Stress. Non-stop decisions. Deadline after deadline. Demanding clients. Never-ending responsibilities. Burning the midnight oil, staring at the haunting glow of a computer screen night after night. Do these sound familiar?
If you're an entrepreneur, a small business owner, or someone working with these people, the unfortunate answer is probably an emphatic yes. The consequences of burning the candle at both ends could be repeated, uncontrollable bouts of burnout.
I have first-hand experience with the crazy life of a startup. While it often is very rewarding and satisfying taking care of clients, I learned that it's vital to take care of myself, as well.
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That’s why, no matter how busy you might be, no matter how pressing the weight of your responsibilities, it is important to make time for yourself. Break away from it all, and find time to relax. If you don’t, you’ll soon burn out.
What's burnout anyway?
Traditional theories say that burnout is caused by working too many hours or enduring too much stress, but burnout is more than being tired or stressed. Burnout is a combination of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that builds up over time, and it's much harder to bounce back from than simple tiredness.
You can’t cure burnout with a cup of coffee, But you can cure it, over time, if you’re willing to slow down just a little and do some thinking in advance about how you work and what your body and brain need. There’s no one-size-fits-all cure for burnout. Some people reach for food when stressed, while others may reach for an alcoholic drink. Many find themselves unable to sleep properly, so they take medication. None of these work for the long haul. (Well, I like to think a glass or two of wine at night does!)
Over the years, I've explored the best strategies for coping with, treating and preventing burnout. Here are eight of my favorites to help you create your own escape plan:
1. Stay social.
Many of us also work from home, and it feels like our workday never really stops. Virtual offices are becoming more and more popular. While the benefits of this setup are obvious -- think working in your bathrobe -- one of the major pitfalls is the loss of interpersonal relationships. Though the innocuous water-cooler chat office workers engage in may not seem like such a big loss, it’s those random discussions that lead to the feeling of community not found from working at home.
One thing you can do to avoid this isolation is to regularly take your work to a public place like a coffeehouse, where you can rub elbows with other folks. Even if it’s just a nod and smile, it can go a long way to making you feel connected to a world that exists outside your own domain.
2. Stay healthy.
Your body is a complex machine, and it functions more smoothly if you keep it well-maintained. Don’t get up, gulp down a cup of coffee and expect to perform your very best when you get to work. Give your body the fuel it needs to perform, and you’ll find you are better able to respond to anything the work day can throw at you. Personally, I love green juices and smoothies. I feel so much better after I start my day consuming all those veggies -- and trust me, I have never been a veggie person until I started getting older and finally realizing the bag of Cheetos are no longer a good snack.
Don’t allow yourself to work for marathon sessions without giving yourself small breaks. Get up, walk around, go outside, and let the sun shine on your face. Do whatever works for you, but make sure to break up larger projects into chunks, and then give yourself a break between them. This is especially true if you sit in a chair all day. Give your back a break. Also, be sure to get enough sleep in a tech-free environment.
3. Stay organized.
When the work is coming in fast and furious, it can be easy to just focus in on the things directly in front of your face that need handling immediately. But, the discombobulated mess you’ll become after working this way for any length of time is a surefire recipe for burnout. Instead, give yourself time before you dive in.
This prep time should include an overview of what you need to accomplish for the day, but it should also include a morning routine that is all about you. Give yourself time to transition into the day, whatever that means for you. Once you establish a routine, it’ll be easy to make sure you get a little me-time before the work begins, no matter how pressing that work might be.
The way I’m able to be successful at this is by time blocking my calendar every week. I block a good chunk of time first thing in the morning to catch up, organize and get my thoughts together. I do the same thing in the later afternoon in preparation for the next day. It helps me stay sane over and over again. I promise you there’s no "inbox zero" here, but I certainly feel organized enough to conquer what happens that day.
4. Stay positive.
Whenever you feel mired in negative emotions, get a little distance. Step away from your desk, focus on your breath, and feel the negative thoughts dissipate. Even if they don't, you'll feel a lot better. I know this sounds a little fluffy, but stepping away from a situation -- even if it’s just for a minute -- is such a huge thing. Any good leader knows this tactic and knows you just have to not get tied up in the emotional part of what’s in front of you because you may say or do something that you’ll regret. I’m sure many of you reading this have sent an email or two out of emotion and regret it now.
When I find my blood pressure rising, I say some choice words in my head, and I get over it by taking a break. Sometimes, I may not respond to the situation until the next day. This has saved me time and time again, so before you think it’s a little corny to take a minute for a breathing exercise -- I promise you’ll thank me later!
5. Start saying 'no.'
Every “yes” you say adds another thing on your plate and takes more energy away from you and your creativity. Cut back on the immediate commitments. Put some things on the back burner. Answer emails only at set times. Work specific hours, not 24/7/365. Switch your phone off occasionally -- the world won't end, I promise!
My mentor once told me that by saying, yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. Saying no more often will make room for the right kind of yesses you want in your life.
6. Be your own biggest fan.
Write yourself a note with positive affirmations, and be sure you’re constantly patting yourself on the back for your accomplishments. Yes, another fluffy thing you might be thinking, but Seth Godin, author, entrepreneur, marketer and public speaker, recommends using self-fan mail as a way to keep motivated instead of burning out on a project that seems far from completion. I happen to think he’s right. We don’t spend enough time congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come. We’re always focused on the next thing we’re going to do or be. But the reality is, you have to recognize all the great you’ve done in order to continue doing great things in your life and your business.
7. Set realistic expectations.
When you go too long without seeing any measurable results, you'll face frustration, disappointment and fatigue. Instead, break big projects, goals, hopes, tasks and the like into smaller chunks. Then, you'll see those chunks periodically completed, and your hard work will feel worth all the effort. You’ll be doing more high fives in your office, I promise.
8. Take real time off.
This is the most powerful way to avoid burnout, and the one most of us miss. Because you're so passionate about your work and committed to your goals, you get sucked into a culture that forces you to work too many hours a day, too many days a week. So, take vacations and get away.
I get it -- this is my number one struggle. I’m telling you that you should do this, but I don’t practice this so well myself. But, I try. And I think that’s all that matters. I personally don’t think I could step away from my business for a couple weeks -- but maybe that’s just fear talking.
In other words, to avoid burnout and stay happy and productive, the best suggestion is to love what you do, put your work into perspective, and be flexible. Every now and then, relax, kick back and live your life. Can I get an Amen?