Since April is Stress Awareness Month, and I'm a bit of a stress aficionado, I thought it would be a good time to get on the journal and share a few of my thoughts about business burnout. I think if you've started your own business, especially if you've monetised your hobby like I have, it's so easy to let your business creep into your life to the point where you can't distinguish which is which anymore. I was chatting to a group of fellow business owners about this last week, and it was actually really nice because let's face it, being a small business owner can be really isolating! Unless you've done it yourself, it's hard to know what that experience is like. Don't get me wrong - I love owning my own business, and the thought of ever having to go back to a desk job fills me with unbelievable dread. But it has its pitfalls too, and it's often hard to know who to talk to about it. Actually, personally, I've found I haven't even realised I needed to talk to anyone about feeling burnt out until I actually stopped and realised that feeling tired and unmotivated might just be because I'm not making space for my life amongst all this work. You know... you might not realise you're burnt out until you stop for a second and think about it. That was my experience anyway. So, let's talk about it.
Okay, so like I said, I'm a total stress head, always have been. Muscle tension up the wazoo (mainly just in my right shoulder, because why not), grinding my teeth to the point I worked my jaw joint muscle into a lump for a few days (that was fun and not at all scary!) I'm definitely the kind of person who internalises a lot, and who finds it hard to separate myself from my work. I've always said you could insult me any which way physically, criticise me, I don't care, but my sense of self (and self-worth) comes from my work. So, leaving a job where it was up to someone else to decide if I was good or not was actually really freeing, and I'm so fortunate to be able to have set out by myself. But it's not like working for yourself is free of those things! It's not a boss anymore, now it's a random instagram commenter, or an order you got wrong, or some person upset their order hasn't arrived in time. This sort of stuff really gets to me, and I guess I wouldn't be doing what I do if it didn't (if that makes sense - it means I care very much) but it's very hard not to take all this stuff personally! And so whenever anything goes wrong, my natural instinct is to work harder to make it right, which... you can see how this becomes a vicious cycle.
So let's take it back a bit further. Having grown up playing a lot of competitive sports, I learned the discipline it took to achieve (what were to me at the time) big things. I had a rowing coach who told me: 'when you aren't out there on the water training, your competitors are' and that's always stuck with me. So, you know, as a person who achieved great things training 13 sessions a week, you could say I know how to work myself into the ground to get where I want to be. I definitely call myself a workaholic. And it's not just the sports - I grew up in a family business where everyone worked really hard. Even after 40+ years in business, my dad still works extraordinarily hard, and finds it difficult to switch off. Not sure if inheriting this one would be nature or nurture but either way, there was no escaping it.
So here I am, running my own business that I started by accident from something that I loved to do. Naturally, working doesn't feel like work to me a lot of the time, so it's hard to know when to stop and find the space for myself, because so much of myself is my business (and I know lots of you fellow business owners feel the same). And when I do find something that's a bit of time out, let's say... learning screen printing, or doing a bookbinding course, my brain just tries to find ways to make it relate to the business. In fact, the only things I can really do to switch off, are to exercise (while listening to a podcast, to totally drown out my brain) or to read (can't multitask and do accounting while reading a book!) Because this is the thing - I love watching trash tv (talk to me anytime about MAFS Australia) but I am definitely doing my bookkeeping while watching it. Again - I am terrible at setting boundaries for myself!
All this is great, and to be honest, I think my workaholism has had a lot to do with getting The Completist to where it is today. It's not always a bad thing. But, I really started to realise when I was sad and couldn't work out why, or just couldn't get things done and couldn't face the day, that I was maybe pushing myself a little too hard. And you definitely can't give the best of yourself (or even the 'okay' of yourself) when you've got barely any juice in the tank. It's something that's taken me years to actually admit to myself because of course, I have anxiety about taking time off. Once I'm fully relaxed, it's really hard to get my momentum back so... I just don't stop. And then you get to where I was a few months ago where I was constantly on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is pretty horrible. Even when I tried to carve out time for myself, something would happen to pull me back into the thick of things, so sometimes it's just unavoidable. As a business owner, the buck stops with you and that's just the way it is. It's tough.
I'm going to be really frank with you - this post isn't going to end all tied up with a neat resolution. Life (and stress) just isn't like that. I'm definitely about to go home, pop on some MAFS and crack open an excel spreadsheet. BUT. About a month ago, I managed to take half a day just to sit and read. I also managed to take a day just to wander around East London on a sunny day. I am getting better at taking a day off during the week when I've worked all weekend. I've managed to have a couple of weekends where I haven't come into the studio at all! And I do feel like I'm getting a bit of myself back, which I guess is the point. I think it's like any habit forming (or breaking) behaviour, where you've just got to make little bits of progress, because it all adds up to movement in the right direction.
So, yeah. Look, I don't have the answers ultimately - this is Stress Awareness Month, not Stress Resolution Month. I just know a lot of us can be good at creating a façade of everything being fine (to the point where you're even fooling yourself) but I figure putting this out there might help some of you feel less isolated, and hopefully even make you stop and assess how you're really feeling. And maybe even encourage you to take a half day off ;)