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For an entrepreneur, work exhaustion is a common struggle. There will never be a day long enough to get everything done, and it can often seem like things are piling up or falling behind. After a few months of 16 hour days and 7 day weeks, you might eventually start to feel exhausted going to bed, exhausted waking up, and like a complete zombie in between.
It’s easy to fall into this trap if you’re not careful. There are times where it seems like if you don’t open yourself up to a new experience you might miss something, or there’s some good in the world that you could be doing if you weren’t so selfish. The more giving you are, the more likely it is that you find yourself run ragged.
There’s no easy fix for this, just like there’s no obvious cause. You’re a complex person with your own individual set of priorities and pressures, so we won’t push a one-size-fixes-all solution on you.
What is helpful, however, is to look at it through the lens of how things get done, how to maximize downtime, and how to manage your own emotions in a way that is healthy and productive.
The first suggestion is, for some, the hardest: give up on perfection. Perfection is just plain unreasonable. This isn’t a suggestion to leave flaws in your work, but when setting standards for yourself, it’s time to loosen up a bit on your standards and put your stamp of approval on things when you know they’ll satisfy everyone other than yourself.
This was the first suggestion because what follows will put you into a specific frame where, at the end of the day, you might be walking away from your work before it’s finished. Being okay with that is critical.
Next, create task lists. Get everything you need to accomplish written down. Now, organize all of those tasks into things that can be done together, or where one task precedes the next. Using a system like Wrike or Asana can really help here but sometimes good old pen to paper is the best way to get this all down.
If you’ve been feeling exhausted by your work, this list is likely impossible to do in one day, even though a big part of you is saying that you need to get it all done today no matter what. Work on accepting that this entire list won’t get done.
Now, start crossing things off the list that you don’t absolutely need to do. Get rid of all of the “nice to haves” and strip the task list down to the bare essentials. The first time you do this you’ll likely only find a few things to cross out, but if you do this for a few days you’ll likely find that almost a quarter of the tasks on your list are things you could skip out on and everything would be just fine.
Now, assign cutoff times for each group of tasks. Cutoff times differ from deadlines in that, instead of saying “I need to get this done by X time”, you’re saying: “I am going to stop working on this at X time and come back to it tomorrow if it isn’t done.”
This helps you schedule appointments around the tasks that need to get done, helps you cut conversations or meetings short that might have run too long, destroying your productivity, and most importantly it helps you schedule downtime.
Downtime, by the way, is not optional. We’ll get more into that below.
Keep this task list open throughout your day and refer to it often. Cross off or highlight things that were finished, but don’t delete them. Seeing a big list of your accomplishments at the end of the day, whether everything got done or not, is hugely satisfying. It’s also a great way to reflect back and find the things that happened throughout your day that might have used up your time.
As mentioned earlier, downtime is just not optional. If you roll out of bed, go to work, and don’t stop until you go to sleep, you will get sick. This is the reality: your body will start to shut down if you don’t take some time throughout your day to decompress and de-stress.
In general, there are three places where downtime needs to happen: at the beginning of the day, sometime in the evening, and a proper night’s sleep.
Start your day with a relaxing ritual of some kind, whether it be a cup of tea watching YouTube videos or walking the dog around the block. Make sure that there are at least 30 minutes right at the start of your day where you don’t have to do anything other than relax.
Evening relaxation can include more active fun and social time, but pay close attention to how you feel about this. Sometimes social time just isn’t relaxing, and you need a quiet time by yourself. This is also a great opportunity to feed your creative side by doing some painting, scrapbooking, or writing.
There are two things to look out for with evening relaxation time: don’t trick yourself into doing something for work that “doubles” as relaxation time, like watching educational videos or having dinner meetings. At the end of the day, you were still “on” at these times. You didn’t get to truly decompress.
The other thing is to avoid trying to pack too much into this period. Sometimes we have a list of fun things we want to do and try to do them all at once, or just end up stressed out at how rushed we were to get ourselves to the theatre or squeeze in that yoga class between appointments. Remember to keep it simple.
The ideal activity will take you away from technology completely. Try reading a book or taking a walk in the woods. Reconnecting with the organic world in some way can really help transform your mental state.
Lastly, don’t sacrifice sleep. Getting anything less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night will slowly decrease your available brain power throughout the day, to the point where no amount of caffeine will bring you out of the mental fog. This makes everything more difficult and slows you down.
Also, when it’s time to go to bed, shut off the phone and shut off the laptop. No texting from bed, and no leaving voicemails in your pajamas. Bed time needs to be kept completely separate from the rest of your life, or you just plain won’t be able to sleep properly.
There is a lot written for entrepreneurs about making sure you’re in the right head space, but if you’re risking burn-out, then it’s time to stop trying to get “motivated”. Accept how tired you’re feeling, how stretched thin you are, and how rough the going is for the moment. If you try too hard to grind against these feelings and push yourself into an energetic state, you’re just causing yourself more stress and could snap.
Instead, do your best to start cutting down on the number of things you’re doing. Back out of any projects that could survive without you, even though they might be better off with you. You won’t be doing them or anybody else any good if you have a total breakdown.
You can also break up your work life by changing locations often. If you work from home, try moving the laptop to different rooms throughout the day. Spend a little time in a co-working area, or work from a coffee shop. These little shifts can add color to your day and make everything seem manageable.
Lastly, and most importantly, remember the “why” behind everything you’re doing. Why did you start these tasks in the first place? What’s the payoff in the end? Where is it all leading?
If the answers to these questions are bad, it’s time to do something else. If you just need a reminder, however, sometimes it’s a good idea to re-read your Mission and Vision statements. Keeping these things in mind will often give you that last little bit of determination to power through when you’re right near the end.