When I was pregnant with my second child, the only thing I could think of was, "When I am breast-feeding my child, that's all I want to be doing." When, like me, you're an entrepreneur running your own company, that's a big 'ask.' 

Frankly, I was having flashbacks to the birth of my first child who arrived in the world around the same time I got word that my global development firm had doubled in size thanks to landing a large contract. Back then, I would breastfeed in the middle-of-the-night and then, since I was already up, move on to answering a pile of e-mails. I would regularly juggle my baby in one hand and a phone in the other. Not only did I not want to repeat that experience but also I knew that, emotionally and physically, I couldn't. I was burned out. And I was hardly alone.

In a 24/7, digitally hyper-connected work culture, burnout is endemic, and probably nowhere more so than among entrepreneurs Michael A. Freeman, M.D. at the University of California. Once the euphoria of launching a successful company fades, you're often left with this feeling that grows heavier by the year, that you absolutely must attend to the million things that cry out for your attention every day. Or else! Driven, can-do optimists by nature, we entrepreneurs are bad at saying no.

Here are the lessons I learned from my burnout moment--and the solution I came up with that paved the way for a more satisfying, and way less masochistic, career. Reader, I went big.

1. Make a hard, honest self-inventory.

Seven years ago my life was, to all outward appearances, totally on track--my young company was flourishing, my young family was growing ... and I was exhausted. For me, it simply came down to this. I was delivering for my clients and my colleagues and somehow managing to be a mom--but none of it was fun.

2. Be willing to shake things up--and don't be afraid of a time-out.

When you run your own company, no one is going to give you a sabbatical, no matter how well-earned. But that's exactly what I needed, to recover from the stress of achieving my original goals and to re-think my priorities so I could return without falling into the same burnout trap.

Some life coaches recommend you play "hooky" for a day, or a week. My family and I played hooky for a year. In Bali. The irony is, to cut loose in such a radical way, and to be able to come back, required the same thoughtful planning that launching my company did.

3. Create growth opportunities for your staff.

In the months before my departure, I trained my staff to take on more and more responsibility and I found a competent caretaker manager to run the show in my absence, whom I coached via skype from Indonesia. He didn't grow the company, but he was good enough and the benefits to my getting a break out-weighed the downside of flat-line growth that year.

4. Re-enter re-charged.

The most profound lesson I learned when I returned to D.C. was that the world didn't collapse in my absence--my company was holding its own and many of my professional colleagues outside my inner circle had barely registered I had been away. All proof that showed I didn't personally have to attend every meeting and answer every e-mail to keep disaster at bay.

But I was re-charged and ready to take over the reins again, if not exactly in the same way. My husband and I scheduled time for tennis and the gym at least three days a week--our descent from fit to flab was one of our time-out wake-up calls. I delegated more, so that while I still gave my all at work every day, when I came home, I didn't have 100 e-mails to answer. (Or if I did, they generally waited until the next morning.) The biggest difference-maker was that, in my absence, my company team had stretched and grown up, and I could rely on them to get more done with less hand-holding.

At the same time I was doing a better job of protecting my personal boundaries, I was also expanding my professional ones. I believe the newfound clarity and confidence I brought to plotting my company's future directly led to landing several major contracts that in turn led to my successful sale of the company. And getting off the merry-go-round (for me it was Indonesia, for you, who knows?) had a lot do with it.

Published on: May 9, 2019
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