Having been hit hard by burnout before, I can categorically say that it is no fun! It can creep up and hit you when you’re not looking, and symptoms can range from tiredness to serious or life changing physical and mental health issues.
You know when you are approaching burnout territory when you are spending more time ‘putting out small fires’ than working on satisfying tasks with a safe window to turn them around in; you are working late and on the weekends and not having any regular time off. When I reach that point, I know burnout is imminent, and I have to take action. Our bodies know when we need to rest, and when we are pushing them too hard, we need to listen to them.
So, what can we do to avoid burnout, and how can we ensure we are working in a way that looks after our mental and physical wellbeing, whilst still working effectively?
Schedule and prioritise.
Working to a list may sound simple and obvious, but this can be very productive and it can save a great deal of time. By listing your tasks you can then prioritise them by importance/deadlines, you can break them up into smaller chunks, and when you get to tick off the items on your list, there is some sense of satisfaction. Personally, I use the ‘To-Do’ list function on MS OneNote, but there are a whole range of options out there, from your handwritten to-do lists, all the way through to project management.
If there is no priority or no deadline to meet, then a top tip is to pop the jobs you least like doing at the top; that way they get done and dusted, and you can then set about the more enjoyable tasks once your least favourite ones are done.
Psychologically our brains function well when we provide an incentive for doing something, so by saving the more enjoyable tasks until the least favourite ones are done, it provides us with the motivation to get those jobs done. Some people reinforce this with an actual reward once a job is completed, for example, a cup of coffee or a sweet.
In short though, by having a to-do list, breaking it down and prioritising tasks or using an incentive for those more odious tasks, it increases your productivity, saving you time and enabling you to fire through those jobs without procrastinating and having to spend more time working than you really should.
Set Boundaries for your Clients.
We’ve all had those clients that you gave an inch, and they took a mile! I had one of those earlier on in my business, before I knew about setting boundaries. She would email, text, Messenger me and ring me at all hours of the night – and expect an answer, I hasten to add. She had expectations well above and beyond what was acceptable. It was more than tiring, having to be on full alert 24/7 was not nice, and having to deal with her toddler tantrums when I didn’t get back to her before 9 am the next workday morning, was stressful and unpleasant. Life is much easier now. I have set boundaries that I enforce when clients try to push them.
My contract states my working hours, and if a client wants to contact me outside of office hours, they clearly understand that I will either ignore it (if it isn’t urgent), or if it’s urgent, they get charged more than double for the privilege. But anything they ask of me outside of office hours is my choice, and my choice only.
It may sound harsh, but just like any employee, I am entitled to my undisturbed time off; I need that time off to rest and relax.
It means ultimately that I don’t feel obliged to keep checking my phone and emails outside of work hours.
If you do not have a clause in your contract that states you will not work outside of office hours (or similar), then now is the time to send out new contracts to your clients to ensure this is in place.
Tools to Make Your Life Easier.
Did you know that you may be spending lots of extra time on tasks that could actually be automated or taken care of digitally? It is much easier and cheaper than you may think, and if you aren’t sure how to set this up, then find a Tech VA who will know how to set it up to fit it around how you work.
Tools such as accounting software (e.g. Xero, QuickBooks, Freshbooks) can help you invoice each month. Digital Signature & form tools (e.g. Adobe software, ZohoSign, MSForms). Email Management apps (e.g. MailChimp, Mailerlite, ConstantContact) are great ways to mass email people with newsletters and updates. CRM Systems (e.g. Capsule, Zoho, 17Hats) are great ways to keep your clients details, emails, updates, documents. Booking systems (e.g. Trybooking.com, Eventbrite) are great ways to co-ordinate event bookings, ticketing, updates and cancellations.
The best news is, all of these systems can talk to one another! By using these, you can save yourself so much time and be more productive.
Outsource / Delegate
When it gets to the point where you are working late on a daily basis, and you are constantly struggling to stay on top of jobs (putting out those little fires) within an inch of the deadline, that is the time to think about outsourcing or delegating.
If you have staff, then use them, sit down and work out what tasks are easily delegated and start handing them over.
