Burnout has recently been classified as a medical condition. That may feel dubious, but employee burnout is on the rise. I'd argue it is even more common among entrepreneurs, as we are more likely to carry more of the responsibility and to push ourselves to the brink regularly. I flirted with burnout myself when I launched two startups while taking care of my first baby.
Productivity is a cycle, and burnout often happens when we don't respect the cycle we are in. I researched it for my best-selling book The Productive Bite-Sized Entrepreneur, now included in the complete series, The Ultimate Bite-Sized Entrepreneur.
Here is the three-step continuous method I found will help stave away your burnout:
Step 1: Pursuing
Pursuing is what we often think about with entrepreneurship:
- The seed of an idea
- The opportunity that keeps us up at night
- The pursuit of a new challenge
You can call it the ideation phase. As an employee, this is the moment leading up to you proposing a new initiative, getting a promotion or even starting in a new organization.
Things are exciting and the opportunities seem endless. It is the reason why many of us go after new things.
The burnout risk here: You can't stay here, though. Big ideas without execution are worthless. As I've said in my keynotes, many of us have five new ideas before we even eat breakfast in the morning. If you have burnout here, then you've spent too much time chasing too many ideas without following any through to completion.
Instead, sacrifice the mediocre ideas. For those ideas that do stick, allow yourself to get slightly bored with them. The more laborious details actually reveal how well your idea will hold up in real life.
Step 2: Doing
Doing is what we would consider the grind:
- The building of a company
- The late nights and early mornings of creation
- The pushing of oneself to excellence
This is the hard work phase. As an employee, it may be when the honeymoon phase of your new opportunity is over and you realize how much work it will take to succeed.
We are just past beginners, but haven't quite mastered our new role. To paraphrase leadership coach Whitney Johnson, we're at the bottom of our learning S-Curve. It takes more work to create incremental progress.
The burnout risk here: When we say "burnout", we often mean this phase of burning the candle at both ends. It is not sustainable. In fact, the longer we push ourselves beyond the limit, the more diminished our returns. It is why Elon Musk's 80-hour a week maxim is off base and why burnout is so prevalent in Silicon Valley culture.
Instead, let go of short-term progress for long-term returns. It may mean leaving the building for 30 minutes to take an official (phone-free) lunch break or going to bed 15 minutes earlier this evening. Disengaging exponentially improves our productivity, so if our intention is to be as productive as possible, then scheduling slow downs should be part of our agenda.
Step 3: Renewing
Renewing is what we would consider a break:
- The quieting of the mind
- The focus on rest and reflection
- The consciously making space to brainstorm and dream
This is the consideration phase. As an employee, it may be when you have reached a crest with the current pursuit or goal and need to reflect on the next move.
The key here is that you may not have finished or mastered the pursuit, but you definitely need time to strategize and reflect on what has already been done. It also may mean you need to recharge or refresh yourself physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually.
The burnout risk here: Once we get comfortable here, then it can be easy to fear risking past successes or even failures. For instance, if you just successfully sold your company, then it can be easier to stay in the renewing phase and not risk your previous winning reputation. Just the same, if you are recovering from a loss, then you may not want to move into the exciting, potentially dangerous pursuing phase.
One solution is to get started on a new idea: Share a concept with someone you trust, write down the service on your mind or start noodling with how the minimal viable product may work. It may be enough to kickstart you out of the rest period and into the initiation period.
Managing the cycle
One of the things I love about this approach is that it calms me down and gives me great, long-range perspective. When I sold my startup, Cuddlr, I immediately started brainstorming for the next business idea. I found myself tired and restless and, yes, idealess. After some great support, I realized that I wasn't in the doing phase anymore nor was I ready for the pursuing period. I needed to renew.
A year after reflecting, I published The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur, and that became a best-seller and defined my next pursuing phase as a public speaker and business coach. I'm now well into my doing phase.
Pursuing, doing and renewing is a healthy, repeating cycle. We tend to risk burnout when we get stuck or too focused on being in one phase of it.
What phase are you in now?