always was into what I do. I started my, I learned finance in university. Then I worked in a bank. Then, I worked with different companies. I raised funding. I worked in venture capital. I’m working with startups for more than 10 years, I suppose. So I loved what I do. But it took lots of energy to do your job right. And to do this, to be this top performer, to be the best. And I started to dig into, like, how to, how can I be the best. So, I started learning this for myself. I don’t remember exactly when it was. But I learned a lot for many years for me how to be the best. But I still don’t have any health issues, don’t burn out. There was no such thing, this new word now. But burnout is burnout. So, I experienced burnout once. And it was so terrible, so hard. It was 2008-2009 crisis. And I was down the barrel. I was so burned out. So I stayed at home for about three months. In like deep depression and so on. And after that, I decided that this is enough for me. I’m fine. I need to change something. 

Monika: You hit rock bottom, and you decided. 

Sana: Absolutely. It was biggest motivator. And I started to learn more. And a few years ago, I was a bit soul-searching. For me, what’s next for me? Because I must say, I’ve been tired of finance. Because 20 years of finance is too much. For me, at least. So, I started to dig into myself, what is next for me. And I understood that I really love educating people. This is what I do for almost 20 years. Because it was always educating someone. My team, people, mentoring and so on. So then I jumped into new story in my life. And I started to work as a peak performance coach. Not performance. I mean not performance reviews and corporations. No. Peak performance is a different thing. We’re going to talk about this today. But I started to help people to achieve more faster without burnout. Simple as that. And I’m so in love with my job. 

Monika: It shows through the content that you publish on the internet. That you’re really passionate about it. And I thought, wow, that’s a perfect guest for my first episode here. Because really, it shows that you love what you do. And you’re very passionate about it. And sometimes I just go to my LinkedIn feed. And I see a lot of people who are passionate about what they do. And they share some kind of success stories, achievements. It’s really inspiring. Sometimes, they even share some tips on how to be productive. How to perform better. How to achieve more. I don’t know. How to sleep faster. How to do… I don’t know. How to… I think it was Arnold Schwarzenegger who actually said that in one of his books. Anyway. But people quote him a lot when they discuss productivity. That sometimes you can’t cram so many tasks within one hour. So there are so many tips and tricks how to be productive. I’ve even heard… 

There was actually an ad in my feed from one of the productivity coaches. And she said, are you a new mom trying to start a business while looking after her baby? I have some tips for you how to gain some time when you’re not changing the diapers. Just sleep less. It was one of the… 

Sana: How can you sleep less when you’re a new mom… 

Monika: Exactly. Sometimes, those things that people share are not only unrealistic but also harmful. And I’m trying to see what’s underneath the surface. What are the potential risks? I mean, obviously, when we see some kind of advice we would like… And we see that somebody achieved what they wanted by implementing that. Obviously, we want to give it a try. We all want to be productive. We want to be peak performers. But what are the risks of following all of the advice? And blindly following all those people who say, Oh, I’m so successful because I do this and that. Those 10 steps to be more successful. What are the potential threats here and the risks? 

Sana: Oh, how can I start? So many I would like to say about this. But, you know, any success has this ugly backstage, you know. It cannot be pretty. It’s like when you’re cooking something. For example, pasta sauce. It’s sauce everywhere. I mean, you can’t be clean. 

Monika: Totally. 

Sana: Yeah. The same is with any business, with anything. And so, you know, I see that people looking for a silver bullet. For something, some sort of appeal that will make them healthy, successful, and so on. There’s no such thing. But you can be healthy, successful, and so on. If you’re going to do simple things, smart things, and so on. But people don’t like that because you need to work. You need to exercise. You need to eat healthy. You need to sleep. It’s simple, but it’s hard. So, everyone looking for something, some tips and tricks, magical things that will make success happen overnight. But no. Even people who claim that they have success overnight. They are simply lying, sadly. 

Monika: Or just hiding a portion of truth, yeah? That is not attractive to the audience.

