It snuck up on me.
One innocuous-seeming “yes” at a time.
First, serving my financial strategy coaching clients took about an hour a week.
Then, my wife found this great opportunity to participate in a high-end coach training program, and the cost would be covered by another program I’d already paid for. No-brainer! It’s only 6 hours a week. Easy!
Next, my main consulting client asked me to add a couple of hours a week. Who wouldn’t agree to that, especially when I enjoy the work and love working with this client?
Then, a former client asked if I could help out on a proposal project where they’d fallen behind. I really liked working with this client, the work would be interesting and challenging (in a good way), and they agreed when I said I could only give them 5 hours a week.
Of course, my bi-weekly newsletter plus another 4 monthly blog posts added 2 more hours a week.
All told, I hit 56 hours a week.
Not much fun over the long haul. But for a month or two, with zero commute and setting my own schedule for most of it – acceptable.
But then, the proposal project hit some road bumps and needed 20 hours of my time a week instead of 5, and with that, I found myself working 70+ hour weeks. Two weeks in I felt ready to crawl out of my skin. If I kept going for many more weeks, I’d burn out for sure.
Then there were the impacts on my family.
Keep reading and I’ll let you know how it worked out. But first, here are 5 simple things I learned from my experience as my own boss, especially from this recent episode.
How to Avoid Burnout When You’re Self-Employed
What’s that old saying about working for yourself? “You can never avoid your boss.” He always knows where you are, and never lets you off easy. Given that, if you’re self-employed, you have to set good boundaries and be disciplined to avoid burning yourself out.
Tip #1: Know When Enough Is Enough and Learn to Say “No”
This is the most important lesson from my recent experience.
Given my consulting workload and coaching work, I could add one other thing at most. I could blog and send out my newsletter. Or I could do the coach training program. Or I could help my old client – but only if I maintained that 5 weekly hour boundary.
That would have kept me around 45 weekly hours, a workload I can support for years. Heck, I’ve worked longer hours for most of my career.
It was saying yes too quickly and too often that got me into trouble. As American humorist Josh Billings said, “Half the troubles of this life can be traced back to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”
The tip here is this: don’t bite off more than you can chew. For each thing you want to say “Yes” to, you’ll need to learn to say “No” to many others.
Tip #2: Charge High Enough Rates
If there’s one piece of coaching I find almost all my clients need to hear (again and again, and yet again) and heed, it’s this.
Charge more for your services.
Do you think $250 is too much for a 50-minute session?
If so, it’s because you’re thinking about it wrong.
Your clients don’t pay you for your time. They pay you because you can help make the pain go away. For example, if you’re a couples therapist and can help save a marriage in 8 sessions, that’s a $2000 cost for the client for an extremely important outcome.
If you don’t help that client save his marriage, how much would two attorneys charge him and his spouse? Probably at least 10 times as much, assuming things don’t go really badly. And all that does is get them divorced, hopefully without either side taking too much of an advantage of the other (as for the attorneys not taking advantage, well, that’s another story). Regardless, this path doesn’t prevent the anguish or the emotional devastation.
So which do you think is the better value?
As importantly, if you charge too little, you’ll need to take on a heavier caseload. Then, when you’re sitting down for the 6th, 7th, 8th, or later session of the day, can you honestly say you’re the same great therapist who sat in your chair for the first few sessions?
Charging higher rates lets you take care of yourself and your family, while honoring your commitment to your clients’ successful outcomes. That's only possible if you don’t overload yourself and don’t eventually burn out.
Tip #3: Set Reasonable Start and Stop Times, Take Breaks, and Get Enough Sleep
If you bend over backwards to accommodate every client request for early morning times, late evening times, weekend times, etc., you’ll soon find that you never have any "off" time.
You’re always “on.”
Even when you’re between sessions, or calls, or client meetings, or networking activities, or writing notes, your mind is going a mile a minute, trying to keep it all straight. You wake up too early, don’t take truly refreshing breaks, go to sleep too late, and probably have trouble falling asleep due to the stress.
