Does your business own you?

My confession: Whenever I read one of those headlines that scream, “Imagine the freedom you’ll have being your own boss,” I laugh.

Why? Because I know how easy it is to go from, “Hey, I can work from anywhere,” to “Hey, I have to bring my laptop wherever I go.”

In other words, how quickly it can go from “owning a business” to “the business owning you.”

Owning a business means that you’ve agreed to a certain lifestyle. Yes, if you’re a freelance SEO copywriter, you have the freedom to take a day off. At the same time, you may be working weekends and holidays just to meet deadlines. It’s OK for awhile, and then – with some people –  it becomes the norm. And then you feel nervous when you’re not working.

After a few years of living the self-employed life, you may slowly start making lifestyle changes. You don’t get a dog because you “travel too much.” You don’t see friends because things are “too busy.” You’re only half-listening to your partner as they try to connect with you. At the same time, you find it extremely important to update your Facebook status, tweet something brilliant and connect on LinkedIn for “personal branding.”

You find out that your work life and your personal life are so intertwined that they seem interchangeable…and it’s always about work. If you think about it, you may find that you’re more intimate with your online friends than your friends in real life. And you have no idea how that happened. (For a fascinating take on this, this TED talk by @ambercase discusses the concept of always-on, ambient intimacy.)

This may not happen to you during year one. Or even year two. But after owning a business for many years, you may find that you’re not “doing what you love” anymore. It’s lost its joy. You’re doing what you know how to do. And you don’t have an “exit strategy” other than dropping everything and moving to a desert island.

(For a funny perspective on this very thing, check out “4 exit strategies for marketing agency owners” by the wonderfully-witty Ian Lurie.)

Instead of feeling excited about new possibilities, you become tunnel-visioned. Your day becomes routine…and let’s face it, you didn’t become self-employed for a “routine” life. It’s way, way too boring.

Have I faced this myself?  You bet. I’ll go through a type of “business midlife crisis” every couple years or so. In a way, it’s exciting – I’ll typically throw everything up in the air and think. “OK, what if I left SEO?” “OK, what if I sold my company and worked in-house instead?” “What else could I do?” I look at new opportunities and gauge my excitement. It’s a very whirlwind process.

But man, it’s exhausting too. Very, very exhausting.

If you’re feeling this way, you’re probably feeling all sorts of messed up. Because the thing that you loved to do so much (write/develop strategy/work with clients) is now the thing that limits you. If this feels like you, here are some ways to deal:

  • Be compassionate with yourself. You aren’t the first person who let your freelance work life overwhelm your personal one –  and you won’t be the last. Give yourself permission to feel frustrated. Let yourself indulge in the fantasy of closing shop (my fantasy is becoming a Starbucks barista.) A little mental escape (and some humor) can make things easier.
  • Ask yourself “What would be fun?” Then listen to the answer. You may be surprised.
  • Focus on the excitement rather than the stress. Know that you won’t be in this spot forever. When you focus on the fun excitement of, “I wonder what’s next,” you’ll stop focusing on the negative.
  • Think about what you can let go. This is a hard one for me – I’m used to doing everything. At the same time, I know that admin tasks are a fast way for me to get bogged down in “busywork” and hate my day. Find someone who can help, even for just a little bit.
  • Talk to someone. This could be tricky if you’re feeling ashamed/overwhelmed/like you should be able to figure this out yourself (my personal favorite!). At the same time, sharing your challenges can be a great way to realize that you’re not alone and get an outside perspective. A business coach or even a trusted colleague will help you feel much more “normal.”
  • Think out of the box. That solo entrepreneur “tunnel vision” thing is real. Think of other “related-but-different” ways you can make money. Maybe that means partnering with someone else and expanding your offerings. Or creating a product to sell. Or doing what you love for an entirely new market. The possibilities really are endless.
  • Give yourself time to contemplate the possibilities. It’s really hard to figure out “what to do when you grow up” when all you do is work. Just saying. :)
  • Carve out some “you” time. This may be super-hard if you’re used to working all the time.  Even a baby step like seeing a friend for one hour a week is a great step.

Remember that your career life is long – and you need to enjoy what you do. Once you find your business joy, you’ll rediscover what you loved about self-employment – and you’ll start controlling your business again rather than the other way around.