Why is Your Business Burning You Out?

There can be thousand reasons. But what if the question is not why is your business running you down but why are you running it in the first place?
9 min read

Do you ever get those days when the alarm rings and it's time to tackle a brand new day, and yet all you feel is exhaustion? Not just the tiredness kind but mentally and emotionally you're so drained, every little move is a Herculean labour. But you have places to be, things to do, emails to answer, business to run. You can't just check out, people depend on you. So, you shuffle into the bathroom, get yourself ready, and off you go. Another day, another chance it will get better, right?

If you think about it, there’s no legitimate reason for us to do anything. There is no reason to be kind or polite, go to work, maintain friendships, pay taxes, buy that tenth pair of boots. The only legitimate reason is to keep the show going so that our society and the civilised life as we know it won't collapse into a Lord of the Flies extravaganza.

So, we find or create those reasons, purposes, agendas; we try to fill our life with meaning the best way we can.  Yet, we don’t live in the vacuum. We are thrown into a particular context—geographical, temporal, cultural, personal,— but what we do with that situation and us being and living in that context is up to, well, us. And who's to say we're doing it the wrong way or the right way?

Aye, there's the rub. Whether we believe in fate, God(s), or Matrix, we choose to do so. Or we choose to believe that we were chosen to believe that. Or simply we choose not to choose. No matter how we cut it, the buck stops with us. And that's a very lonely and petrifying realisation. As Sartre puts it, it's "the realization that a nothingness slips in between my Self and my past and my future so that nothing relieves me from the necessity of continually choosing myself and nothing guarantees the validity of the values which I choose".1 Let that sink in for a minute. Or ten.

Let's assume the gutsy Frenchman has a point. The point being we are the ones solely responsible for what and how we do with our lives, and there's no-one and no-thing that can definitively, irrevocably, absolutely (in)validate our choices right here and now. Fair to say, we can't speak for the afterlife or the multi-universe because, so far, no one's made it out of there alive to share the tale. So, every day we make choices that add up to who we are or want to become. The choices I made yesterday do not determine my choices today or tomorrow: I am not a chair with a fixed essence but a being in a constant process of becoming, choosing. And so, we are perpetually creating the meaning of our life: choosing what and how we spend this life on, and, more importantly, why we choose it and do it in the first place.

Yet, it's so effortless to get lost in the everyday, in busywork to shield ourselves from this staggering and gaping responsibility, followed by exhaustion. Even easier to shift it—especially, when things don't go our way— towards others and things we seemingly can't control. It's the economy; it's the political climate; it's dumb customers; it's the feisty neighbours who don't let me sleep; it's the idiot who cut me off on A2. How often do we pause and look at ourselves and our part in what's going on?

Even if we don't take the feisty Frenchman's words to heart, would that be a stretch to say that, while we do not have the power over everything in our lives, we do have control over what we do with our lives? Over how we act and how we deal with what happens to us? That if we do not make decisions—however small or seemingly insignificant— purposefully and intentionally, we might end up somewhere we don't want to be and not even know how and why we ended up there. We might look in the mirror one morning and not recognise that stranger. It doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't take one definitive action or decision.

More often than not, it grows out of a tangle of small decisions, choices, events, places, people, objects, experiences that just go on day in, day out, and we lose the sight of the bigger picture. The same happens with your business. Day after day you do something, you fill out some papers, check on numbers, make calls, write emails, whatever else it is that you have to do. How often do you think about why you're doing it? Why you started this business in the first place? What did you want to achieve?

Now, if your answer is quick profit or to retire at 30, then good luck with that and thanks for reading this far. To be clear, no disrespect intended—if your life's purpose is to accumulate as much wealth as possible by whatever means necessary, that's as valid goal as any. It's that our ramblings might hinder you more than help you.

No question, money is important, we don't have to spell out why. Let's view it as means. What should it help you achieve? You will spend more than a third of your life working and running your business. What do you want it to mean when it's all said and done? What is the reason you get out of bed and show up at work? Is it because you've trapped yourself and now you feel responsible for all the people that depend on you? that's a tough life to live.

So, what do you do? When you're totally exhausted, overwhelmed, overworked, and it feels like all you do is put out fires here and there and it doesn't lead anywhere; you're stuck.

Take a pause. Ask yourself, "Why am I doing this? What's my core purpose in running this business? What's my purpose in life? What do I want it to be about?". Take a piece of paper and write it down. Brutal honesty. There's just you and this piece of paper, no one will have to see this unless you'll be willing to share.

Now, save that piece of paper, stick it in your wallet. Take it out once in a while, read it, think about it. Is the way you're doing business aligned with what you wrote there? Are you working towards fulfilling that purpose or floating further away from it? Why is it happening?  And how does that make you feel? What can and should you do differently?

As easy as this might seem, for most of us—ourselves included—it's excruciating to get to the bottom of "Why am I doing this?". Both in life and in business. It's scary. Because no one forced us with a gun to our head (hopefully)—we consciously and intentionally chose it whatever it is; and we chose it again and again. Or we chose not to choose, and just let things happen. It's scary because what if we won't like the answer? What if we don't like the person who answered?

Well. If we don't like the answer and (or) the person inside who answered, we patiently remind ourselves that we are not a chair. We have choices to make.


1 Sartre, Jean-Paul and Hazel E. Barnes. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. New York: Washington Square Press Pocket Books, 1992, p. 799.

The Big Why