Business BurnoutAre you feeling burned out?

You have lots of company. And there is no lack of chirpy articles on how to deal with burnout in your life. They tell you to take a walk, see a movie, or stop and smell the roses. Or perhaps take that long-awaited vacation.

So let’s be honest: tips like these probably won’t work with the kind of crushing, bone-deep exhaustion that sets in with many small business owners. For you, life probably seems like it takes place inside a food processor. So here is a simple but powerful exercise that therapists like myself often use to create a real game plan for making things better.

First, take out a sheet of paper. Draw a vertical line down the center of it. Then, at the top of the left-hand side, complete the following sentence:

“I am upset because ____________”

It could be demands on your time. Or problems with your cash flow. Or perhaps employee headaches. Or maybe you just feel emotionally and spiritually drained right now. Whatever it is, write it down.

Now draw a little arrow down from there and write down the answer to one simple question: WHY?

When you have answered it, draw another little arrow and answer WHY that bothers you. Then do it again. And again. And again. Until you know that you have hit pay dirt about what is really on your mind.

For example: I am upset because I am always too busy >> Because this all feels like too much work >> Because my efforts don’t equate to the income I am receiving >> Because the market for what I am selling is poor, and I never really stopped to think about how hard I have to work for each sale.

This is the classic “downward arrow” exercise made famous by psychiatrist and bestselling author David Burns in his book Feeling Good. (Note: I license Dr. Burns’ materials for my therapy practice.) It is almost always a good learning experience. And surprisingly often, when I use it with clients, something pops out a few levels down that completely surprises both me and the client.

You may think you are just too busy or too tired, but with a little guided self-examination, you may discover some amazing things: That you never really liked being self-employed. That you have been trying to please your parents or your friends all along instead of yourself. That you should deal once and for all with that psycho in the next office who is sucking everyone’s morale dry. Or perhaps that what you are doing is a poor fit for your skills and talents.

Or it may be that you really do need that vacation after all.

Whatever you find, the things you learn at the bottom of the sheet will tell you where to focus your efforts. This is where the right-hand side of the paper comes in: Start writing down realistic steps for what you can do to change that real, core situation that is troubling you.

Whatever you do, take the time to examine what is really happening when you are facing a sense of burnout in your own business. The answer may be as close as a few minutes and a sheet of paper away.