Today we’re going to talk about a topic that many creatives, especially those who are new to entrepreneurship, choose to ignore entirely. When you’re just starting your dream business, you often don’t think about the potential to burn out from it later. Fueled by the momentum of opportunity, your fifteen-hour workdays seem ambitious and proactive, instead of problematic to your mental health… until you wake up overwhelmed and exhausted.
If you’re afraid you might be on the verge of burnout, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that most entrepreneurs face burnout at least once in their lifetime, if not more. According to Drena Fagen, an art therapist and social worker, burnout is “the gap that exists between our expectations and what is actually possible.” When taken at face value, it shouldn’t be a shock that we feel exhausted when encountering our own limitations in pursuit of our big and magical dreams. For most, burnout comes as a complete surprise - after months or years of working towards a “dream job,” it seems unsettling when you feel uninspired or apathetic towards your small business.
Burnout at your full-time job may have been the catalyst for starting your business, but not all burnout looks the same. As an employee, it usually takes the form of depersonalization - when you lose the ability to connect and find meaning in your work. This feeling is what inspires many creatives to branch out and start their own business. For awhile, inspiration and freedom can overcome the dissatisfaction that we feel working for someone else. But later, our “dream job” begins to disappoint us too.
And here’s where it gets sneaky - because entrepreneurial burnout can look very different from employee burnout. For entrepreneurs, it typically shows up in our body. Symptoms such as insomnia, tension, chronic headaches, exhaustion, distraction, memory loss, behavioral irregularity (emotional breakdowns, missed deadlines, changes in communication), depression, frustration, overwhelm, isolation, and an inability to identify emotions are common in entrepreneurial burnout. These feelings can be shocking to creatives who can’t identify what’s going on or how to fix it. Because burnout rarely happens at a convenient time, we’re left to deal with the effects while maintaining our workload and managing outside pressures to appear to “have it all together.”
I’ve known a lot of creatives who push the feeling of burnout away in hopes that it will leave eventually (myself included.) Instead of taking a moment to reflect, we attempt to learn, hustle, or outsource our way out of it. We practice denial in the face of what seems to be a dark, looming cloud, hoping that the sun will break through before the storm hits. But the reality of burnout is that we are in need of a mindset shift. By admitting what’s going on, taking the necessary actions to find our way through, and then setting up boundaries to avoid it in the future, we will rest just a little bit easier as entrepreneurs.
How it Happens
As I mentioned earlier, burnout is chronic stress that results from missed expectations. It is most likely to occur if you have a high-achiever personality, because you’re more likely to overwhelm your schedule with too much work or pressure to succeed. Your body can’t keep up with your mental ambition, and eventually, crashes from the strain.
Typically, these feelings start to surface a few months or years into your business. After the initial excitement begins to wane, you realize that continued sacrifice and commitment will be required to keep your business afloat. You begin to lose steam, and can’t maintain your initial momentum. As you continue working late into the night, you tell yourself that the extra hours will “pay off in the end” and are only temporary as a way to get your business off the ground. But somewhere along the line, you continue to add to your plate once you become more efficient and capable. You have started to chase the elusive dream of opportunity, without pausing to identify the end goal. And by end goal, I mean that you failed to define “enough.”
Not to freak you out, but scientific studies have shown that the effects of burnout go much deeper than a lack of inspiration. Research is beginning to show that chronic stress (burnout) impairs your ability to communicate and interact with other people, overwhelms your senses and cognitive skills, and can even lead to permanent changes in the anatomy of your brain. Often burnout is confused with its cousin depression - negative thoughts, chronic exhaustion, and apathy. Either way, we’ve got a serious mental issue on our hands.
Burnout is not something to joke about as you continue to add pressure and stress to your calendar. It is not a point of pride as an entrepreneur or a mile marker on the way to being considered successful. It’s not even a sign of being a hard worker. It’s a serious issue that can cause many entrepreneurs to feel isolated, inadequate, and defeated.
In the Weeds
You may be in the weeds of burnout or quickly heading in that direction. Panic will begin to set in as you realize what’s going on. What are you supposed to do when burnout takes root?
First, consider it a wake-up call. It’s time to closely evaluate the stress factors in your life - not just your business. The next time you feel panic, overwhelm, frustration, or helplessness - begin to record exactly what’s going on, and especially, what triggered it. Identifying the top stressors is the first step to finding your way out.
