The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship typically appeals to creative, motivated people who have a great idea for a business (or three!) That means that entrepreneurs tend to be passionate and highly driven, which is a good thing…until it makes them more susceptible to overworking.

Burnout can happen to anyone, but entrepreneurs are particularly prone to it. They often link their sense of purpose to the daily “hustle.” As a result, they struggle to disengage from their enterprise.

Worse still, they lack the boundaries they might have in a corporate job. When you work a 9-5, you may work late, but eventually, the security team will kick you out. When you run your own business, though, what’s to stop you from working all hours of the day and night?

In our hustle-and-grind culture, overworking may seem glamorous. Even some of our celebrity entrepreneurs boast about how little they sleep. But let’s be honest: burnout is bad for you — and bad for your business.

Why do entrepreneurs tend to be workaholics, and how can we avoid falling into this pattern?

The Recipe for Burnout

First, let’s define burnout. As the name suggests, it happens when you’ve run out of oxygen. Your fire flickers out.

Burnout is a specific type of mental exhaustion that develops after long periods of chronic stress and unending work. It’s more than feeling tired after the workweek. When you’re burned out, you may find it difficult to even feel motivated or excited about your business. Often, you’ll feel frustrated or apathetic without understanding why.

Plenty of people work hard, then take the weekend off to recover. But when you run your own business, you may not have weekends to yourself. You may not have any time to yourself. That leaves you constantly in “work” mode, and eventually, your brain forgets how to disengage. If you’ve ever experienced a late-night urge to handle some business tasks, you know what I mean.

Overworking yourself is, sadly, a normal part of our workplace culture. Despite recent claims that “no one wants to work,” research indicates that most people feel immense pressure to work. They also associate their sense of self-worth with their job — perhaps even how many hours they work.

Those tendencies are even more pronounced in entrepreneurs.

If you’re an entrepreneur, your business is more than a job. Often, it’s a major passion project and the fulfillment of a longtime dream. It’s your “baby,” and you feel a strong sense of responsibility toward it. That’s normal…but it’s also a risk factor for burnout.

Many entrepreneurs struggle to set boundaries in their businesses. They convince themselves that their enterprise will fall apart without them. This reluctance to turn away can eventually lead business owners to neglect other aspects of their lives.

In sum, burnout occurs when we allow our resources to be drained, by overworking, not taking the time to reflect and refresh, or both.

Workaholism is Addiction

The more dependent you feel upon your business, the less likely you are to disengage from it. Entrepreneurial workaholism is essentially a type of addiction — and burnout is the symptom.

If you can’t disengage from your business, your brain eventually tricks you into a constant state of work. Even when you’re trying to relax, you end up thinking about your business. Yet when you should be working on your business, you lack the mental energy to truly be strategic.

Those are the signs of burnout. But what makes us addicted to our enterprise? How does workaholism develop?

Like any sort of addiction, workaholism emerges when we can’t imagine living without our business. This could happen due to several reasons:

If you suspect you’re suffering from workaholism or burnout, take a moment to ask yourself what’s keeping you locked in.

Knowing Why You Cling to Your Business

The first step toward breaking your workaholism and recovering from burnout is to identify your driving motivations and fears.

For many entrepreneurs, their business is not only an important endeavor but also their source of income. Stepping away, even for a moment, may trigger fears of unpaid bills and unmet goals.

Similarly, growing your business is an impressive personal feat. Especially in our hustle-focused culture, we tend to link our self-esteem to our accomplishments. If you fled the corporate world because it was unfulfilling, you likely feel a strong need to make your own business a success.

You may also be holding some limiting beliefs. Are you so afraid of failure that you’ll overwork yourself to avoid any risk? Do you feel nervous about managing other people and so avoid delegating your tasks? Or perhaps you’ve secretly convinced yourself that you don’t deserve entrepreneurial freedom at all.

Finally, ask yourself if you have any toxic ideas about entrepreneurship. For example, it is a fallacy that hard work equals success. Our society pounds that drum to the point that even successful people feel inadequate if they’re not constantly working. Take the time to affirm your accomplishments and define “success” on your own terms. It probably doesn’t require working 70-80 hours per week!

Many people also embrace the Protestant Work Ethic: the idea that working hard makes you a good person. Conversely, taking downtime is “laziness” and morally repugnant. Believe me: it’s totally okay to take a day to do nothing. Your big brain needs some space to relax!

And of course, perfectionism is anathema to progress and the plague of entrepreneurs everywhere. As they say in the Agile community, “done is better than perfect.” Accepting this fact can help you step away from your business when you’ve hit a goal.

4 Steps to Freedom

Entrepreneurship is ultimately about freedom, which makes it tragic when entrepreneurs end up enslaved by their business. To overcome workaholism and burnout, you must take the steps toward gaining that freedom. This helps your brain learn what it’s like to run a business without constantly being in “work mode.”

being in “work mode.”

  1. Rediscover your Why. What made you launch your own business to begin with? What do you want to achieve in the world? Your Why is easy to forget once you get into the weeds of daily business. Remembering it can help you set appropriate boundaries.
  2. Embrace your business’s Promise. What do you and your team promise to your customers? That’s what should drive all your efforts — and it can be a helpful “excuse” to relieve yourself from all your ideas. Plus, this shifts the burden from your sense of self-worth to what you provide through your business.
  3. Be willing to delegate. Emulate a certain ice princess and “let it go!” I often advise entrepreneurs to “love it or leave it.” If it isn’t something you enjoy or that only you can do, delegate it. Then, assign accountability to your delegees to free up valuable mental space.
  4. Affirm your talents. In a culture that celebrates “one-upping” and the daily grind, it’s easy to feel inadequate if you don’t hustle 24/7. Trust me: it’s okay to run your business from 9 to 5, then take the evening off! Your health, family, and overall happiness will thank you. To get to this point, allow yourself to celebrate your accomplishments. Entrepreneurship is hard: take that as a win in and of itself!

Wrapping Up

Burnout and entrepreneurship often go hand-in-hand — but they don’t have to. You will feel happier, more confident, and more competent in your enterprise if you overcome your workaholic tendencies. Burnout can quickly destroy an otherwise promising endeavor. Remember: there’s only one YOU, and you deserve better than burnout. As I always say, you own your business; it shouldn’t own you!

So, if you’re experiencing burnout or feeling pressure to constantly work on your business, take some downtime. Reflect on your goals and limiting beliefs. Then, find a way to set clear boundaries and allow yourself to “let it go.”

This article was loosely based on an interview with Dr. Sharon Grossman on the Simplifying Entrepreneurship Podcast.

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