Sana: This portion of truth can be essential. Because if for example, if some person in TikTok said that I became a millionaire because I posted a video. They simply didn’t say that they posted 1,000 videos. And after one video, they became successful. So, this is an essential moment, right? The same is with everything. So, these shortcuts, they’re not working. And you just spend your time on chasing some unicorns. Otherwise, you spend your time more smart, using common knowledge. 

Monika: And simple things, the basics. 

Sana: Absolutely. And yeah, please sleep well. No shortcuts on that. 

Monika: So, that’s the first tool, sleep. So, how about, you know, yeah, exactly. Some easy and fundamental things that you would recommend the founders, like the new CEOs. Like people building something, yeah? Trying to start a business. What are the fundamental things that you would recommend for them to avoid burnout on the way? Because obviously, especially when we’re driven towards a goal, yeah? We feel like, okay, I have this idea that might change the world. So, obviously, let’s encourage that. But what would you tell them to actually do before they burn out? Before they, you know, feel exhausted? Especially when they feel that drive. You know, sometimes at the beginning. Especially when you start gaining traction. It’s hard to go to sleep, yeah? Because you need to check the numbers. 

Sana: Oh, yeah. You know, I’m okay with being pumped and work for more hours some days. But I haven’t seen any point to make this everyday routine. And this is the biggest problem. Because when you’re a founder and you have this big goal, you have your vision, and you’re motivated, your motivation cannot stay on the same level all the time. It’s physically impossible. 

Monika: Yeah, it will never happen. 

Sana: Of course. But you can pump it with small successes. Your brain, these small successes that helps you to stay motivated, to be energized innovative, you’re better in decision making, and so on and so on. But you need to cut it in small chunks. Your big goal cannot be this big. Because it’s overwhelming. And you’re going to lose your motivation very fast. Because, oh, it’s too hard. It’s too much. It’s too big. Yeah, I really want to do this, but it’s too hard. Especially when you’re a solo founder. It’s crazy hard. So, you just need to slice it into milestones. When founders are preparing their pitch deck, they think that this pitch deck is for investors. But actually, it’s for them. When you work on your pitch deck, when you work on your presentation, this is for you, first of all. Because this is for your motivation, too. For motivation of your team. You’re slicing your own map into milestones. And then, go down deeper and understand what you need to do every day to get to this big goal. 

And this will help you and your team, first of all, to get to one milestone. Then the next one, and so on. When you have this big picture, you don’t need these crazy hours all the way. Because you are… Of course, you are… For example, if you’re fundraising, you need to show investors something. Because there’s going to be a call. You need to tell something. 

Monika: Sometimes, quickly, you need to finish something. 

Sana: Of course, and it’s fine. It’s absolutely fine. There’s no problem in that. Unless you slept well before. And your team slept well before. Because when you have sleep deprivation for several days, you cannot make any decisions clearly. Your brain is just saying bye. I’m not coming with you. So it just stops working. And your team is not on the top of your game. And you need to be on the top of your game because you’re presenting to the investor. And probably, that’s why you’re going to be without money. So remember that. Big milestones. Important decisions. It needs to be like outliers. You need to have a healthy routine. So you’re going to be available to get through these high-peak days. Or nights, even. And it’s okay. This is life. This is business. You need to do this. You have deadlines. But you need to be prepared for this deadline. 

Monika: Okay. So, as far as I understand, obviously, sufficient rest. And dividing your bigger tasks into smaller chunks. And having this focus on the next task. The next task. The next task. That’s the foundation. 

Sana: Yeah. And I always recommend visualising it. In terms of having a board, for example. Or something that you can see. This is our big goal. And this is our milestones. And this is what we need to do every day. And use everyday tasks in your calendar to block time for some special things. Absolutely. Because everyday steps are going to impact your milestones. And your milestones are going to impact your big goal. Right? So when you have this structure, of course, you’re going to have changing everything. Because you’re a startup. And even in corporations, it’s changing every day. 

