There are two factors: stamina and ownership.
Let’s talk about stamina first.
Your ability to work, like a muscle, is built over time. Stamina is not inherent, but earned.
You could ask the same question about running a marathon — “how do runners consistently run for such long distances?”
The principles are the same. They start small, consistently push their limits, and build muscle and capacity over time. When you’re used to running 5 miles, 26 seems painful, near impossible. But when you consistently push your limits — go from 5 miles to 7, 7 to 10 — you build up your threshold for what you’re capable of doing. 10 to 13 is a small jump — and at 13 miles, you’re already halfway there.
When you’re running 5ks, a marathon seems impossible. When you’re running half-marathons consistently, it’s a reasonable stretch.
When you work 40-hour weeks, the 60+ hour work weeks of a startup employee seem ridiculously long, but they don’t feel like a stretch for people who are working those hours. It’s all about conditioning.
But as I said, that stamina is earned. Some people work long hours as soon as they start working at their first startup, but many don’t. You build your capacity over time, as your responsibilities within the company increase — and when you’re used to working 9 hours a day, what’s one hour more?
There’s an underlying principle in working at a startup, though, that defines the way a person interacts with their work. That principle is ownership (the second item I had on my initial list).
Ownership is both what pushes people to build the stamina of working long hours in the first place, and to embrace that as their reality.
A startup is a company that’s building things. It’s growing, and their products are growing too. There’s a lot of agency for creativity, and a lot of responsibility for each team member to be growing and improving too.
Work isn’t something you clock into and out of. It isn’t about filling a desk from 9–5. In principle, at the end of the day, your employer (probably — with the caveat that every employer is different) doesn’t care about when you work, or how much. They care about the results you’re creating and the impact you’re having. They care about the ways in which you’re making the company better.
That’s what startup employees care about too.
They want to be working long hours, because they want to creating the results those long hours enable them to create.
Think about school assignments vs. passion projects. Startup work is akin to that second category. There’s a purpose to it. It’s something you have agency in and ownership over. And because you’re legitimately excited about it, there’s energy to back you as you throw yourself into your work.
When you have ownership over something, it’s really easy to spend lots of time working on it, because it doesn’t feel like work at all.
One more note about the reality of all this: when you work at a startup, the lines between “work” and “life” often get blurred — not in an unhealthy way, but rather, in an organic way (the harsh defining line between “work” and “life” is a rather industrial construct (derived of bells and time tables and cogs and systems), and not a natural phenomenon). Living while working (taking a personal call at the office, running groceries in the middle of the afternoon) is as seamless as working while living (answering an email while you wait for dinner to cook, thinking about improving your work systems while you drive around town on the weekend).
Each person’s balance is different, and each company’s policies are different, but in general, the lines tend to be more blurred — which makes working long hours much less about the interval of time between clocking in and clocking out, and much more about the amount of effort you feel excited about putting in vs. the output you want to create.
Those are all general notes, though, about principle and paradigm. A few other specific things to bear in mind:
- For a lot of people, the amount of hours they work is a form of virtue signalling. It’s a way of bragging and showing off. As a couple other people have already pointed out, working long hours does NOT equate to being productive. Just because someone says they’re working 70 hours a week does not mean they’re delivering 70 hours a week worth of output.
- Startup work is often project based. Even people who work long hours have fluctuation in the amount of time they’re spending each week. Usually a big push is followed by some lower-intensity “rest time” (in quotes because you’re still working, but using the terminology ‘rest time’ because you have more space to recharge).
- Pacing is key, even when you’ve built stamina. Even when you can run a marathon, you don’t run one every day. You train in smaller, more paced increments, with marathon-length runs happening only at intervals. Keeping yourself healthy is important!
- Because there’s a lot of agency in your work, you can chose the hours and the workflows that work best for you. This makes working long hours feel less like a struggle (e.g. forcing yourself to be productive during your downtime), and more like an organic process.
- Burnout is a real thing. Even when you have agency, if you push yourself too far, you’ll break. Runners tear muscles and sideline themselves, and startup employees can burn themselves out and take themselves out of the game. See above — pacing is key.
- Ultimately, the goal is NOT to work ridiculous hours, but rather, to work smarter rather than harder. Startup employees are constantly thinking about how to work faster and more efficiently — how to systematize their processes and how to automate tasks to free themselves up for more creative, higher-level work. A good startup manager realizes that your down time is often your most productive — the time when you’re able to think creatively and solve problems (see above — startups are always growing, and growth requires a lot of creative ideas and energy). Even though it’s a form of virtue signalling (my 70 hours is more impressive than your 60), working long hours actually isn’t the goal. Having the capacity to is valuable, but being efficient in your work is more valuable still.