Burnout and How I Clawed My Way Out

Stefan Pretty tells us about his experience with entrepreneurial burnout — what it took him to recognize the problem and how he ultimately dealt with it.

I’ve got a confession to make. Until very recently, I felt like a failure.

You wouldn’t have had a clue I was thinking that way if you followed my social media. My company Subbly was performing well, everything about my life seemed to be in perfect balance.

And yet I felt like a failure. Because I was completely burnt out.

Burnout affects far more people than many of us would care to admit. I never thought it would happen to me.

Yet here I am.

Burnout was a new sensation for me, one which caught me completely off guard thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. So instead of lecturing you about how and what you should do, let me tell you about what happened to me and how you can avoid the mistakes I made.

Remote work vs remote work in a pandemic

I’m the founder and CEO of Subbly, a powerful subscription e-commerce platform for entrepreneurs and marketers. Our team is remote and we’re bootstrapped, it’s our lean culture that gives us a competitive edge.

You might think that our 100% remote model made us better prepared for the Coronavirus than most. In some ways you’re right, being remote has certainly insulated Subbly from some of the worst effects of the crisis, and our team’s productivity hasn’t been affected at all. 

For myself, however, I need the buzz of the workplace, so I usually base myself at co-working spaces. Coronavirus caused that system to go the way of the dodo. I was suddenly isolated and I had to adapt. This process was tough and it’s what caused my burnout.

How burnout affected me

When burnout started to affect me, the first thing I noticed was fatigue, not just in the physical sense. Psychologically I just felt drained. Everything I did seemed to require more effort, from doing calls to making a cup of coffee. Still, it didn’t matter how many coffees I drank, I still felt exhausted.

Then the anxiety started, healthy doubt and caution turned into fixating and obsessing over the little things, which soon evolved into frenetic energy and fear. All of this experienced by someone who has spent a long time investing in and working on their mental health and well-being.

Burnout creeps up on you slowly — you barely notice it happening until you’re firmly in its grasp, and by the time you understand what’s going on, it’s already too late. 

This time it was different, it was confusing as everything was going great, and I didn’t know how to get out of it due to the lockdown.

After the psychological symptoms manifested, I began to notice changes beyond the fatigue. I was withdrawn, short-tempered, and behaved unpredictably. Worst of all I felt completely alone, and I couldn’t explain what was happening to me. It was like a silent breakdown of all personal boundaries.

What was worse was that I could have seen this coming. When I was 21 I tried working from home, but it didn’t work out — I was less productive and I felt miserable due to the lack of structure. Lockdown was therefore the perfect recipe for a personal collapse.

The first step to dealing with burnout is accepting it exists

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Recognising yourself in my experience? Then you may have burnout, and the first step to fixing a problem is accepting it exists. 

The catch 22 of burnout is that you know you need to be productive, but you feel unable to deal with your growing pile of work. You subsequently feel guilty that you’re not being productive and this makes it worse. Worse still, it makes it harder for you to recognise the symptoms as you begin to experience denial. It’s a negative, self-perpetuating spiral.

You need to know the tell-tale symptoms of burnout and to listen to them. Better still, you should implement a plan to avoid getting there in the first place. Identifying a problem in the early stages is always better for you. Now that I know the difficulties of burnout I know how to mitigate or prevent it in the future. The key is to recognise and accept it early on.

There is no one way of doing this as everyone is different, and is in turn affected differently, but if you want to stay productive and mentally healthy you need to prioritise your well-being. We all want to focus on boosting our productivity but it became an unhealthy obsession for me. 

Focusing on your well-being and mental health isn’t a weakness, it’s a sign of mental strength. This needs to be a mantra you repeat every day, as I do.

How do you treat burnout?

So there I was stuck in the emotional and professional doldrums. I felt trapped, unable to express how isolated I felt. Luckily, I had a great social network to call on.

I reached out to my loved ones and trusted friends, people who I knew would be direct and honest with me, and asked for their help. It wasn’t easy to express myself and I didn’t want to appear vulnerable, but then I realised that it isn’t a sign of weakness.

It takes strength to admit (even to yourself) you have an issue and to address it by communicating with the people around you.

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Your network reflects who you are as a person, if your contacts are trustworthy and honest you’re doing great.

Exercise helped me tremendously and that old cliché of a “healthy body, healthy mind” really does hold true. I couldn’t go to the gym (my favourite place to retreat and re-balance) during the lockdown, so I took up running instead and continued my resistance band workouts. I’m competitive by nature, so having goals to focus on helped me move forward.

Try to think of something that you really enjoy. In my case it was exercise but it could just as easily have been learning a new skill, cooking, anything that ‘sparks joy’. This will restore your sense of self-worth, improve your mood, and send endorphins running through your body. It’s all about designing a routine that keeps you on course and supports you.

Prevention as a cure

When it comes to burnout prevention really is the best cure — believe me, it’s not fun pulling yourself out of it. 

The best way you can start is by sticking to a solid routine, which, if you’re anything like me, might be difficult at the start. Make sure you get plenty of sleep (eight hours is ideal) and go to sleep at the same time every night. It’s not always easy, I know, there’s always something I have to finish (the classic entrepreneurial drive) but it’s well worth it…

I can already predict some of you thinking ‘who needs sleep, I’m young, I’m energetic, I can work all night and still get results.’ Sure, for now, but look at how Coronavirus caught us totally off guard.

The cost of burnout or poor mental health is much bigger than working a couple of extra hours every day.

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Give yourself time to rest. You’ll feel so much better, and you’ll also find that you’re often more productive.

Keep yourself moving, even if it’s just for a brisk walk, and make sure you take yourself out of your home office space regularly. We’re not designed to sit at a desk for eight hours a day, after all. This is about changing your physical environment and perspective as much as it is about your physical health.

Never feel that you’re alone

It’s okay not to be okay, and it’s especially okay to reach out to someone you trust when you experience burnout. 

The global economy is going to continue to be unpredictable while Coronavirus persists, and that’s why it’s important to be kind to yourself — I managed to pull myself up out of the hole I found myself in, and you can too.

When you find yourself on even ground again, remember to be grateful for the blessings you have, whether they be professional success, family, recognition, etc. 

Though I was skeptical at first, I started to keep a gratitude journal where I keep track of the things I’m thankful for in my life. It’s easy to lose track of the good things in our lives-journalling brings these things to the top of one’s perceptions, allowing you to maintain gratitude as a state of mind. It’s hard to maintain this through burnout but with patience and practice, you’ll be able to.

If you ever feel down in the dumps or completely burnt out I’m here to help if you ever need advice. You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn. We’re all in this together, so let’s help look after each other.

Stefan Pretty

CEO & Founder, Subbly

burnout entrepreneur