I have been fully self-employed for over thirteen years – that’s a whole bat mitzvah of self-employment! Something I hear a lot from other people is “You must be so disciplined! I could never be self-employed, I’d never get anything done.”
Most people have this completely backwards. There are distractions at home and there are distractions at the office or job site. But, If you don’t work, you don’t get paid, just like any other job, and even more so because there is no one to cover for you. Sure, maybe you’d futz around for the first couple of weeks, and it can take a little while to figure out what kind of work schedule feels best when it’s all up to you. Inevitably, at some point early on you’ll end up sending very important emails at 2:00 am because you spent all afternoon looking at shoes.
But the real discipline is not working. I spent the first six years of self-employment feeling guilty when I wasn’t working, like I wasn’t really earning any money that was coming in. Then, I got over that, but still felt like I had to be working all the time. I’d take on more jobs than I could handle (and I was undercharging) so I was very busy, which meant that I was doing it right. Eventually, I chilled out, and came to recognize that for every slow week, there would be weeks long marathons of 12-16 hour work days, and to take advantage of the easier pace for a bit. I learned how to say to myself, “the office is closed.” That took years.
I’ve entered another phase of self-employment, which is to make the most of what it really offers, which is self-direction. It took me a whole bat mitzvah of self-employment to figure out when to say no: to the project I know will be a drain, to all the extra stuff that I could be doing if I wanted to sit at my desk for another six hours, because there is always something. But I never quite got the hang of the cost of yes. I’d say yes to anything that wasn’t a hard no. What I learned in the second phase of self-employment is that burnout starts with the statement, “I’ll make it work.” How will I fit this in my schedule? How am I going to pull this off when I’ve got this relationship/health issue/self-development workshop/house thing to deal with? The answer was always, “I’ll make it work.” And I always did.
And that, lovely humans, is how I ended up with the kind of life I always wanted for myself and no capacity to enjoy it. Not the mental capacity, not the physical capacity, none of it. That is burnout. It’s physical, it’s mental, and it is the unchecked cost of yes. My bat mitzvah of self-employment, my rite of passage into the “adulthood” of self-direction, was developing something akin to asthma with a hormonal component. I was literally suffocating for half of every month. And so, the paradigm has changed because it had to change. Now when I consider taking on a new endeavor, I also consider what I’m saying no to by taking it on. What is the cost of yes: time with my partner, downtime, the mental capacity to read an interesting book? Or more simply, as my body tried to tell me for a year before I listened, room to breathe.