Feeling The Small Business Burnout? Try Varying Your Intensity | What Works

Feeling The Small Business Burnout? Try Varying Your Intensity

Oct 22, 2020 | Growth, Mindset & Identity, Productivity

Raise your hand if you’re feeling burnt out đź‘‹

Lots of people are.

Up or down, good or bad, growth or not—plenty of people are hitting a wall right now.

On top of all of the unexpected stressors that we’ve experienced this year, many of us have just not gotten to do the things that helps them unplug and unwind.

I recently had a conversation about this and the tendency of many people (myself included) to go-go-go until we drop. We end up using up all of our stored energy—and then some—in a wild sprint to pull off an event, develop a new offer, or launch a new marketing channel.

And then we crash. Hard.

We go dark. We let responsibilities slide. We get sick…

…until our bodies and minds have stored up enough juice to do it all over again.

This is not an effective way to run a business.

I’ve been thinking about this cycle quite a bit as I look at how I want to structure 2021, given what I know now about what is going to be impacting my capacity.

Most of us were caught off guard by the demands of 2020 and even those of us with good boundaries and solid routines found ourselves slipping back into this frenetic cycle. As we start to look toward next year (and beyond), I think we owe it to ourselves and our companies to plan for the kind of factors that impacted our capacities this year.

In my own planning and leadership, the metaphor I keep coming back to is “active recovery.”

Earlier this year, I was training for a marathon in Missoula.

A marathon training program is a grind.

Little by little, you increase your capacity for running longer distances. Sticking with the program is really important to give yourself the best shot of finishing on race day and avoiding injury in the process.

Typically, you train for 16 weeks or more, upping your mileage most weeks from 15 or 20 miles total to 35 or 40+ miles total. Each week, you do about 4 runs—2 base-building runs, 1 tempo run if you’re training for a particular pace, and 1 long run.

That means you have 3 days off from running every week.

But, you don’t do nothing on those days. You might do some cross training (like cycling or strength training). Or, you might do some active recovery, like a gentle yoga class or a long walk.

The idea is that active recovery helps your body stay moving but doesn’t put additional strain on it.

You maintain the habit of working out and the benefit of regulating your nervous system but you vary the intensity so that you can come back to train another day.

So what if we apply the concept of active recovery and varied intensity to the way we run & plan for our small businesses?

Here’s how I’m approaching it for 2021:

First, I’m setting a pace that I believe I can stick with for the long-haul.

A huge part of marathon training is understanding that the pace (and intensity) you want to run the vast majority of your mileage at is well below the pace that you could run. Your goal is to keep it as comfortable as you can for as long as possible.

To apply that to my work, I’m re-balancing my time between my two companies and creating stronger expectations for myself (and my teams) for when I’m working on what.

It also means taking a good long look at what I can actually fit inside of the time I have allocated for each company and what that means for the projects we take on over the next year.

My goal is to avoid work sprints or giving into my reaction to respond immediately to outside circumstances by over-delivering. This is a recipe for burning out (or, over-training as the metaphor would have it).

I’m setting a pace and sticking with it.

Second, I’m building active recovery time into every month.

While I absolutely want to maintain a consistent pace over the course of the year, I also know that I need variety, too.

Sure, that’s going to come in the form of scheduled vacations (remember those? fingers crossed 🤞).

But it’s also going to come from how I am planning my service delivery commitments. I’m building out a schedule that will have me working on service delivery (i.e. talking to clients or members) in the first 3 weeks of each month, while I have the 4th week of each month to recover and reorient myself.

I might get some creative work done those weeks, catch up on admin, or work on business development.

When I get a 5th week, well, that’s just bonus time!

Finally, (although this is the first thing I actually did) I marked off my non-working days throughout 2021.

That’s right, I have a full year of non-working days planned out and it’s not even Halloween yet.

We’ve decided to make all of the traditional bank holidays long weekends.

Plus, I’ve marked the vacation I usually take around my anniversary, as well as time for our family vacation off for the summer.

I’ve marked our holiday breaks and I’ve taken extra personal time on those wonderful 5-week months.

I’m certain there will be times when I’m working at a higher intensity and a less sustainable pace next year. Not only is that reality—working at a higher intensity can be fun.

But that shouldn’t be the norm and it doesn’t need to be.

What will you do to vary the intensity as you plan for the future?

  • Given current conditions, what’s a sustainable pace for you?
  • When can you plan for pulling back without completely stopping?
  • When will you really, truly rest?

As we look ahead, we’re in for plenty of challenges—that is always true. But we can lead ourselves and our businesses into the race with a sustainable pace and plenty of recovery.

We just need to plan for it.


Make a plan you can truly commit to–no matter what comes your way. The next session of The Commitment Blueprint is December 7-15. Click here to learn more & register.


Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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