Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you don’t want to do anything. It happens to everyone. If you wake up every morning and don’t want to do anything, then something more sinister could be going on: burnout. It feels awful. That’s why we’re going to talking about how to avoid burnout.

If you’re a small business owner, you’re probably a high-achieving person. You work hard, play hard, and pride yourself on getting the most out of every day. This is an admirable quality, but not a perfect one. Burnout is the dark side.

What is Burnout Anyway?

Burnout is a real medical condition. It’s “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.”

Now I know what you may be thinking: “that sounds like entrepreneurship in general.” I won’t argue with that. I still work very, very hard on the Pangea Marketing Agency with few days off. Thankfully, though, I’ve walked back from the edge of deep burnout and have found a comfortable, sustainable pace for working on my business.

Burnout is more than just a medical condition. Sure, its status as a medical condition confirms that it is a concrete, empirically verifiable physical phenomenon. However, to truly understand what burnout is and how it feels, think of it as a spiritual malaise.

That may sound woo-woo to your ears, but this way of describing burnout, in my opinion, gives it the proper gravitas. Burnout takes the joy out of work, making it feel pointless, endless, idiotic, and self-defeating. You ask yourself why you work so hard and begin to resent your business, other people, and opportunities in general. You feel completely spent, emotionally on edge, and like you can barely keep your eyes open.

It sucks.

Burnout happens when every day is a bad day. It happens when your work is rendered pointless. It sneaks up on you when you don’t rest enough. Burnout takes root in your mind when your work is dull and overwhelming.

Burnout is the Emergency Release Valve for Stress

Stress is natural part of being alive. Your mind keenly picks up on stimuli around you, giving you an extra serving of nervous energy when the stakes are high. But when the stakes are always high, you’re always stressed.

Your mind and body crave homeostasis. If you’re basically always stressed, burnout slips into to neutralize an excess of stress.

Stress makes you super aware, super reactive, anxious, and energetic. Burnout makes you disengaged, uncaring, unmotivated, depressed, and tired.

The Ideal Way to Avoid Burnout: Ikigai

Now let’s imagine, for a moment, what the opposite of burnout looks like. What does a life resistant to burnout look like? This is where I find the Japanese concept of ikigai, roughly translated as “reason for being”, particularly useful.

As you can see above, ikigai is achieved when you meet four criteria simultaneously:

  1. You do what you love.
  2. Your work is something that the world needs.
  3. You are paid well.
  4. You are good at the job.

These criteria are incredibly simple to understand, but having all four at once is really difficult. Even missing one criterion can leave you with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.

For example, if you do what you love, what you’re good at, and what you’re paid for; you may feel satisfied with your life but like you’re not serving society.

Similarly, if you are doing something the world needs that you love and are good at, but you’re not being well paid, then that makes you a starving artist!

When your ultimate goal is to be happy with your work, then ikigai is your North Star. It’s difficult to achieve even some of the time, let alone all the time. Yet when you have a sense that something is not quite right, it helps to use ikigai as a diagnostic tool to help you figure out what is missing in your life.

Even awareness can help you prevent burnout. Saying “I’m stressed because I don’t like my job” or “I’m stressed because my job is not important” is much easier to deal with than “I don’t even know why I’m stressed.”

The 4 Big Ways to Avoid Burnout in an Imperfect World

Your reason for being won’t just fall into your lap. Telling you to chase ikigai, therefore, is not helpful. So let’s talk about specific things you can do to pursue a better life and avoid burnout.

First, using the ikigai concept, there are four specific problem areas that you could potentially need to work on. They are:

  1. Get paid well. If you’re not making enough, drop deadbeat clients, ask for a raise, or get another job. You may not be able to do this for three months, six months, a year, or two. But money trouble will eat away at you and you should not be afraid to ask for more.
  2. Find real needs. Nothing crushes motivation like the feeling of pointlessness. Until you feel like you’re doing something truly valuable in the world, you won’t feel complete. Take some time to observe the needs of others around you, whether that means steering your business into a better market segment or jumping industries entirely.
  3. Assess your skills. Feeling like you’re bad at your job is rough. If you are genuinely not great at your work, then make a conscious effort to improve your skills or leave to do something you’re better at.
  4. Find your passion. If you simply don’t care about your work, figure out what you enjoy in life. There may be a better industry for you to work in that will allow you to pursue your passion more closely than you already do.

How to Take the Edge Off Burnout Right Now

You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned any self-care tips so far. For an article about how to avoid burnout, you might find that unusual. As we see it, though, it’s critical: burnout happens over an extremely long period of over-exertion.

Quick fixes will not cure you. A $2 bath bomb will not make your problems go away. Neither will a vacation day, or even a two-week tropical vacation. You have to do the difficult, introspective work of figuring out what you’re good at, what you like, what needs to be done, and what you can be paid well for doing. No shortcuts!

But if you’re already burnt out, this is just twisting the knife. If you had, say, migraines, I would tell you to go the doctor, but I would also offer some over-the-counter pain relivers.

For that, I’m going to list a few things that might give you a breather. This will give you just what you need to summon a bit of willpower from your deep wellspring of patience, even if the well has been threatening to run dry for a while.

10 Simple Things to Make You Feel Better
  1. Say “yes” to something you want to do.
  2. Say “no” to something you don’t want to do.
  3. Set a time to log off tonight, and actually log off by then. No checking your email afterward!
  4. Write down all the tasks you do in a day. Find a few you can eliminate or delegate.
  5. Hire another worker.
  6. Reach out to a therapist.
  7. Take a vacation day.
  8. Take an actual vacation. Do as little work as you can get away with.
  9. Meditate. (It’s not as weird as you think. All you really have to do is just let your mind go blank. No chants, and science is showing that there’s something to it.)
  10. Go outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine.

Again, these will not fix underlying problems, but they might give you a much-needed break so that you can fix underlying problems.

Final Thoughts

If you feel totally exhausted and like your work is pointless, that’s okay. You’re in good company. A lot of people, including myself, have shared the heavy burden of being totally burnt out.

You can recover and find passion, meaning, and joy in your work. If you haven’t burned out, you can avoid burnout entirely by proactively setting boundaries. Working hard is great, but never at the expense of mental health.

Work hard and chase your dreams. Just remember to be kind to yourself at the same time!