Just over twelve months ago, I sat in a psychologist's office blinking back the hot tears that were rolling down my cheeks as he declared the diagnosis of 'severe depression and severe anxiety'. Even in my profoundly unhappy state, I couldn't believe my ears. I have depression? Me? I questioned the validity of the result and he pointed to a statistic on his computer that placed me in the top 3% of depression levels when compared to the broader community.
I desperately swallowed down the giant swirling cascade of emotions that were raging through my body as I paid my bill at the reception and walked to my car. On the drive home I found a spot on a quiet cul-de-sac to pull over and then let it all out. If my tears were counted like rainfall, I am sure I cried a year's worth in one out-pouring that day. I was so sad.
After fifteen minutes or so I pulled myself together, drove home to my family and carried on that night as if nothing had happened. It was part denial, definitely some shame, and also complete and utter shock about how I'd got there.
With the passing of time, and the benefit of hindsight, I now see more clearly the errors of my way. There were certainly some massive life situations going on that were enough to push anyone to the edge. But it's also blindingly obvious that I'd configured a life that wasn't supporting me at all. I was running a small business and day by day, year by year I had allowed it to consume my very being. We know the life of a small business owner is damn hard work, but what I didn't understand was that I needed to exert an equal and opposite force to counter-balance the pressures of being in enterprise. I now know it takes almost a rebellious attitude to protect ourselves. To be at the frontline of the hustle everyday juggling against other life priorities really demands that self-care for the entrepreneur is front and centre. For me, self-care had withered down to swilling a large glass of chardonnay as close to 5pm as possible.
It happens insidiously. There's deadlines to meet, clients to satisfy and staff to guide. There's planning to do. There's bills to pay. There's sales to be made. There's blogs and pics to post. And nobody can afford to open at 9am and close at 5pm anymore, so there's a constant 24/7 kind of mental buzz happening in the background. We're elbow- deep in it. We're watching others. Comparing ourselves. We're thinking about it in the shower. We're cross-checking things as our head hits the pillow. We're worrying about whether that order will make it in time while you're at dinner with the family. It's so very easy for a small business to pervade every aspect of the owner's life.
And if we're not guarding the fortress of our own glorious castle, somewhere along the line, the gates open and we're pushed to the edge. It takes discipline and effort to guard your fortress but it is absolutely essential.
Here's my top five tips to protect yourself in business.
1. Be a Boundaries Bouncer.
You remember the big muscly dude holding THE clipboard at a nightclub (given that does feel like a hundred years ago!)? You need to channel him. It's not a free for all where you have to lunge from one demand to the next drama clutching your phone at the ready 24/7. Nup. You have to ensure there's rules. Manage things in a reasonable manner. As Brendon Burchard says, your email inbox is just a collection point for other people's agendas. The world is now constantly 'on' but we can't be. It's impossible. Schedule down-time in your calendar otherwise it won't happen. Say no when you can't do it. Say no even when you could possibly do it, but it would mean working on the weekend, or missing out on catching up with a friend or walking your fur baby. If you have boundaries in place, you'll know whether it feels right to do it, if you don't have them in place you will be pulled and pushed by the forces around you. Put your out of office on when you're not at your emails - it manages other people expectations. You need to be the gate keeper and protect what's allowed in and what's not. Initially it takes courage and discipline but no-one except you can do this. Take days off as you need. You don't have to email the client back on the weekend (you can choose to of course), you can stop and eat lunch in peace, and you can definitely see that number come up on your phone and pull on your bouncer shades, check your clipboard and say 'ma'am I'm sorry but you're not on the list'.
2. Hobby Hustle.
As the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and running a small business is a fast track to a Jack stack. In the lead up to my break-down, I forgot what I used to love to do. Like completely lost touch with who I was when I took away work. I really had to contemplate what else I was interested in. Whether it's learning to play drums, cooking, exercising (I highly recommend boxing training as a de-stressor), making jewellery, volunteering, trying out a new software programme etc giving yourself alternate outlets is a very healthy thing to do. If you're like a lot of small business owners, its easy to tangle up your self-worth in the success of the business (not recommended of course), which gets hard when things go wrong. Having other interests and goals reminds us that we are more than just our work. Learn things in other areas, perhaps succeed in them or just plain old-fashioned enjoy them pressure free.
3. Collect a Clan.
The life of a small business owner can be isolating even for the most gregarious of us. With the constant pressure to get things right, it can feel like you're failing miserably when things aren't going well. Unless, that is, you find others doing what you're doing and realise that they feel just the same. Whatever industry you're in connect up with some kindred souls. I chat daily online with colleagues interstate and it is hard to put into words the benefits of connecting with people going through the same stuff that you are. We compare notes, vent, share new discoveries, have a laugh and it all helps to lessen the sense of isolation. Find ways to connect with others on your journey, it's amazing the support it provides.
4. Like Mum Said... Boring Basics.
I hate to admit it, but some of the best changes I have made are in the mundane. I had to cut back on my main coping strategy - tipsy. You know that feeling as the first wine winds its way down, dropping your shoulders from your ears and providing a comfortable fuzz to finish the day. Turns out drinking, not only made me sleep poorly, but also contributed to my anxiety levels. It sapped my energy. And don't start me on the brain fog it gifted me. When I don't drink, I sleep better, and sleep is my new super power - with a good night's sleep, I can take on the world. It also helps to eat well and regularly - and not to scoff it down while scrolling social media and looking at all the ways everyone else's business is amazing and yours isn't. That's a sure fire recipe for a big serve of irritable bowel.
5. Keep Perspective.
On the day, in the moment it can all feel so life or death. You want to do well. You deserve to do well. So you sit at your desk, shoulders hunched, jaw clenched giving it your all. You make a mistake. Argh. You see a gorgeous picture on instagram by a competitor. Argh. You read about someone's success. Argh. You're in overwhelm because you just can't see yourself making that deadline Argh. Sometimes in the midst of it all, you need to stand up and walk outside. Look at the big blue sky. It's vastness. It's colour. And remember that all this doesn't matter too much. Maybe it's stopping and watching your children play in the corner. Walking out on to grass and kicking off your shoes. A pat of your four legged friend. Grab a book. A look out the window at the birch tree, or if you're lucky, the ocean. A photo on your desk of your Mum. Find ways to get a bigger sense of it all. And your place in it. It's a fairly short shot we have at this thing called life after all, and we need to keep perspective and know that it's all going to be ok.
Gabrielle Osborne (BAcc) is a small business specialist who loves empowering creative minds by helping them make sense of their business numbers.