You don't need to be 100mph all the time
The entrepreneurial journey is one of the most intense out there. There are the unmatchable highs of making your first sale or clinching that big deal. There’s the freedom that comes from being your own boss and the joy of doing work you care about...And then there is the side that no-one really talks about. The Fear. The pressure. The sleepless nights.
There is a growing body of research suggesting that this taking its toll on entrepreneurs.
A recent study found:
“Mental health differences directly or indirectly affected 72% of the entrepreneurs in this sample, including those with a personal mental health history (49%) and family mental health history among the asymptomatic entrepreneurs (23%). ”
In addition, entrepreneurs were more likely than comparison participants and the general population to experience …
What this is pointing to is an unhealthy culture around entrepreneurship. One that promotes sleeping under your desk, as I heard one founder boast of. One where working 100+ hour weeks is not only acceptable but encouraged because it’s not work if you enjoy it. A cult of hyper-masculinity that is always chasing more, bigger, faster. This is a culture that requires founders to sacrifice themselves on the altar of growth.
We become terrified of slowing down because we’re scared we’ll never going again. The irony is when we don’t slow down in a deliberate, mindful way, our bodies slam on the brakes at some point - usually the most inconvenient point possible - and we crash head first into burnout, which can take months to come back from.
Burnout has been defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.” Worse yet, it causes you to lose the motivation and drive you need to succeed
There is another way
It doesn't have to be like this. When we work with our natural rhythms, the natural ebb and flow of our energy, we cultivate more energy, not less.
Human beings aren’t meant to operate like machines — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods. We have natural rhythms that influence our energy throughout the day and throughout the year. By having a balance of activities - mental, physical, creative, social and spiritual - as well as time for reflection and rest, we can look after our bodies, our minds, our environments, and our souls, and cultivate the sense of purpose and autonomy we need to thrive.
The first step to beating burnout is awareness - noticing the signs that you need to slow down in order to speed up.
Sign 1 - You're constantly tired, even after getting a full night’s sleep.
Feeling tired all the time is a clear sign that your body is suffering from chronic stress. Our stress response system isn’t designed to be activated all the time and unfortunately modern life is full of things our minds and bodies perceive as threats. When we keep pushing ourselves to be ‘on’ all the time, we get hooked on using adrenaline, cortisol, caffeine and sugar to keep us going.
We've convinced ourselves -- and we've been convinced by the cultures we work in -- that this is how we need to work to get it all done.
The problem is that more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short-term.
One consequence of relying on our stress hormones as a source of energy, for example, is that the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down in the physiological stress response. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly, reflectively or creatively.
Beat the Burnout
The success of a business is contingent on the owner’s ability to function, so find opportunities to take regular breaks.
When correctly attuned to our biological rhythms, we experience about 90 minutes of activity followed by 20 minutes of rest, with a full cycle last 110 minutes, cycled over and over throughout the day. It’s in these rest periods that our ultradian healing response is triggered. So next time you feel fidgety, hungry, drowsy, and a loss of focus - all clear signals from your body it needs a rest - rather than overriding them, take some time out.
It can feel counterintuitive and will require some practice but working in these cycles will leave you feeling more energised and productive during the times you are working.
Sign 2 - You keep putting off the same tasks off for days at a time.
Procrastination is another clear symptom that you’re losing the impetus and resolve to keep the pace of your current workload. The sense of apathy, and oftentimes anxiety, that you feel from burnout can result in overlooked and incomplete work. You just don’t seem to have the drive to tackle the to-do list and instead find the time spinning away from you.
Whilst the procrastination gremlin strikes everyone at one point or another, it’s a clear sign you’re on the road to burnout when it becomes habitual.
Beat the Burnout
Whether you feel uninspired or find it a challenge to take pride in your work, this is a warning to reconnect with your priorities and purpose. Remind yourself why you are doing this work - because you don’t have to be. Write your WHY down somewhere you will see it regularly.
At the start of each day, identify one task that will get a little bit closer to your goal. This is your sole focus until it’s finished. A simple method to help with this is the Pomodoro Technique:
“You set a timer for 25 minutes and work without interruption on just one task. After the 25 minutes are up, you take a break for five minutes to recharge your batteries. This break might simply be a walk over to the water cooler and back. Repeat the timer process if a task requires more than 25 minutes to complete,” according to the guide, Use Your Smartphone to Be More Productive.
If still you find yourself procrastinating, DUST it off (thanks to Graham Allcott from Think Productive for this one).
Difficult tasks need to be broken down into more manageable steps
Unclear actions need to be associated with a clear definable outcome - why is this task important, what do you hope to achieve by doing it?
