How Do you Motivate Yourself and Stay Focused?

Posted on Oct 8, 2013 | 76 comments

How Do you Motivate Yourself and Stay Focused?


Look, if you had, one shot
Or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted
In one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
[Eminem, Lose Yourself]

I’ve often said that to run a startup you almost have to abstract yourself from the daily stresses and grind just to exist. You almost have to have an out-of-body experience as though it’s not really your life but it’s just a game you’re playing in order to not be buried by the burdens of your decisions.

If you raise money the game continues. If you don’t you may have to lay off staff in eight weeks. How can you process that?

Even more difficult. You have an offer to sell your company. Should you? You might net $1 million and that would change your life. But everybody is telling you not to sell and instead to “go for it” and you don’t know whom to listen to.

One. Million. Dollars.

I know it’s not what it used to be, but news flash – it’s still a million dollars!

How can you wake up every day and process that decision. Five million? Ten?

Upside scenarios. Downside scenarios. Raise a big VC round – yeah! Now I just have a 3x higher exit price if I want to sell one day. Ah, well. At least I have more resources.

How do you process your company’s biggest decisions? How do you live with uncertainty and stay focused?

I’m a visual person as many people are and I need to be able to see things visually to process them.

I’ve talked before about how I use visualization to drive my creativity.

I also believe in visualizing results as a means of achieving them. I know it’s sounds crazy and new agey but it’s not as crazy as you think. I think you’d acknowledge that athletes use visualization techniques for focus and motivation and we don’t find that crazy at all.

My secret is that I used music and running.

When I first got my offer to sell to Salesforce everybody around me told me not to sell. They told me that we had a chance to build the next great Internet company. After all, we were building DropBox before DropBox existed and we had really good early traffic. In hindsight we know the market was sure there (whether or not we would have captured it is a different story).

VCs even offered me to cash out seven figures personally not to sell. But I had been down this road in 2000 and I saw how punishing markets could be when you didn’t sell and had an offer.

Once I accepted my fate I had to stay extremely focused. I had foregone my VC term sheets to accept an offer yet I knew it wasn’t 100% probability to close – it never is. I was also deeply paranoid that a bad recession was coming (this was early 2007). I know that sounds like Monday-morning quarterbacking but you can ask anybody around me – especially my wife.


Yet focused.

He won’t give up that
Easy, no
He won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes
It don’t matter, he’s dope
He knows that but he’s broke
He’s so stagnant, he knows

He better go capture this moment and hope it don’t pass him

I ran daily back then. What a luxury. I lived in Palo Alto and had a 6-mile loop I would do in the mornings to get me motivated. I know, it would have been more apropos if it were an 8-mile loop but it wasn’t.

I blasted the music. He won’t give up that easily. His whole back’s to these ropes. He’s broke. Capture this moment – don’t let it pass.

I would self talk. This is your moment. Stay focused. Get stuff done. Get through your disclosure schedules. Make sure the acquisition is still on target. Talk to your teammates and make sure they’re still good with the exit. Make sure they’re still planning to move to San Francisco. Work through issues and problems.

Maybe this is actually going to happen. Maybe it isn’t?

Corp Dev is rapping my knuckles because I had planned to speak at the Under the Radar Conference. They say I can’t go. They don’t want me around other buyers. But what if they pull out? Then I’m stuck and didn’t foster relationships?

This sucks. They can’t tell me where I can go and where I can’t!

Just a game. Fuck it. Who cares.

If this doesn’t happen it wasn’t meant to be. Don’t worry about the financial security – it’s not yours anyways. If you get it, you get it. If not, plan B. Don’t visualize money in your bank account. Don’t mentally spend it. Don’t assume your life is heading that way or you’ll never get through setbacks.

What is Plan B? Not sure. But we’ve built a great product – we’ll find a way. Yahoo! was interested. SAP was interested. VCs were interested. Plan B, fine. Later. Right now, Plan A!

