- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Know Your Burn Rate, and Why it Sabotages You Before You Begin

A burn rate is a term used by new companies. It’s the amount of money that they must spend every month to keep operating. Once the money runs out, the company goes bankrupt. So, in many start-ups, the race is to start earning money before they run out of money.

I think the idea of a burn rate can be applied more generally to all sorts of goals. Basically, a burn rate measures how sustainable your current approach is. If you have a high burn rate, you’re under enormous pressure to perform. If you don’t succeed within that time limit, you’re done.

However, if you take on a strategy with a low (or even zero) burn rate, you can go on indefinitely. This is the classic example of the tortoise versus the hare, where slow and unfaltering beats quick and flashy.

What’s Your Mental Burn Rate

In a start-up environment, the burn rate is real. If you owe a few thousand dollars in wages, and have less than a hundred dollars in the bank, you’re sunk. But for most goals, the burn rate is mental. You stop when you’re too burnt out or beat up to continue.

For example, if you start a blog, posting once per day, when will that become unsustainable? When will you run out of ideas or energy to continue posting? When will your persistence fizzle out if you don’t taste any success?

If you’re on a diet, how long can you continue? When will your old eating habits reassert themselves? How long can you continue this eating pattern if you don’t see any change in your weight or body composition?


Motivate yourself with challenging deadlines. But prepare yourself for the long-haul. In learning French, I’m trying to achieve basic fluency before I go. That deadline forces me to work hard. But at the same time, I’m prepared for it to take longer.

A low burn rate increases your chances of success. If your current strategy is sustainable, then success becomes a matter of when, not if. You want to make your goals a matter of inevitability, not luck.

How to Lower Your Burn Rate

Instead of trying to motivate myself, I try to focus on how I can lower my burn rate as far as possible into the future without sabotaging my efforts. Some of these are strategic. Others are mental as you build into your process ways to sustain your patience over the months and years ahead.

Pick Sustainable Strategies

The biggest way you can reduce your burn rate is to only start strategies you can continue into the foreseeable future. Taking on a diet of only grapefruit isn’t sustainable. Eventually your body is going to require other nutrients and your diet will fail.

Before you decide on a new approach to your school, work or business, ask yourself whether you could continue it indefinitely. Sustainable strategies might not be as glamorous, but it forces you to think of your goals as continuous processes, not just single sprints.

Pick a Sustainable Work Volume

Ask yourself whether this level of work is sustainable indefinitely. To a certain extent you can increase your ability to work. So if you’re unable to write 1000 words a day now, you might be able to as your skills as a writer increase. However, I don’t know many people that would consider 10 or 12 hour workdays sustainable.

Look for the End of Your Current Lifestyle

When will debt, overwork or lack of growth end your current lifestyle? If you know this deadline, you can work on ways to help extend it.

For me, I’m aware that my current lifestyle will end when I graduate from university, and I either have enough income to support myself from this business or I don’t, and need to get a job. This allows me to help plan for how I can extend the work on this blog. For one, I can make sure this blog is still operational part-time so I can continue it, even if I need to take on work. Also, I can expand my freelancing connections so I can take on temporary writing work when my business income is lower.

Know the Worst Case

If you know your worst case, you can control it. And if you can control the worst case, the upside will often take care of itself. If your work and life are sustainable, and your burn rate is low, then success becomes a matter of inevitability.