Boost Productivity

8 ways to beat burnout and reenergize

Clickbaity entrepreneur advice sites love their lists of “80,000 productivity hacks for busy entrepreneurs.” They paddle around in the shallow end of the pool because they’re scared to dive into the things that are actually holding entrepreneurs back.

At GrowthLab, we harbor no such anxieties. We’re here to tell you: all of the productivity tips in the world won’t help if you’re actually suffering from something deeper: burnout.

Numbers don’t lie: burnout is a problem that entrepreneurs have to face. Last week, the Harvard Business Review published the findings of a study on burnout in entrepreneurs showing that 25% of entrepreneurs felt “moderately burned out,” and that 3% felt “strongly burned out.” That’s more than a quarter of people you might think would be more motivated and energized than anybody — who are experiencing things like cynicism, detachment, and disillusionment instead.

We asked some Zero to Launch students to share their experience with burnout. Here, we share their best tips for what to do to keep the fire alive — and a surprising finding from the HBR study about what could be causing those high burnout rates to begin with.

Note: Some comments lightly edited for grammar, spelling, and length.

1. Take care of the fundamentals (food, sleep, fitness) first

Burnout doesn’t happen in a hermetically sealed chamber where only your business exists. It affects everything: eating, drinking, fitness, sleep. And those “little things” — those can actually be more important to pay attention to.

From Michelle Rebosio:

I made some bad choices and have been on a different time zone every week for over a month. That means that for over a month, I haven’t slept well, which also means I have gotten much less done than normal, then things pile up … not a good scenario. My priority is to get my sleep back on track, to eat well and make time to work out so that I can then get back on track on everything else!

2. Eliminate decisions you don’t need to make

In a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, President Obama explained his decision to only ever wear blue or gray suits: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

We may not all need to take it to that extreme, but there’s definitely value to the idea of simplifying the things that can be simplified.

From Shereese Alexander:

Working a 9-5 with hours and hours of commuting during the day, and working with clients for my side biz at night and on the weekends got way too taxing for me. My solution is to focus on my ONE thing … and to simplify and systematize everything I can (for example, I have fresh cooked meals delivered to my house daily) so I can free up brain power and creativity for the things that matter most to me.

3. Focus on tasks that are actually moving you forward

A huge source of burnout is the feeling that we’re not accomplishing the things that we want to accomplish — we’re pushing and pushing and pushing, but somehow getting less done. To correct for this, try evaluating your activity based on impact, rather than effort for effort’s sake. Notice when the tasks you’re performing are getting real results, and when they’re just spinning a hamster wheel.

From Dan Hinz:

When I’ve worked a lot in a day, I usually feel one of two things. It’s either pride or exhaustion. For me, the difference ends up being, “Was I productive or just busy?” Being productive fills me with pride and makes me feel like I’ve earned my weekend. Being busy just makes me feel exhausted, and my nights and weekends are filled with guilt.

4. Ask for accountability from people you trust

You can take this idea of community one step further by actively designating people to call you out for not taking time to recharge.

From Andrew Batchelor:

There are people in my life that I’ve given permission to challenge me in this area. I trust their judgement enough to listen when they’re concerned.

5. Designate a “quitting time” — and stick to it

In his book “Deep Work,” Cal Newport shares his “shutdown ritual” — the series of tasks he goes through at the end of every day. Whatever he did or did not achieve that day, once the shutdown ritual is done, that’s it. No more work.

We heard this idea of “shutting down” — in a good way — from the GrowthLab community as well.

From Reshanda Yates:

I established a daily ritual of “quitting time.” This is a time of day that I stop structured work and start relaxing. Once quitting time hits, my computer is shut down, no more email, and I ask “what is the most beneficial thing I could do for myself right now?” Sometimes the answer is take a nap. Sometimes it’s watch an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

6. Say “no.” And mean it

One way that entrepreneurs definitely get in their own way is by being “yes” people. When you’re a high achiever, you pride yourself on your ability to get it done — whatever “it” is. But that instinct to take on more and more and more responsibility because you “can” — that’s burnout waiting to happen.

Back to Reshanda Yates:

Where I get caught is taking on too many extra projects. I sometimes see other people doing X, Y, and Z and think I “should” be able to handle the same thing. But I’m learning to let go of who I think I’m “supposed” to be and embrace who I am. This means I’m saying “no” a whoooooooole lot more than I used to.