Monika: Sometimes you need to pivot. 

Sana: Yeah. So, you need to be agile enough to make changes. But your milestones and your big goal needs to be the same. If you pivot your product, for example, yeah, it’s going to be changing. But if nothing changes in the big picture, you’re going to be fine. You just see this. You remember your big goal. And analyse what you do right now. Is it making you closer to your big goal or not? How you spend your time. But I’ve seen people that have decided that, for example, lunch is a waste of time. And I actually worked with several of them after they burned out. So don’t do that. You never gain anything if you skip your lunch. Time you’re gaining, if it’s not like actual deadline and something not working, something crazy, and so on. If it’s normal day, if you skip your lunch, you just be hungry, and you will eat some junk food in the evening. That’s it. Simple as that. 

Monika: Or not even be able to focus on your tasks. 

Sana: You will not. You will not. So your efficiency, actually, you’re dumping everything. But what I always recommend, take your time, your lunch time to walk, for example. You can eat somewhere. You can eat at your office, in your home. But take a walk, 30 minutes walk. Why it’s important? Because when you’re walking, when we’re walking, it actually recharges our brain. We are like Teslas. When Tesla is going, it’s recharging. We’re the same. So when, for example, it’s afternoon, most of the time, we’re tired. Take this time to take a short walk, and you’re going to be a different person. If you can exercise, you need to exercise. If you cannot find this enough time, just simple walk. That’s it. Simple as that. 

Monika: Really? So it’s simplicity that can help you avoid the burnout. But how about when somebody is already burned out? You said that you’ve worked with people who are already burned out. Probably, it’s easier to avoid than to heal afterwards. 

Sana: We are people. We are humans. So we like to read things and to learn things, but we rarely do things. Well, it’s life. But when someone experienced real burnout, they would never, never get back to that. Because I’ve seen people who just stop smiling, and they’re like, I need to pitch investor. I need to raise next round. I cannot do anything, and I cannot talk to my team. And I want to stay at home watch Netflix. That’s it. But I really want to do this startup. I’m onto this. Why? What’s going on with me? This is burnout. And so what to do? 

Like, when you feel numb, when you cannot do anything when you’re just exhausted, probably you catch a cold or some allergies, everything going up. So what do you need to do? First of all, acknowledge that something is wrong. Maybe not calling this burnout because we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but step back and look at yourself, like, in the mirror and ask yourself, what are you feeling right now? And after you acknowledge that, you just need to, if something, you feel something is terribly wrong with you, you need to seek help, probably therapy. It would be nice, yeah. And you need to reevaluate your day, how you work, and your work habits, your life habits, and analyse everything. 

Monika: And maybe even take a step back. 

Sana: Absolutely. 

Monika: And do less. 

Sana: Time off. Time off a little bit. At least one day you need time off. At least, this is like… 

Monika: The minimum. 

Sana: Yeah. 

Monika: The bare minimum. 

Sana: Yeah. It depends on where you’re at the moment because some founders… they cannot just take away run away. So, you need to set boundaries. Boundaries is most important before burnout, after burnout, whenever. So you need to talk to your leader if you work in a team or to talk to your co-founders and discuss with them what’s going on. Be open and say what you feel. Because there’s moments, like women afraid to show weakness, but men afraid to show weakness so much more. 

Monika: Even more. 

Sana: Yeah. Don’t be because your team will be so happy to help you. People always tend to help each other. If you are in one team, you are in one boat. So you need to be open that you need some time to figure out what’s going on. And you need the time off to recharge. I always recommend to go somewhere in the nature, somewhere… like digital detoxes would be great, but we are too crazy, especially if you’re a founder of a company. But you need to set rules for checking emails. For example, once a day. That’s it. Once a day. But it would be better not to, but it’s your choice. You’re grown up. You need to understand what’s going on. So, you need to focus on your self-care. As I said, re-evaluate your habits, what’s going on, how you spend your days. I recommend time audit. It’s like, okay, when I wake up, what do I do? 

