Not everyone will end up burning out like Shawn Theodore did to finally realize how to take a break. After his web-design company grew from a few clients in 2003 to 50 in 2007, a deep fatigue had set in.
"It got to the point where my clients knew I was up all night working. They would think it was okay to email me at 3 in the morning and expect a response," says Theodore, 40, a co-founder of Adjektiv, which was based in Las Vegas, Nev., and New York.
After his business partner and an investor both died in tragic, separate incidents in 2008, he was reeling from grief and the stressful toll that years of nonstop work had taken on his psyche. Taking drastic action, he scaled back to four clients and moved from Las Vegas to Brooklyn, N.Y., to regroup.
Getting in touch with his "Bohemian roots" was one goal. He rented an apartment with a roof deck, spent hours in nearby Prospect Park and rode his bike whenever the weather permitted. He slowly rebuilt his company with a new name -- Partners in Theory -- and a new conviction to never again let business consume his life.
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Now, instead of running a company with three partners and as many as 20 independent coders and programmers, he runs the business on his own, working with about 11 independent contractors, all of whom take the lead on their own projects, relieving him of client-management responsibilities.
Theodore says he is also much more in tune with his own need for time off. While he rarely took breaks before, he now takes both vacations and short daily breaks to recharge. This summer, he'll take off either Thursday or Friday most weeks and is combining a cross-country work trip with sightseeing.
In that respect, Theodore is unlike many other U.S. business owners. Only 46 percent plan to take a vacation this summer, down from a high of 67% in 2006, according to the May American Express OPEN Small Business Vacation Monitor. Busy work schedules (37%) and affordability (29%) are the top reasons. But vacations and breaks can be what you need to increase productivity and come up with new ideas to make your business run better, says Jon Gordon, a Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.-based motivational speaker on business productivity and author of The Seed: Finding Purpose and Happiness in Work and Life (Wiley, 2011).
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Do you need a break? Here are seven signs it's time.
1. Loss of joy. If you're beginning to dread going to the business you once loved or find yourself chronically unhappy, it's likely a signal you need to take a break. "Often, it's when we think we can't take a break, during those very busy times, or when business is slow, that it's most important to do so," says Gordon.
2. Lack of focus or creativity. "Most people can't have a high level of focus for extended periods of time. Even high-end athletes or musicians need regular breaks," says former accountant Greg De Simone, founder of FocalPoint, a Mansfield, Mass., business coaching firm. He says he routinely sees clients return from vacations operating at a higher level of productivity or with newfound solutions to problems that had dogged them.
3. Constant feeling of overwhelm. If you're reacting rather than taking control, it's a clear indicator you need to take a break, says De Simone. If you think you can't spare the time, consider that you're losing it anyway by being ineffective, he says. "Getting away from your business allows you to step out of the constant flood of demands and interruptions and see your business more clearly," he says. That can help you make better decisions.
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4. Irritability. Cranky much? Irritability can be a sign of stress, depression, or other maladies, says Gordon. Take a break before you do real damage to your employee and client relationships.
5. Insomnia. Sleep issues are another red flag, says Gordon. Meditation and getting outside on a regular basis can help, he says. The National Institutes of Health says that regular exposure to outdoor light is important for the circadian rhythms that direct your sleep. If you're stressed and sunlight-deprived all day, you're dealing a double blow to your ability to get a good night's rest.
6. Health issues. Drive yourself too hard and it's likely going to take a toll on your health, says Gordon. Working endless hours may feel like a badge of honor, but if you have chronic insomnia, stomach issues, or generally not feeling well, it's time to consult your doctor -- who just might prescribe a break, he says. (Unfortunately, vacations aren't usually covered by health insurance.)
7. Warnings from friends and family. Today, when people in his life tell him it's time to take a break, Theodore finds the time. He never wants his business to run his life again. "Relationships are the most important thing in your life. If the people around you need you, you have to find time for them, even when it's busy," he says. Time with his loved ones, he says, is often the best way to relax.