If you don’t have staff, then look at the types of jobs you have that are eating into your time. If the jobs that are taking up your time are to do with the day-to-day tasks of running your business, then you can outsource to a bookkeeper, virtual assistant, accountant, sales or marketing expert. But if you are super busy with work in your business, then maybe it is time to grow your team, either by taking on associates or employing staff.
Time Off / Switch Off (Holidays, Free Time and ‘Me’ Time)
I learned this one the hard way. In 2020, when Lockdown and all the restrictions were imposed, I chose not to take any time off work as I couldn’t go anywhere. That was a huge mistake, and come Christmas 2020 I was well and truly burnt out. One long holiday at Christmas was not enough. It took me nearly a month to recover and feel 100% again. This year, I have already booked several weeks off, spread evenly throughout the year, irrespective of whether I can go anywhere. Time off is essential to our wellbeing, and sometimes you need more than just a weekend off; you need a total break to refresh and relax.
Holidays, weekends and time for you is so important. It is vital to switch off from anything that is work-related; this means unsyncing your emails, not checking messages and doing something that allows your brain and body to relax and reset.
Hobbies play an important role in this. I play the violin, do jigsaw puzzles and go walking. I have a friend who enjoys wild swimming and makes time to do that every morning before work; another friend meditates once a day, and the family know not to disturb him when he is doing this.
Only you know how you can unwind and stop thinking about work, so do whatever works for you. But schedule it into your diary, ensure your family know it is your ‘me’ time and ensure it happens.
Whilst holidays and time off are important, there is little point in taking time off if you are going to keep checking emails or people are going to continue contacting you. You need to get a person/team/system in place to ensure you can walk away from your business for that period of time, and rest easy that it is in good hands.
In the VA industry, we commonly use associates to ensure that our phones get answered, and emails responded to. Others have backup members of staff, or they tell their clients that they are going to be away and not to expect a response for X amount of time. This is absolutely essential if you are going to unwind and rest.
A Good Support Network.
A good support network is critical when you are running a business, whether that be your family, your friends, a networking group; that ongoing support can get you through the toughest of times.
A good support network can see when you are struggling, and you can talk to them about your concerns. Not only can they help you through burnout, but they can suggest ways of helping you, ways for you to relax, great people to outsource to or where to get advice.
My support network has been an essential part of my business journey, and I’m not sure I would be where I am today without them. My husband has been a real rock through all the tough times and is always first to congratulate me when something goes well. I am also close to many other people within my industry who are supportive, and my networking group @PinkLinkLadies are a real pillar of support too.
Don’t underestimate the value of a support network, they will get you through the toughest of times, they will be the first to point out when something doesn’t seem quite right with you, and they can offer advice and help when you need it.
The Little Things
There are some other things you can put in place whilst you are working, to ensure your working hours are easier on you. Things like ensuring your office environment is pleasant to be in, with plenty of light and space, ensure you are working in a healthy way with regular breaks and plenty of water. Ensure you are sitting correctly so as not to cause injury to yourself. Another good tip is to get your eyes tested on a regular basis if you are working on a computer all day; eyestrain headaches in the evening are not conducive to relaxation!
Another good tip is to only work on things you enjoy. For example, I love most of what I do, but I loathe bookkeeping and doing other people’s social media, therefore I outsource my own bookkeeping and if clients ask for services such as bookkeeping or social media, I have my go-to people that I can forward my clients to. I didn’t start my business to do things I don’t enjoy!
When you envisaged running your business, I’ll lay money on the fact it wasn’t so you could burn yourself out running it. The key is to spot it when it’s coming, take stock regularly to ensure that you are looking after yourself. Look at the way you work and your systems, what can be improved? What could you start using to help you work more efficiently? How often do you take your ‘me’ time? What don’t you enjoy doing, or takes up most of your time? Can you outsource it or delegate it?
It’s so important that you find that passion again for your business and remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. Burnout is no fun, no fun at all, and as we all know prevention is better than cure. Get everything in place now to avoid it and get back to enjoying what you do.