Many people do that, take their phone the moment they wake up. So you need to change that because you spend too much time. You’re jumping into this crazy world of news, emails, and so on. You need a bit of time to be groggy, to be sleepy, to be relaxed, and so on. 

Monika: To grab your coffee or matcha. 

Sana: Of course.

Monika: Without distractions. 

Sana: To do some, I don’t know, breathing exercises. So when you re-evaluate your time and your day, your habits, you need to understand how you need to rewire everything. So you’re going to be more sustainable for the long run. Because it’s hard to build a startup in the early stage, but it’s much harder in the growth stage. You need to make so many decisions every day. But how are you going to do that if your decision-making mechanism is broken? 

Monika: Because you’re hungry or haven’t slept for days. 

Sana: Because you’re tired. When we’re tired, we cannot make decisions. And many times, people who are dieting, for example, they cannot stay on the diet after 4 p.m. because they’re so tired. 

Monika: It’s all interconnected. 

Sana: Absolutely. So you need to remember that everything you do every hour, it’s basically impacting your brain. So it’s important to, like, okay, I have dedicated time for lunch, for breakfast, for dinner, with family, with friends, and so on. Social connections are absolutely essential because your brain is happy when you are happy. So this brain happiness is basically, like, helping you be more creative. Because when you are absolutely into one task and trying to solve it, and nothing is going on, you need to stand up and go for a walk, to meet with people, to watch a movie, to do whatever you can. Because you need to stop thinking about this problem. And most of the times, probably you know that you experience that when you’re in the shower, some great ideas coming. Because you’re not thinking about your task. 

Monika: Yeah, or when I’m swimming, it’s also the case. Because I can do nothing else at that time. Yeah, I can’t be checking my phone when I’m having a shower or when I’m in the swimming pool. I can’t be, like, you know, looking at some videos. So that’s the only thing I can do. It’s just, like, have a shower, swim, or have a bath. And then our brain finds a way to get the ideas. 

So basically, what you’re saying is to teach our brain somehow that, mate, no worries. Now we’re working, but there will be lunch break. You will be able to relax a little bit. And then we’ll do some work. But then we’ll rest. We’ll see our friends. You’ll be happy. And then the next day, when I wake up again, the same thing. So you’re safe. You can work at your maximum capacity during the usual time. And then there will be a break. Then, we’ll work at peak performance. And then, again, there will be breaks. So, no frets. You can calm down. Everything is in control. Do I understand it right? 

Sana: Yeah. And actually, if you heard about Pomodoro technique- 

Monika: When you’re 25 minutes… 

Sana: Yeah. Why it’s so successful? Because it basically works with our brain focus time. Because we cannot be focused for a long time. And for some people, it’s 20 minutes. For some, it’s 30 minutes. It depends. And I always recommend to try different time slots. But it works great. And you have this small period of time when you just can stand up, walk a bit for five minutes, like, relax a bit. And then get back. So don’t wait till lunchtime because you’re going to be so tired. And your efficiency is going to be so low. 

But this short period of dedicated focus time, when there is no notifications, no calls, nothing else, you just work on one task, no multitasking, it doesn’t work. Because when you switch to next task, like between tasks, you actually lose your concentration. And to get back to it, it takes time. 

Monika: It takes more time. 

Sana: Absolutely. It’s called shallow work. So you cannot be on your peak performance, like, very efficient. And efficiency, again, peak performance, it means that you can spend one hour on a task and make it work, make it great. Or you can spend six hours of shallow work, and your result will be this. 

Monika: Sort of sufficient but not perfect. 

Sana: Yeah. 

Monika: And sometimes not enough. 

Sana: So shallow work, it’s absolutely not efficient. It takes so much time, and people are so frustrated. And, yeah, it would be much better to spend one hour on a task than go play ping pong or PlayStation or whatever, drink coffee, and then get back to work. 

Monika: In the sunshine. 

Sana: Absolutely. Well, well. 

Monika: If it’s possible. 