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo

This world is mine for the taking
Make me king, as we move toward a new world order
A normal life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post mortem

I was playing in the beginning, the mood all changed

It was a stressful period that ended well. There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t obsessively looking at my to-do list, calling people to move the process forward, checking the news for any signs of market problems and then sleeping and doing the same thing the next day.

I felt hugely pumped up and motivated by the music. By the lyrics. But the reminder that “this was my shot” and failure wasn’t an option.

Did it control my outcome?

Probably not. But if I would have had a setback in the M&A deal I felt emotionally ready to spring to action and solve any problem. Having a healthy mind is as important as having a healthy body and we pay very little attention to the former.

I think more people should.

Find ways to motivate yourself. Find ways to not see this situation as actually affecting YOU even thought it obviously does. Deal in today’s problems not in tomorrow’s possible ones.

Have options, sure. But don’t sweat every single one and visualize the downside scenarios. That’s emotionally unproductive and you can deal with those stresses if you get the bad news and roll with the punches then.

Music motivates me when I need it. I find lyrics that resonate and grab the message in my own world and context. It helps me focus.

I don’t know what motivates you and allows you to tune out all of life’s distractions in your moments of need but you need to find it the way athletes do before a big game.

I know some readers right now will have no clue what I’m even talking about. I suspect that’s just because you’ve never had to be a startup CEO and deal with the incredible insecurities, uncertainties and stresses. Surreal, it definitely is. But

Success is my only motherfucking option, failure’s not


[photo credit: YouTube video]

  • scott y

    my last job as a navy fighter pilot was strangely similar.

  • Anthony Gair

    Morricone soundtracks….?

  • Hazza Jay


  • Lisa O

    “…you’ve never had to be a startup CEO and deal with the incredible insecurities, uncertainties and stresses.” That’s especially true for Women. After 5 years of start-up mode, I realized that living in LA, I stand a much higher chance of being shot and killed by the LAPD, than raising capital to push my $350K bootstrapped B2B2C technology to market. Dealing with prolonged stress? One day at a time. Weirdly enough it’s kind of like after childbirth – the hormones surge and you forget how hellish it really was – you’re ready to have another! Entrepreneurship is kinda like that – then again, maybe it’s the vodka…

  • John S.K.

    Couldn’t agree more. Mine was acquired last year and I felt like I was becoming a paranoid during the process. Became sensitive to every news of the acquirer, the competitor of the acquirer, and industry, and felt anxious when the counter part didn’t respond immediately to my inquiry. The deal did happen, learned tons, but will never forget the experience.

  • John S.K.

    Oh, my outlet was driving somewhere far alone with blood pumping music.

  • Philip Uglow

    Thank you for the post Mark. I always get a lot from your comments. In this particular case my take-away is to remove yourself from the present “battle” and move into visualization mode. I agree with this and do it often. My way to do this is to go hiking in the mountains. (I live in Calgary, Alberta). Thanks again!

  • Sean Hull

    Keep your eyes on the prize, as they say.

    Meantime, exercise everyday. I’m a runner myself. It’s the ultimate lunch break.

    Meetups work wonders for creativity. Talking to people outside your own industry, socializing, sharing your own struggles & triumphs.

  • Aigerim

    One chance, one opportunity… in my headphones, running on the boardwalk in Hermosa Beach – got me through some of the toughest times. Thanks for the post and for the reminder to stay sane!

  • Sasi Kumar

    Thats true and helpful

  • Ryan Rogowski

    Really great post, I totally listen to this exact same song for pump-up. Especially before pitches and talks :)

  • Eric Loos

    Anyone have any good running workouts or workouts in general that help them?