7. Give yourself permission to take a break from your business

There’s an anxiety that creeps in among entrepreneurs that if you’re not working on your business every single day, then skies will fall, cities will burn, puppies will be murdered. But the reality is that, unless your business idea is literally stopping a nuclear bomb from going off tomorrow, taking time off from your business won’t actually be that bad. In fact, it can be the best thing you can do — for your business and for yourself.

From Ethan Urie:

I’ve been there and I’m not far from it at the moment. My solution is to pay attention to the feeling of tension in my head and chest and give myself permission to take a break.

I recently had to say “no” to working on [my business] for about a week because life happened and I needed to knock a few things out that were unexpectedly on my plate.

I really like putting in *some* time every day because I know I’m making (slow) progress. Any progress makes me feel accomplished and that I’m actually moving forward. However, in this case I gave myself permission to not work on it because of the higher-priority items I had to deal with. I think that’s saved me.

8. Know the difference between “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion”

Remember that study from the Harvard Business Review? The researchers distinguish between two types of passion: harmonious passion — being motivated by the job “because it brings you satisfaction and is an important part of who you are” and obsessive passion — being motivated by “the status, money, or other reward that the work brings.”

The study found that “entrepreneurs who reported high scores of obsessive passion were more likely to say they experienced burnout than those who reported high scores of harmonious passion.” Not only that:

The entrepreneurs who reported high levels of harmonious passion reported experiencing high levels of concentration, attention, and absorption during their work. While these entrepreneurs said they often felt totally taken by their work, they also allowed themselves breaks from it and had more flexibility. … These harmoniously passionate entrepreneurs were able to balance their job with other activities in their lives without experiencing conflict, guilt, or negative effects when not engaging in work.

So if you’re experiencing burnout, take a second and ask yourself: What’s driving you? Is it…

  1. Earning your way to financial freedom and the life you want?
  2. Or is it that — and a genuine passion for what you’re building?

And are you willing to live with burnout if the answer is number one?

Have your own story of entrepreneurial burnout, or tips for what you do to keep yourself on track? Share it in the comments below.

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There Are 7 Comments


Katie you’re a rock star. What a breath of fresh air it was reading through your article. Seriously dig the real life, no b.s. insight like “no, it’s ok to take a break from your business!”, or “no, you shouldn’t be working 24/7 – 365”. REAL is what’s missing from so much content out there (I won’t even call it advice lol). Thanks a ton for putting this together!

Great article. I experienced a dramatic burnout that took three years to recover from. It’s never from purely one source of stress, but I believe the primary reason for me was doing the wrong work – the opposite of my strengths – in a stressful environment. I was running my father’s business, for which I had no passion. I wrote a book about my experience to share with others and to help people not to fall into the same traps as I did.

This is fantastic, and so true. I love the real life suggestions instead of useless platitudes. I recently bought logoed shirts (tshirts for the summer heat) so I wouldn’t have to decide what to wear every day. It’s a small thing, but a stepping stone in the systematizing that I have made a priority.

I would like to know how you guys feel about this idea:

I’ve noticed that many entrepreneurs focus almost exclusively on work when they plan a schedule. I used to do that too. Things started changing when I consciously added the R&R…in fact, I had best results when I put that into the schedule FIRST and planned work around the fun. It changed the whole tone of the day (or week). It was no longer a blind rush to get things done…I was enjoying myself I the process.

I think this is an awesome idea. I tend to plan everything, but am much less intentional about planning rest.

I appreciate the practical suggestions in the article and the comments!

I think another key point is to focus on the now. As an entrepreneur, I have put in too much time focussing on the business, and deferring some of the best parts of my life – keeping in touch with my spiritual side, spending quality time with my wife and children, even spending a day at the beach.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I left the kids at home with her mom and travelled to Dubai (from Toronto) for a couple of months to see how life would be like living like locals. We lived a ten minute drive from the beach, but in the 2 months we were there, we went to beach literally one time. I was just so busy working on a couple of startups, that I just didn’t make time for a real personal life. Now I look back at that time and kick myself.

Katie Parrott

Sal, I LOVE the idea of blocking in R&R time and then rigorously protecting that time. As a matter of fact, we talked about exactly that in this post about what Top Performers can learn from elite tennis players (section “Alternate deliberate practice with deliberate rest”). For athletes, recovery time is just as important than active practice time, because it’s when the body has time to heal, strengthen, an internalize what it’s learned. Why shouldn’t it be the same for entrepreneurs?

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