Scary tasks always make us want to hide. Take a moment to write down all the things that you fear - when they’re on a piece of paper, they always feel more manageable.
Tedious tasks need more fun. Try reward pairing or turning tasks into a game.
Sign 3 - You Keep Getting Ill or Putting on Weight
Stress and the immune system were first linked by a ten-year study that took place in the 1980s and 1990s. In the study, researchers discovered that medical students experienced a decline in immunity during the three-day period in which they took exams. The extended period of stress caused by the tests actually caused their bodies to stop producing the cells needed to fight off infection.
You might find yourself suffering from the cold or flu, even in the middle of summer. You could feel sore and achy on a regular or even constant basis. Some who suffer from burnout even get diagnosed with chronic conditions as a result of their stress.
Illness isn’t the only way that burnout and excessive stress can have a negative impact on your physical health. Excess cortisol sends a signal to your body that you’re in danger and need to hold on to your calories in the form of body fat, in case of an emergency. So even if you’re eating well and exercising, you start to gain weight. And excess cortisol, especially if combined with a lack of sleep, causes the body to crave foods that are high in sugar or fat, making it that much harder to stick to a healthy diet.
Beat the Burnout
Finding ways to lower your stress levels is key here. Many people turn to high intensity exercise, which actually stimulates more cortisol production. Activities like yoga, tai chi and walking are all great ways to move your body that reduce stress. Practices such as yoga nidra - a guided relaxation - can be a great way to help you destress before bed.
Developing a healthy bedtime ritual will also help you calm your mind before you go to sleep - check out our post on ways to improve your sleep.
Keep healthy snacks to hand so if you do need to eat, you’ve got something nutritious nearby rather than relying on sugar and fat.
Sign 4 - You can't shake the nagging feeling that you're never doing enough.
Being an entrepreneur, creating something new, means constantly pushing the edge of your comfort zone. Combined with having to put yourself out there and put your reputation on the line, this leads many of us to feel like we aren’t enough or that we aren’t doing enough.
The concept of enough can be a crippling thought process because there’s no such thing as ‘enough’. There’s just the chasm between where you are and where you want to be or ‘where you feel like you should be.
Beat the Burnout
Get crystal clear on what you need to do. Use our 90 day goal planning template to help you articulate what ‘enough’ looks like for you. Any goals that feature the words ‘more’ or ‘better’ need to rewritten to give you specific targets to aim for. And targets are not always the same as outcomes - much better to focus your efforts on the inputs and the process, rather than tying your success solely to outcomes which you can’t control.
Take a few minutes at the start of each day to write down your priorities for that day - no more than 3 priorities, otherwise it’s just another to-do list. Then, at the end of the day, write your ta-da list of all the things you achieved. This helps foster a sense of satisfaction and acknowledges your successes along the way.
Rather than counting how many hours you work, focus more on managing your energy and creating a sense of balance. Schedule deep work at the times when you are most productive and energised, using low energy times of the day for routine and admin chores. Do something everyday unrelated to work to help your brain unwind.
Sign 5 - Your Work is Your Life
You are not your work.
Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review highlighted a study on the relationship between entrepreneurship, burnout, and two types of passion. The first type was identified as “harmonious passion,” which leads to high levels of concentration, attention, and absorption:
“While these entrepreneurs said they often felt totally taken by their work, they also allowed themselves breaks from it and had more flexibility. Overall, [they] were able to balance their job with other activities in their lives without experiencing conflict, guilt, or negative effects when not engaging in work.”
By contrast, while the second type of passion — defined as “obsessive” — does lead to exceptional job fit, such entrepreneurs also struggled to pay attention at work due to “the roles and responsibilities they were neglecting (such as family and staying healthy).”
Most telling, obsessive entrepreneurs reported they “couldn’t live without their work … felt emotionally dependent on their work, had difficulty imagining their lives without their work, and felt their mood depended on them being able to work.”
Beat the Burnout
It’s time to introduce some boundaries and create definition between work and other parts of your life. That could be not checking work email at home or having a fixed end to your work day if you work from home.
Identify your non-negotiables. What are the things you need to feel content and satisfied in life? It can be helpful here to imagine if money was no object. How much time do you need with family and friends to keep you energised? How much time do they need from you to feel connected? What does your body need to work well? Once you’ve written all your non-negotiables down, get them in your diary. Our time has a habit of filling up with ‘stuff’ if we’re not careful, so we need to put the big rocks in first.
***If you are concerned about your health or that of a loved one, please consult your doctor. If you are in the UK and need immediate emotional support, particularly if you are having thoughts about harming yourself, call Samaritans on 116 123***