Instead, set reasonable boundaries:
- My work day will start at… – fill in the blank with an hour that’s late enough for your natural morning energy level to be near its peak
- My workday will end at… – fill in the blank with an hour that’s early enough to let you unwind and have a life
- I will take a …-minute break every … minutes – fill in the blanks with a long enough time to let yourself breath, take a short walk outside if the weather is nice, drink a cup of coffee/tea/water/juice, etc.; but short enough that you don’t stretch your day as a result – 10 minutes after a 50-minute session is good, or 30 if you work for 90 minutes straight
- I will be in bed by… – fill in the blank with a time that gives you at least 8 solid hours before you need to get up, because insufficient sleep can endanger you and others, and research shows it can also lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cut years off your life
- I will not do client work on ... – fill in the blank with the days you'll take off each week, usually Sat and Sun, but you may want to dedicate at least one weekday for working on your business rather than in your business.
Tip #4: Don’t Multitask
One of my favorite humorous websites is Despair.com, which sells "demotivational" posters, mugs, signs, etc. Their homepage says, “At Despair, we offer the cure for hope. And for surprisingly affordable prices! ”
One of my all-time favorites is the one about multitasking. It shows the image of a spork – that unfortunate cross between a spoon and a fork, with the title, “Multitasking,” followed by the caption, “The art of doing twice as much as you should half as well as you could.”
Doing things less well than you could (or should) is a problem to be sure, but it isn’t the only one.
The thing is that your mind takes time to catch its stride on a new task, so each time you shift your attention from one thing you’re nominally doing to the other thing you’re nominally doing at the same time, you waste precious time finding where you left off before, recalling what you were going to do next, and figuring out how to do that next thing.
Doing this continuously is stressful, and wastes time you can’t afford to waste (obviously, since you feel driven to do too much in too short a time).
That’s a great recipe for burnout.
Instead, focus deeply on one thing at a time, do it well, and finish it (or reach a natural stopping point for the day), before (taking a break and) moving on to the next thing.
Tip #5: Take Time Off to Recover and Rejuvenate
You know when I realized how big of a bind I’d gotten myself into by saying “Yes” to too many things?
It was when I had to take work with me to a long weekend at the beach with my wife, her brother, and his wife, and spend hours of my nominal time off doing urgent client work. Setting aside the friction this naturally caused with my sweetheart, instead of enjoying that precious time at the beach focusing on some of our favorite vacation activities with people I love, allowing myself to recover and rejuvenate, I worked.
According to The Guardian, an Australian nurse who worked with the dying wrote a book about their greatest regrets. One of their top regrets was, “I wish I hadn't worked so hard.”
It was then that I realized what I had done to myself and those around me.
Taking enough time off is crucial for our mental and physical health, and our ability to keep going without burning out.
Don’t cheat yourself, your family, and your clients of your best self. Take time off, for real.
How Things Turned Out for Me and What I Did as a Result
There was no responsible way to say “No” to things I’d already agreed to do when people were counting on me to deliver what I promised. It took months to fully untangle myself.
- I immediately dropped my blogging from 4-5 per month to 1-2, saving ~2 hours a week
- The proposal project ended soon after, saving 5 weekly hours nominally, but really 20 hours
- The coach training program ended 4 months later, saving 6 more weekly hours.
I had also started working on a product I could sell to clients who prefer to do their own work as much as possible without direct coaching. Then, when I saw what I had done by saying “Yes” to so many things, I stopped and shelved this project for now.
I’ll only consider restarting it once I can say “No” to enough other things for long enough that I can responsibly say “Yes” to this one.
All that brought me back to what is, for me, a sustainable workload that won’t burn me out.
How about you?
This article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be considered financial, legal, or health advice. You should consult a relevant professional before making any major decisions.