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Beating Business Burnout

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By Lynn H. Colwell

5 Remedies for relief when the pressure's on.

If you find yourself exhausted, ridden by anxiety, suffering physical problems such as headaches, stomach aches, or sore muscles, it's time to consider whether you're on the verge of burnout. Start by asking yourself a few questions:

* What must I do to regain the happiness and feelings of fulfillment I used to enjoy in my business?

* What is the number-one problem I'm experiencing, and what can I do about it?

* Who can I call on to help get relief from the constant pressures I'm under? While every individual is different, many people who eventually burn out share some common traits:

1. Inability to set boundaries. During the start-up phase, it can be especially hard to know when to say "no," according to Mark Gorkin, a Washington, DC, consultant also known as "The Stress Doc."

"Entrepreneurs sometimes work 24 hours a day," he says. "They feel they have to do that to make the business work." Gorkin asserts that entrepreneurs, as risk takers, target very ambitious goals. That's not a bad thing, he says, "but sometimes their expectations are out of whack with reality. They give themselves very difficult tasks which, sometimes, they can't realistically meet."

Developing "detached concern" can help you set those boundaries, says Gorkin. "With detached concern, you're genuinely involved with people and projects," he explains, "but you weigh how much you give and how much you take, or expect, from yourself and others. Detached concern means not being all things to all people."

2. Lack of balance. Gorkin points out that many entrepreneurs get little sleep, working almost around the clock, mostly on adrenaline. He points to exercise as a vital ingredient in burnout prevention. "Partially, it's just getting away from your work that's helpful," he says. "But when you're feeling vulnerable and overworked, a sense of control is important. Exercise, such as running, can give you a mental lift. If you go for a run, there's a beginning and end point and a sense of control. You've accomplished something tangible."

Lisa Roberts, a marketing and communications consultant in Fairfield, Connecticut, and the author of How to Raise a Family and a Career Under One Roof (Bookhaven Press, $15.95, 800-782-7424), says, "When you're working at home and running your own business, you're constantly shuffling to accommodate the needs of your clients, your children and your spouse. Your `self' gets buried at the very bottom."

But even people who don't work from home face the self-management problems that can bring on burnout. "Learn to take the big picture and break it into specific tasks," she says. "If you don't get on top of it, you'll get buried underneath."

Treat yourself as well as you do your business, advises Nuttall. "When I'm tired, I rest. When I'm hungry, I stop and eat," she says. "Sound simple? When you're driven by work, you put off eating and resting to get this one thing done, and the next, and so on. Now, even in the middle of a very busy spate, I will take off one day during the week and go hiking or do something totally non-technical. I might get a massage when things get stressful. I think a lot more about balancing all aspects of myself with work."

Victoria Siegel, owner of The Perfect Gift, a personalized gift-basket and gifts company in St. Louis, tries to leave her home office by 6 p.m. and avoids working weekends. "Since I tend to lose my determination to stick to this regimen, I make plans with friends to either be out of my house or at least entertain them here," says Siegel. "When I'm done working for the day, I close and lock the door and pretend I just left an office building and can't wait to get home."

3. Inability to prioritize. With so much to do, many entrepreneurs slip when they can't decide what's really important. Siegel explains why it's so difficult for her to prioritize: "As an entrepreneur, I'm the stock clerk, receptionist, shipping-and-receiving department, inventory department, order department, accounts receivable, accounts payable, customer service person, designer, marketer, saleswoman, writer, buyer, janitor, file clerk, data-entry person, secretary and purchasing department. Sometimes I get to be the owner, too! There's so much to be done that there's no way anything can ever be totally completed."

Another entrepreneur who has seen his employees burn out, Steve Thomson, president of Avenida Travel Services in Irvine, California says, "In my opinion, burnout occurs when someone just continues wrestling with their to-do list without asking some key questions: Is this vital to the client or my company? Is this urgent? What will happen if I don't do it now?" The key to avoiding the problem, according to Thomson, is to "organize your day, every day, before you start."

4. Perfectionistic tendencies. Thomson believes perfectionists are the most likely to burn out. "Among people who've left our company due to burnout, I see a pattern of perfectionism in their overall approach to life, and that they have trouble adapting to the fact that this is just not a perfect world."

Perfectionists believe they are superhumans who can have it all and do it all--perfectly. "They can range from the overbearing taskmaster to the self-sacrificing martyr," says Gorkin.

Putting constant pressure on yourself day after day when you're growing a business is an invitation for disaster. To prevent total collapse, perfectionists need to learn to give up some control. Delegating can be exceedingly difficult for perfectionists, but it may be the only way they can avoid total burnout.

5. Lack of motivation. Potter targets lack of motivation as a symptom of burnout. To fight it, own your life, not just your business. "Managing your own motivation involves setting magnetic goals that attract you," says Potter, "and rewarding yourself for small steps on the way to those goals."

Nuttall is dedicated to attending conferences and trade shows to keep up with a quickly evolving industry, widen her circle of contacts, and keep her life and business interesting. "Now that I work for myself, I pay a lot of attention to learning new things, not just rehashing the same ground professionally," says Nuttall.

Gorkin agrees. "Get new training. Learn new skills," he says. "As I like to say, `Variety in the day keeps burnout away.' "

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