Sana: If you have. Yeah. 

Monika: Yeah. Sometimes, in, you know, some companies, it is actually encouraged by the management to multitask, or it is required from people to, like, focus on their task, but in the meantime, be always available on Slack or Discord or some other communicators. So how can a leader actually foster the culture of, like, healthy productivity, healthy performance? What are the steps they can take to let people do it the right way? Yeah. And to let people focus. What would you recommend to the leaders? 

Sana: Start with yourself. Start to show people that, like, this is how it should be. 

Monika: So I put the do not disturb button for an hour? 

Sana: Something like that. You just, first of all, you need to tell people what’s going on. Like, okay, this is how it should be. Maybe some, I don’t know, lessons, webinars, whatever. Just to make people understand why this is going on. Like, what changed? Because I’ve seen, like, lots of people who think that peak performance is about hustle culture. It’s, like, absolutely not. 

Monika: It seems like the opposite. 

Sana: It’s opposite, yeah. And you need to explain what’s going on and teach people, and show yourself, as a leader, how it works. Because if you are hustling all the way in your office, people see that. People understand that. 

Monika: Think that they have to do the same. 

Sana: Yeah, absolutely. Like, oh, you work in nights? That means I should do this, too. And whenever you can say whatever you want, but you need to walk the talk, you know? So you need to show this by your example. 

Monika: Okay, and speaking of lessons and webinars, there is something coming up tomorrow that we would like to invite all of our listeners to. So, could you tell something more about that online meeting that you’re organising for those who are curious about peak performance concepts? 

Sana: Yeah, because peak performance is based on neuroscience, and I’m, like, a neuroscience nerd, I felt that it would be great to tell people some sort of brain-boosting techniques. And tomorrow, I’m going to have live almost like this with you in the evening tomorrow, linked in live, about brain-boosting techniques for entrepreneurs and professionals. So I will do my best to tell you everything in normal language within one hour’s time. 

Monika: Without the crazy scientific terms that people use. 

Sana: Yeah, I will do my best. Yeah, because I’ve read a lot of books on neuroscience and everything connected to leadership, and it’s hard sometimes to explain to yourself, like, okay, what’s going on there? Why is this working? And so on. And I feel obliged to explain to people, because just simple, these shortcuts, like do this, don’t do that. If you don’t understand why, you will not do that. 

Monika: Yeah, you will not care if you don’t understand why it works. 

Sana: Absolutely. Yeah. 

Monika: Yeah, so definitely, it’s something that I recommend checking. It is already in the description of this live podcast on LinkedIn, but I will also put it on the show notes on any platform that is listening to us after the live one. So yeah, definitely something worth checking and learning more about. And now, a question to our audience. If you have any questions, to Sana before we wrap up, because we still have a little bit of time. Obviously, you can also tag either Sana or me in the comments afterwards, and we’ll try to provide you with an answer. I don’t see any questions in the feed right now. So I believe, yeah, I will definitely look for the tags in the comment section. And I’ll also make sure to put the link to tomorrow’s LinkedIn live there so that nobody missed it. Definitely a topic worth exploring. 

If you want to achieve tech excellence with your company, you definitely need to think about performance and how you approach it in a healthy way. Because as you’ve mentioned before, it only gets harder when you grow. It never gets easier. So, it seems to be hard right now. You can grind like crazy, but it will only be harder. So you need to find a sustainable way to stay productive and to perform at your highest potential, let’s say. 

Okay, so it was great to hear from you. Definitely a topic that opens a lot of other threads to discuss. And yeah, I’m curious about tomorrow’s LinkedIn live. So, definitely, I’ll be on the guest list. And to all of you who reached the end with us, thanks for listening. It’s Tech Excellence Podcast. We’re at the first episode today, but we will be talking to interesting guests about how to achieve tech excellence for different things through technology through science, but also some techniques on performance, for example. So thank you once again, everybody. And I’ll speak to you next Wednesday during the next episode. Goodbye. 

Sana: Goodbye.

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