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February 11, 2016
Growth  |  8 min read

How to Avoid Burning Out for Entrepreneurs

by Anna Kunnecke

If you run a business, I bet you’ve been cornered. It happens at soccer games, cocktail parties, or—shudder—long flights. It goes like this:

You’re so lucky! It must be so nice to not have a boss! 

Man, I wish I could just work when I felt like it. 

I have a great business idea, it’ll be easy and I’ll expense anything I want! 

You are probably a nice person and you nod along politely. Me, I’m not so nice. I want to turn my jaded small business owner gaze of death on them and tell them true tales of long hours, scary lean months and brutal exhaustion until their sweet little naïve illusions curdle and they stagger away determined to stick with their nice stable job forEVER.  

Running your own business can be thrilling, satisfying and downright gleeful. But it can also be exhausting, overwhelming and totally terrifying. Most people don’t understand this. They think you work four hours a week and spend the rest of your time polishing your sailboat. 

Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to grasp the intense pressure of having a business rest on your shoulders. Yes, it’s great to be able to take a three-hour lunch whenever you feel like it. But you and I both know you’re going to make those three hours up somewhere … like between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Fun! You’re so lucky!  

So how do you stick with it when it all feels too hard? 

I’m sure you have a lot on your plate. I believe you; I do, because I’m a solopreneur and a solo parent myself. But my guess is that the real stress comes from the mental strain of always thinking about it all. It’s heavy, holding the weight of the world (and all your employees and clients) on your shoulders. Sometimes no matter how hard you run, the hamster wheel keeps getting faster and faster. Plus, your to-do list is having rabbits behind your back.  

But the real problem is not those things; it’s that you can’t stop worrying about them. Always being “on” drains your batteries.   

Admit it: even when you’re on vacation or watching Scandal, I bet you catch yourself mentally running a list of things that need to be done. 

It’s not surprising. You’re probably wearing 42 different work hats, plus you have a personal life—and all those parts of your life want things (such things!) from you. It’s easy to feel scattered, frantic, and depleted all at the same time. 

So what’s a savvy entrepreneur to do?  

After working with thousands of busy people, I have found these five ways to cut through the noise so that you can get the important things done, stay focused, keep all the balls in the air and still have the relief of totally turning off and recharging on a regular basis.  

1. Set priorities

It’s not all going to get done.  It’s just NOT.  There will always be more emails to answer, more projections you could run, more calls to make.  So to stay focused, ask yourself each day, “If I could only get ONE thing done today, what is the single task that would really make an impact?” If your business is fairly new, always pick something that’s revenue generating.  

2. Be ruthless 

As soon as you determine your priority, something is bound to come along to distract you.  It’s the law.  This is where you have to dig deep and find your inner superhero entrepreneur if you’re going to escape the tyranny of the urgent and the annoying and get to the truly important tasks that generate new business and keep your current clients happy.  

3. Get it all out of your head

You need a system to keep things out of your head so that you can think clearly. David Allen teaches a comprehensive one in his book Getting Things Done, and there are numerous task organizer apps and systems out there. But sometimes the most effective thing you can do is old school and low tech.  Grab a piece of paper and start listing off Every Single Thing that is on your mind, from your third quarter sales targets to the birthday present you need to buy to the flicker of concern you had about your best client.  

Get it all down on paper. Once it’s down, cross off anything that’s out of your control. Table anything that can wait a month. (Tape that list into your planner to revisit it, or copy and paste it into your calendar app.) Delegate anything you can. Then underline what’s truly important and urgent. Pick three things and declare them TOP PRIORITY, even if it feels arbitrary. Do those first.  Just getting it all out of your head is a huge step to help you get out of the weeds. 

4. Compartmentalize  

Compartmentalization gets a bad rap, but for entrepreneurs, it’s essential. If you don’t set some boundaries for yourself, your work WILL leak out and saturate every single waking moment of your day. Time researcher Brigid Schulte calls this “contaminated time and it’s definitely the reason your spouse and kids are irritated with you.  

At the end of the day, write down anything that’s still on your mind—unfinished tasks, memos about things that need to happen the next day, anything time sensitive or pesky that you’re afraid you’ll forget. Then give yourself permission to WALK AWAY; It will all still be there the next day. Let yourself unplug for a few hours and be present with your loved ones, whether that’s the characters of Downton Abbey or a household of human and furry family.  

This will feel terrifying at first, like you’re leaving the stove on, but gradually you’ll come to appreciate how much more productive you are when you actually give yourself downtime. You’ll find that your best ideas come when you’re NOT thinking about work, and you’ll be fresher and more innovative when you’re actively disconnecting. 

5. Schedule in some treats 

I know, I know, you can’t possibly carve out time for fun! But if you don’t do it deliberately, your inner sense of justice WILL hijack you so that you’ll wake from a groggy stupor one afternoon to realize you’ve just spent three hours aimlessly surfing Facebook. Much better to build in little treats and respite deliberately, whether that’s scheduling a regular massage, booking a standing monthly lunch with a friend, or blocking off a weekly hour of sanctioned hooky when you do whatever the heck you want.  

Having little treats embedded in your schedule will lighten your mental load, give you something to look forward to, and actually help you be more focused and efficient when you are working—because you know there’s an end in sight.  

None of us do these things perfectly, but if you’re an entrepreneur you already have in your possession a superhuman amount of creativity, optimism and savvy. Use it on your own behalf so that the most important engine of your business—YOU—stays in tip-top shape.  Then, when you get cornered, you can just look smug and say, “Yup, I am DARN lucky.” 

Anna Kunnecke helps her clients around the world make wise and savvy choices in their careers, relationships, and daily lives. They report copious swearing but also a strange kind of magic, and more than 2,000 people have made their homes more beautiful using her program The Queen Sweep.  

Anna’s teaching The Queen Sweep for free in the spring of 2015, so join her to blitz clutter and finally get organized.

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