My experience with burnout
Writing an article on the internet about burnout feels a bit like writing about “how to wake up early”, or “eat better and feel great!” - it feels clickbaity and it’s all been said. Am I really that hard-pressed for content?
But the truth is, burnout’s a bitch…
It hits us differently, at different times, and for different reasons.
And the other truth is, agency life (or running any business) can lend itself towards burning out.
It can feel like an endless marathon, and even if you “make it”, it can feel like best case scenario - you’ll just get more work, more projects, and you’ll just have to work harder.
I don't have all the answers, but I have a couple of examples so far in my life.
My first taste of burnout
I have two distinct memories of work-related burnout… so far at least.
The first time was during a startup I was trying to get off the ground before I started my agency. We’d built the MVP over a year (way too long!), we took part in a startup accelerator and were trying to raise money (way too early!), and not too surprisingly, were struggling to find customers and product market fit.
One morning I woke up and felt like I’d hit a wall. I had zero enthusiasm for my startup.
The little things seemed impossible. In fact, I felt like I never wanted to speak to any of my team members again, never wanted to talk about my startup again, and I had lost all faith in my ability to do anything.
It felt like I almost instantly fell out of love with the things I loved.
But the truth is, it accumulated over many months. Slowly, and sneakily, my brain and body wearied as I spent thousands of hours trying to get this thing off the ground.
I thought I had an ok work/life balance because I didn’t sit at my computer all day - but really - all I thought about was my startup, all I talked about was my startup, and all I cared about was my startup.
When burnout hit, it hit hard, and I didn’t have the skills back then to tackle it, or even realise what it was. So I just quit.
It took many months to regain my confidence and sense of self. It was only then I started to realise my situation crept up slowly, and most of it was of my own doing.
My second dance with burnout
Fast forward… I’d worked for a few other startups, then gone into freelancing, and finally started my own agency.
4 years into my agency, we were doing awesomely. We had a team of 13, a fantastic office, and great clients - but something felt… off.
I recognised the symptoms: being unmotivated with things I’d previously loved, constantly tired and stressed, having (and causing) conflict with my business partners, and where I was normally a confident person - feeling completely out of my depth and overwhelmed.
The difference was this time the business wasn’t a struggling startup, it was an agency going well. Really well, lots of money, lots of clients, externally this was exactly what I wanted.
Without having a clear time when it started, you can start to normalise burnout, and question yourself that “maybe I always felt this way?” - but the second time around I knew it wasn’t the case. That’s not the real me, and I need to do something about this.
Now, this is the bit that really feels like a self-help article, but I can’t talk about burnout without talking about how to avoid it. I’m certainly no pro - and as with everything on Dev to Agency, this is just my experience, and yours may totally vary.
First thing, everyone's different. We all have different triggers, and that means we all have different ways of mitigating burnout. But first things first, you need to do some searching, and figure out how you work.
1. Know your triggers
It might be crazy long work weeks, missing out on important events, or not keeping up your general mental hygiene. Triggers for me are starting to ignore physical activity, and drinking too much alcohol as a temporary way to escape from my stress. I know that if I let my health or fitness slide too long it starts to compound my stress levels. I function quite well in a high-stress environment but if I keep that up for many months and it starts to take its toll.
2. Put yourself first
Take time just for yourself, and treat your physical and mental health like it’s the most important investment. Working super long weeks is sometimes necessary, but don’t use it as an excuse to eat like shit, or avoid things that make you feel good about yourself.
I find it hard to justify “time off”, but I now know it’s key. I take time off for my mental health, and you should too. Maybe that’s sleeping in and starting work a couple of hours late one day, going to watch a movie, or cancelling plans just to read a book and chill.
I didn’t do these things initially. I liked to work, computers were my hobby, so it was easy to stay in front of a screen and tinker.
But just like eating healthy - these things don’t always feel good right away. There’s no “I FEEL AMAZING!” moment, it’s just that it can stop you from feeling less amazing.
3. Emphasise family and friends
Talking to people who aren't in my work bubble is key for me to get out of my own head, and realise there’s a big wide world out there (and everyone has their own problems!).
There were times when I felt too busy to attend a dinner party or to see a band with mates - but these days I make it one of my highest priorities. Taking those few hours won’t kill your business, in fact, I’m confident that (for me), it cultivates more energy to put towards my business.
Recovering from burnout
With my first taste of burnout, recovery took a while, close to a year. I felt a lot of guilt because I didn’t understand what happened. I lost trust in myself, how can my feelings for something just change so fast? Will this keep happening to me? Why couldn’t I stop it?
But my second time, I saw it coming before it was too late, and I took some time off with my wife in southeast Asia. I was still very much in the pre-burnout zone, but that trip gave me time to break the loop of my endless day-to-day thinking and gave me space to think slightly more long-term, and strategically.
Within the next 6 months, we choose to let around 50% of our clients go, and sadly a few staff members. We needed to operate at a sustainable long-term pace, I didn’t want anyone working more than 38 hours per week - including myself. We put in place strong processes and procedures with our clients to reduce everyone's stress, and we because a lot better at setting realistic expectations.
I learnt to delegate. I hired my first senior-level solutions architect, and along with my wife as project manager, they took over one of our largest clients so I could focus on the remaining part of the business.
I went to the gym religiously right in the middle of the day, even though I rarely wanted to. It was really hard for me mentally to leave work at that time, but afterwards, it made me feel good, feel proud of myself - and for me, feeling like you are accomplishing things is a huge part of recovering.
I’ll be honest - at that time I was very close to just shutting down my agency. Just like with my original startup, I wanted to completely walk away, and never speak to a client or staff member ever again. But I’m really glad it didn’t happen - because the next 4 years at my agency were even better than the first, and a lot more sustainable and happy.
Burnout happens, especially in states of prolonged stress or uncertainty. And running your own business is a recipe for this, as it’s easy to put yourself under a lot of pressure.
This is a big reason why many businesses fail. Not just because they run out of money, but because the owners run out of steam.
So get in early. Prioritize your health, and carve out time to decompress - however that looks for you. Your business will be better off with long-term sustainability, than constant intensity.