Dousing the Flames of Burnout

Strategic adviser Michael Staver says the best thing entrepreneurs can do for themselves is to know when it's time to take a break

The weather is lousy, holiday memories have faded, and tax time is fast approaching. It's not surprising to find that many entrepreneurs suffer burnout at this time of year, says Michael Staver, CEO of Amelia Island (Fla.)-based The Staver Group ( Staver, a strategic adviser whose clientele is 90% entrepreneurs, has come up with some tips for beating the March blahs. He shared them recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Aside from taxes and the weather, what else contributes to burnout at this time of year?

When it comes to retailers, many of them are just now recovering from holiday "hangovers." Other small businesses find that their revenues come in slowly in January, or that their businesses have experienced a sort of holiday slump. So they're already worried about their first-quarter numbers and trying to gear back up for the rest of the year.

You know, the Buddhists say, "When a butterfly lands in your palm, don't close your hand." But I find that a lot of entrepreneurs are so afraid that the butterfly is going to escape, they clench their fists.

How can they avoid the kind of grasping that leads to burnout?

When entrepreneurs start their companies, they're hitting the gas really hard. What they fail to realize is that as their business grows and the demands of that business shift, the same strategy doesn't work. In fact, it can accelerate the propensity for burnout, which I define as: investing increasing amounts of energy and getting decreasing amounts of return for it.

As the company matures, the founders' involvement has to change. They have to draw a line in the sand and say to themselves, "Here's what I do best, here's what others do best, and that's what I'm going to leave them to do, with oversight."

Most entrepreneurs say they can't take any time off, especially as they are building their companies. Yet you recommend that they do it anyway. Why?

Entrepreneurs have to manage the emotional energy drain that comes with growing a business. What happens is that they work in the business so much that they never work on the business, and that creates a monster. At the very least, they need to pause and spend even half an hour a week -- during work hours -- being still.

Tell your assistant not to bother you, close your door, and just think about the business. Good ideas, solutions, and strategies will come to you. Another idea is to take a non-working lunch -- either by yourself or with friends. Make a point to have fun and not talk about work. It's a great release from the stress pressure-cooker.

By the way, I don't believe entrepreneurs when they tell me they don't have enough time to do something. What I believe is that they don't have enough discipline. They just kept saying yes to things when they should have said no. Entrepreneurs have to be wildly jealous about where they invest their energy.

Most of us don't think about vacationing in February, March, or April. But you say this isn't such a bad time to knock off for a week.

Absolutely. This may be a rather slow time of year at your company, and it's also often a slow time of year for the resort industry and a time when good travel deals are available. Even if you have to plan weeks or months ahead, make the effort to give yourself a break. Too many small-business owners believe that if they take a break from the rat race, their companies will leave them behind. The opposite is true: If you don't make time to relax away from work, you will become bitter and unproductive even when you are there.

What are some other ways entrepreneurs can break the burnout cycle?

I tell my clients to start their day with powerful, high-energy music. Whether it's rock, country, jazz, or pop, what's wonderful is to listen to music that gets you pumped up and makes you feel good about yourself. Research shows that people who use high-energy music to start their day and before they face challenging situations can increase their productivity by as much as 200%.

Another idea is to set aside blocks of time to complete certain tasks. So, from 2 to 3 in the afternoon, you might do nothing but read and respond to e-mail. During that hour, don't allow yourself to be interrupted. Focusing on one task at a time increases efficiency and reduces anxiety.

You stress the idea that entrepreneurs should have "accountability partners." What does that mean?

All business owners need a coach, or a friend, to help them stay on track and move their company forward. Make sure to choose someone you trust and feel comfortable with, and someone you can meet with at least once a week to talk about your goals, progress, and setbacks. Don't ask your spouse or romantic partner to do this, ask someone else.

When my clients meet with me and I give them a suggestion, they know they're going to be talking to me again in a week and I'm going to ask them about follow through. That's motivating by accountability.

Any tips for coping with physical burnout?

I have a couple: One is to take a power nap if you feel tired and unable to concentrate. Prop your feet up and close your eyes for 15 or 20 minutes. Those few minutes will give you almost the same benefit as a long, luxurious sleep.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, exercise is a great stress buster that makes you feel good about yourself and allows you to sleep better at night. Even if you can't spend an hour at the gym, you can take a couple walks around the block in the evening or work out with a fitness video at home. It takes discipline to work out on a regular basis, but the benefits far outweigh the little push it might take to get you going.

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