Acknowledge that you are in Recovery Mode. It may not mean you escape to a yoga retreat in Bali, but there are still some healing practices that will pull you out of the mental cycle. While in Recovery, you are not allowed to say yes to any new commitments or projects. Learning to say “no” is absolutely key when we’ve found ourselves in a burnout spiral. This is also the time to rally every bit of support and delegate as many tasks as you can. Begin asking for help, and asking frequently.
Find tangible ways to create white space in your day as your brain and body heal from the strain and exhaustion of chronic stress. While in recovery, turn off all digital devices at night and over the weekend, if you are able. Take multiple breaks during the day and switch locations. Go on a walk between projects. Allow yourself to push a few deadlines. Do whatever it takes to create space in your schedule to let your brain and body work at a slower, more restful, pace.
Do not assign a deadline to overcome burnout (although it will be tempting!) Recovering from this mental state requires a major shift in perspective and deep-rooted change in your own behavior, so give yourself ample amounts of time, space, and grace as you navigate your way forward.
Find support - schedule time to hang out with your non-work friends, or family. Interact with people outside of your business. Find a support group, or someone safe to vent to while you navigate your way back to balance. It may be a good idea to consult a business coach, therapist, or counselor who can identify your triggers and hold you accountable to the changes you want to make.
Find a temporary, quick hobby to give your brain something different to focus on. Begin cooking dinner twice a week or buy some watercolors and a small sketchbook. Pick up a non-work related book or watch an old movie that you love. It’s important to find activities that invite inspiration back into your life, without adding any form of pressure to succeed or major time commitment.
Once you begin to breathe from the initial feelings of overwhelm, it’s time to figure out why it happened. In the worksheet at the end of this post, I outline a few questions to help you identify what went wrong so that you can avoid it in the future.
At this stage, it’s important to retrain your brain, so new associations are formed to replace old thinking habits. This step is vital because thoughts lead to emotions, which lead to behavioral change. As much as you’ve probably heard it before, there are a few simple tasks that make a huge impact on your mental clarity:
Gratitude - not JUST for the basic things in your life, but also taking a moment to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished in your business so far - even if it’s just taking the step to be brave and pursue it.
Journal - keep a record of your thoughts. We are going to try to rewrite some of the scripts you’ve had in your head that led to burnout, but first, you have to find the patterns in your thinking that led you to make unhealthy choices.
Believe - whether you believe in God or a Higher Power, investing in your spiritual life will help eliminate the common feelings of helplessness and hopelessness you feel in burnout. It’ll also give you a sense of greater purpose, or participation in part of a bigger story that is not entirely dependent on you. This will simultaneously relieve pressure and allow you to work on big dreams without feeling hindered by your own limitations.
Returning to the grind of your job (even if you never really left) is going to be difficult after your season of burnout. You may be tempted to dive back in and abandon all of the positive thoughts and changes you intended to make. Here are some steps to getting back on your feet and continue the recovery process within your business.
Identify what you learned from your burnout. You can use the questions in the worksheet below to prompt some deep reflections on the lessons that burnout taught you. This will help you make better decisions in the future.
Take inventory of your biggest triggers and begin to create strict boundaries in your business. What scenarios do you have the hardest time saying no to and regret later? Can you create a blanket policy to avoid compromising situations?
Become less accessible - there are rare situations where you need to be accessible at all times to a client. Communication boundaries are vital to a growing entrepreneur and encourage others to respect your time. Just be sure that when you are available, that you are fully present and engaged. This will help you to compartmentalize tasks and client support, giving each its own amount of attention.
Avoid your go-to distractions. If editing or creating alongside a Netflix movie in the background makes it hard to be efficient (even though it may seem like it’s making a mundane task more fun!), take a break as you ease your way back into your business. It may be adding more stress than you realize.
Pursue simplicity above all else. Avoid complicated new ideas or force new processes. Be slow to make decisions. Before trying something new, look first to see if you can eliminate something else that is non-essential. Have a rule of taking away, or delegating, one thing for every new idea you bring on. Be precious with your hours and commitments.
As someone who has felt the grips of burnout this year, and talked to many friends and colleagues who feel the same, I have seen how vicious the cycle can be. It can trick your mind into feeling desperate and inept - glossing over the small behaviors that can bring about massive change.
If you feel like you’re on the path to burnout, or could really use a wake-up call in your business, I encourage you to download the worksheet below and take inventory of your stress. Then, leave a comment and let me know how you’ve found a way to avoid burnout!