How I Recovered from Entrepreneurial Burnout (Or… Why I Gave up the Hustle)

For a few years now you couldn’t browse the online business space without coming across a strong encouragement to hustle for your dreams. I used to think that this talk was motivational, but a couple of years ago I started to realise that it was actually detrimental to my productivity and my mental health. I’ve suffered business burnout many times over, and now I’ve given myself permission to simplify and give up the hustle. It feels good, and it hasn’t impacted my profits. I hope that sharing my experience over the last 10 years might motivate you to approach work a little differently, too.

The Early Mistakes

When I first started my online business in 2008 I had just graduated university with a degree in Philosophy & History. While I don’t regret going to university – I had a truly amazing three years, I learnt lots of skills that don’t directly apply to specific jobs, and even met my husband there! – the degree didn’t leave me in the best position for finding work and earning money right off the bat.

I’d been posting to a private personal blog for a couple of months before finishing university and that led me to discover the joys of “making money online”. People suggested I look for work as a proofreader, and in my search I came across internet marketing forums where people would pay you to write articles they’d use for their websites. I was thrilled to have found a way to make some money from home, and I even had money in my PayPal account that very first day.

The problem was that the work wasn’t great, and I totally undervalued myself. I charged just a few dollars per article (yes, really!), because that’s what other people were doing. And the exchange rate from USD to GBP at the time was didn’t work in my favour, so I really wasn’t making much from each article.

Luckily I didn’t have too many expenses (I was living with parents at the time) and I could also write fast. The nature of the work meant that some website owners would ask me to write 50 articles all on extremely similar topics (side note: this is not a great way to do business). So I figured I was fine taking on 50 articles at a few dollars each for a total of a couple of hundred and bash them out over a couple of days.

Burnout

Do you think I am mad yet?

I was mad, but I didn’t see it at the time. All I knew was I was writing quickly, all these articles on the same topics didn’t require much research, and I ultimately had enough money to live. Nevermind the fact that the work was long and, frankly, mind-numbing.

What happened next was burnout.

Working in this way wasn’t sustainable for me at all. It took all joy from writing, which I had actually previously taken pride in when I was at university and posting on my blog. Now it was all about fluffy content that I didn’t like. I had to do way too much to earn a decent amount of money and, honestly, I have never recovered from that burnout. It took something away from me when it comes to the joy of writing.

I still didn’t learn my lesson, though. I blamed the work I was doing and moved onto other work, work that was more interesting and more fulfilling, yes, but the problem still remained. I undervalued myself and believed I needed to work like a machine in order to make ends meet. It was exhausting and I’d frequently have days where I finished work after midnight (even though I started my work day at a regular time in the morning).

I wasn’t happy. My husband wasn’t happy with me. I was stressed and feeling fed up with life. I ended up taking drastic action and convincing my husband to come travelling for a year in Southeast Asia. I still worked while we were away, but it was on a much more relaxed schedule and I started to think differently about my work (which is another blog post, for another time).

Doing Business Differently

Even after travelling for a year I still wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to have a successful business if I didn’t force myself to work really hard.

In fact, I struggled for a while and went in the total opposite direction. I believed I had to work hard, but I was so fed up with my work, and still burnt out from my previous hustle, that I hardly got anything done. Even worse, I’d constantly beat myself up about it. Instead of taking time out to go for a walk or spending time doing other things I enjoyed, I’d spend hours sitting at my desk thinking about how I “should” be working and then not getting anything done.

A major part of the problem was that I thought there was a certain way to do things. I read self-improvement blogs and books that talked about maximising productivity and doing as much as you could. And I didn’t think I deserved to earn money if I wasn’t working all the time.

Thankfully, something changed. I stopped following people who made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, and started paying attention to people who were doing things their own way. Yes, you certainly have to work and take action to achieve things, but I realised that it doesn’t have to be hard all the time. A more relaxed approach to business is ultimately better for your physical and mental health, and doesn’t mean anything for your ultimate profit.

My New, Slower Approach to Business

So now I choose to work and to get things done, but without having to go into hustle mode (not too often anyway, see below), and without stress. That’s the goal, at least. I’m not perfect, by any means. But I’ve given myself permission to do business in a more intentional, more joyful, more gentle and much less stressful way.

Firstly, I decided that I don’t need to work regular hours. That’s not to say I have completely random hours – personally I do work best with some kind of routine, and I do set boundaries to stop work taking over. And now I’ve had a baby, I do have set time periods in which I’m available to work. What I mean is that I don’t need to work 40+ hours a week, I can take a couple of hours out in the middle of the day away from work (guilt-free). And sometimes I work on weekends, but it’s usually in a much more relaxed, joyful way.

Back in 2016 I started taking hours out of my day to train for the marathon. It was probably doing this that taught me that I could achieve just as much – and maybe even MORE – than I had been, without putting in a set amount of time. My runs would get longer and longer, taking a couple of hours after a while. And, when I got home, I enjoyed slowly stretching, having a post-working snack and taking a long shower. At first I felt like I was wasting time, and I fought against it. But the truth is it set me up for a really great day of work afterwards. I’m not training for a marathon any more, and I don’t have the same luxury of time now that I have a baby, but I still take that approach to my business.

I’ve embraced a different pace in my work. I’ve simplified and focused on less. And I somehow seem to achieve more as a result. I honestly believe that the more time you have available to work on something, the longer it’ll take you. And that the traditional idea of productivity – simply being in the office from 9 to 5 – is totally flawed.

My new approach applies to deadlines, too. I was the kind of person who often got stressed and completed everything at the last minute. Since I’ve slowed down, I’ve worked harder at becoming more intentional with my planning process which means less time wondering what to do, and more time just getting it done when I need to. I have turned into the kind of person who completes task way ahead of deadlines (and if you’d have told me that a few years ago, I’d never have believed it!) Oh how this simple shift makes such a difference to my stress levels!

And just because I’m simplifying does not mean I’m thinking small with my business. In fact, I think that focusing on the essentials, and creating a more sustainable rhythm, is allowing me to think bigger and more clearly than I have before.

Applying This to All Areas of My Life

My slower and more relaxed approach to business has also extended to my life. In fact, being more flexible about when I work – and being more intentional when I DO work – allows me time for self-care. When I first drafted this post I was actually pregnant, and learning even more about the importance of taking things at my own pace. Now that the baby is here I’m still figuring things out (he’s only 5 months so I’m still very new at this!)

And although I’m no longer travelling around Asia like I was in 2012, I still love to bring the location independent lifestyle into my daily life in small ways. By getting out and working in the park, by taking time to take mini breaks near where I live, and by being even more flexible about my schedule when I do!

Is There Still A Place for Hustle?

Despite everything I’ve written above, I do think hustle still has a purpose for me. But only if I use it wisely and for very limited periods of time! I can deal with a few days of hustle to achieve something important, and it can be motivating. But when it becomes a way of life, and I need a daily glass of wine just to stop my brain feeling so full of information, I know it’s not serving me anymore.

I do believe that hustle could be good for some people, depending on your personality. Some people thrive on tight deadlines, on measuring their productivity, on pushing themselves daily. And if you have a genuine need to work extra hard due to your financial circumstances or a personal event then I do not want to discount that.

If your hustle is working out for you, then great! But if you’re feeling burnt out, stressed, unhealthy, unhappy… then hopefully this blog post has given you some food for thought.

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