  • markslater

    i cannot tell you how creepy that story is. I am in a similar position, CEO of a venture funded company, big big decisions are upon me and will likely play out over the next month.

    i ran 6 this morning. I am running a half on sunday (the Boston half marathon) with my wife – i have sick playlists – i would not run without music……and most of all it gives me the emotional drive i need and the clarity i seek in facing these big responsibilities……

  • Alex Shye

    Love this post Mark, and especially the Eminem quotes! Classic song :)

    In my short time as an entrepreneur (~18 months so far), the biggest challenge has been to find a way to consistently stay motivated. Posts on motivation, visualization, etc. can seem so soft and new-agey, yet entrepreneurs need every tool at there disposal to keep on going strong.

    I have tried everything you wrote about (running, visualization, self-talk, music, etc.). They definitely work for me, and I’ve been working on weaving these motivational techniques into my everyday life.

  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    I really like that you pointed this out, I use visualization all the time and have found it so very powerful. Right now I’m working on a sales prospect and have been using this sort of mental visualization technique for the last several days. I play through the potential direction the negotiations will take over and over and from different angles. It is so helpful to me and helps me prepare. I think everyone should imagine you are across from the other guy/gal and try and think all the ways he/she can take the negotiation. It really helps in doing your homework to make sure what you finally agree to is beneficial. You can think on your feet so much better if you have mentally gone through 100’s of scenarios in your head, even if the deal goes into territory where you didn’t explicitly explore.
    Sure you need to practice with cofounder’s or employee’s and ask for feedback, but practice in your mind as well. Fellow Entrepreneur’s, if you aren’t doing this yet you need to be.

  • luke

    great article. hip hop gets me in the same mood ^ _ ^

  • Trace Cohen

    This is what most startups founders I know feel every day – myself included. I love when I’m talking to one who finally opens up to me and understands that I know exactly how they feel and that they’re not alone or crazy.

    Everyone wants to have a startup because they read all of the funding, IPO and glamorous news but that’s just the tip of it. Twitter, Facebook and all the other companies are 7 year over night successes of hard work, planning and execution.

    I can’t get through my days without my noise cancellation headphones

  • lemiffe

    Mark, thanks for this post; I (as many others I have seen in the comments) am going through the same thing right now (except for the running, constant stress took that away from me). “What is Plan B? Not sure….” That part really struck a chord.

    I’m betting everything on getting an investment (Plan A), but there are too many applicants to the fund and I should be finding something that motivates me and helps me get through IF I get the big “no”, which would let me deal with the blow, get back up, and get going in no time.

    Staying positive, that is the solution, albeit somewhat more complex than words would leave you to believe. I’ll try my best though. Thank you for your words, it is now clear to me that so many other founders go through the same process.

  • melissariker

    Thanks for this article — I understood it deeply AND –> “Lose Yourself” is my pump-up/focus song of choice as well. I’m a choreographer with a small but growing dance company – so the amounts of money I am dealing with are smaller, but the feeling of tipping-point versus falling flat is just as intense.
    Even with a strong team, we, as the leaders, must stay focused, open, believing in now, and be willing to continue to stand up again and again for the value of what we create.

  • Saurabh

    Thanks.! Both the song n the run are my get-back-at-life motivators too. Had an excellent job and after 9 yrs , started my own… Face a lot of the situations u mentioned n at times the best vent out is “if it doesn’t work then will find another way, if that doesn’t then another “..but life has to go on

  • Drew Meyers

    just listened to the song again…”you can do anything you set your mind to”


  • Drew Meyers

    I love The Rock themsong by Hans Zimmer. Frigging awesome.

  • Hazza Jay

    Yes! Its awesome. Zimmer is God.

  • Farhan Lalji

    Damn, needed this. Thanks Mark. I have a spotify playlist called anthems that I used to listen to religiously and got me through the tough times.

  • Jon Lieberman

    Love this post and totally identify with it! I’m going out for a run and will be blasting my tunes.

  • Frank Diaz

    Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas talks about Disney’s gift of not only visualizing, but how he drew everything out on storyboards and when it came to visualizing the Disneyland park, had a model to scale that he simply used to add new ride concepts to see how it would fit into his design. The clearer you can see the visualization, the better the results.