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Maintaining Yourself: Taking Care of the Fine Instrument Who Runs Your Small BusinessBy Patty Ayers
Most small, startup businesses are the responsibility of a single person, an entrepreneurial visionary who slaves day and night in a valiant effort to get the business off the ground and make it a success. And all too often, in his zeal and enthusiasm, that person can exhaust himself - and a burned-out visionary is not much use for anything. If you see yourself somewhere within reach of this danger zone, read on; there are steps you can take to avoid entrepreneur burn-out.
If you are the entire staff, including the secretary, accountant, and janitor, and also the CEO, the CFO, and the CIO, you are extremely valuable to your company. Gone are the days when you worked for someone else and were always frighteningly replaceable. The polar opposite is true for the startup business - you're so irreplaceable that if you take the whole weekend off, the enterprise may begin to crumble.
Ideally your business roadmap includes a plan for your company to become something which operates without you hovering over it like a brood hen. (And if you've never thought about this concept, read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work by Michael E. Gerber for an eye-opening perspective on building a successful company.) But for now, you are the be-all and end-all of your business - and this is almost a necessity for startups.
So how do you maintain your energy, clarity of mind, and enthusiasm during the long hours of your first year or two? How do you maintain your most valuable piece of equipment?
Having asked that question gives you a big head start. Realizing that you are your most valuable tool can put you in the mindset to get serious about taking care of yourself so that you can effectively do the work of several people without any instructions, support, or assistance.
I've wrestled with this issue for years now, and offer the following simple common-sense suggestions.
1. Take your temperature regularly. Get in the habit of "taking your temperature" - monitoring your own state of well-being, or lack of same. If you don't realize that you're heavily stressed or exhausted, you can't do anything about it.
When you were working for someone else, if you became run-down, tired, or discouraged and got nothing done, you'd be sure to hear about it. Like it or not, a system was in place to be sure you were reasonably productive. When working for yourself, there's no such system, unless you purposefully create one. And the essence of that system is awareness - watching for signs that the fine instrument that is you needs some kind of fuel, maintenance, or down-time.
2. Eat your vegetables. This may seem obvious, but unless you're actually doing it, it probably helps to hear it one more time: you need to try and eat right. Everybody knows that geeks love junk food - well guess what? Web designers building a successful company need real fuel, not charming quirky cultural stereotypes. You need real meals with fruits and vegetables, just like your mom always said. You probably need to drink more water, too. If you take care of your diet, you'll be more energetic and more productive.
3. You must move the parts of your body below your neck. Computer workers must find a way to get exercise. The human body is simply not designed to sit in a chair staring at a glowing box for eight or ten or fourteen hours at a time - it gets tense and tired, and eventually will go on strike. And don't forget, your brain is a physical organ, and is part of your body! If you're working for yourself, you probably have the freedom to take an exercise break at some point during the day. Find something that you like to do for aerobic exercise, and do it faithfully.
If you already have an exercise regime, you can skip this paragraph. But if you don't - and especially if you're one of those people who has been talking about it for years but hasn't quite managed to get started, this is for you. Try walking. It requires no equipment other than a pair of sneaks, no fancy clothing, and very little preparation. Just decide that you're going to spend a half-hour a day, find a route, and start doing it. A short walk outdoors in the middle of a tense work day can do amazing things for your mental state, and that moderate amount of exercise can also have a significantly positive effect on your general state of health - and on the success of your business.
4. Take breaks. Even if it's just to stand up and stretch - to hit the kitchen for a snack - or better still, to get a couple of minutes of fresh air outside - get off that computer at regular intervals. Some experts recommend a break of at least five minutes out of every hour. It's common sense, but you'll have to learn to discipline yourself and actually do it. You'll probably gain back in productivity whatever time you spend rejuvenating yourself during a short break.
5. Listen for engine noises. When a bad day hits - when stress and strain are taking a heavy toll on your peace of mind and energy - when the fine instrument that is you is making horrible noises and emanating smoke - be aware. Stop, take a break, and take steps to get yourself calm and functional again. Take care of your body, and don't forget your poor mind as well. Sometimes a few minutes of relaxation with a friend is wonderful medicine. Do what you know will calm you down, and then get back to solving those problems.
It goes against the grain for many of us to pamper ourselves, but small business owners need to get over that. You're no good to your business, or to anybody, if you work yourself into bleary-eyed, stressed-out misery. When you are feeling a strong urge to work on way past the point of common sense, remind yourself that it is almost always more efficient to work in a way that doesn't burn you out.
And take heart. Self-employed people have a lot of freedom - we get to choose which seventy hours a week we want to work!
So enjoy your freedom and the exciting adventure of building a business, but give take care of your most valuable equipment, and you'll be a lot more likely to still be in business - and enjoying it - a few years down the road.