In the summer of 2020, I started working with a life coach during a period of severe professional burnout. We explored my personal and professional goals and talked about how I pictured my ideal career. I told her that I had felt my professional passions shifting. While I still enjoyed parts of clinical practice, I could see myself eventually going part-time in clinical work to make more time for my work as an author and speaker. However, that “eventually” ended up being a mere six months later…
While I wasn’t quite sure how I would make everything work at the time, I made the move to part-time clinical practice and started my own LLC in early 2021, through which I provide freelance speaking and writing services to veterinary conferences, schools, magazines, blogs and more.
For me, entrepreneurship provided me with more time to invest in self-care and an opportunity to save my passion for clinical veterinary medicine by diversifying my career and utilizing my professional skills outside of the clinic. I am happier when I’m in the clinic because I have multiple professional goals to work toward, and I have more time for my family because I’ve created a career with flexibility. But the journey has not been without challenges. And through those challenges, I’ve learned just how important boundaries are to success and maintaining the mental health and self-care practices that I have worked hard to prioritize.
Identifying The Pressures
Entrepreneurship has presented many new pressures—both internal and external. In response, I have often found myself in situations where I am overcommitting or overworking to try to maximize success. Understanding what drives me to make those choices has helped me to determine ways to better protect my time and energy.
First, entrepreneurship comes with financial pressures. And particularly early on in the business, there is uncertainty when it comes to income. This, combined with initial investments and startup costs, can create significant financial pressure—especially for a young professional who still carries a large student loan debt.
When starting a business, it’s best to have a plan that allows you a financial buffer. And it’s also important to realize that you might be a bit uncomfortable for a while. I’ve learned the hard way that working until I’m exhausted just to take on one more project and earn a few extra dollars isn’t worth the stress and exhaustion in the end.
Additionally, being my own boss has created new freedom in my schedule; no one tells me when to start work, but no one tells me when to stop either. If I want to sleep in on a writing day, that’s fine. If I want to stay up until 2 AM writing, the only person who suffers is me when the toddler wake-up call comes at 7 AM. It can be tempting to keep working past when I planned to if I’m having a productive day, or to put off a project until later when I’m just not motivated, but there are consequences relating to the time I have for myself and my family, or how mentally present I am during these times.
Finally, there is a deep internal pressure to succeed. I am proud of what I’ve built and the projects I produce, and I don’t want to see my business fail. When I am feeling particularly vulnerable about my success, I try to step back and consider the many things I have achieved so far; the number of articles I’ve written, the income I’ve generated and the conferences I’ve traveled to. While taking some time to be grateful for what I’ve done so far does help, I still must recognize when it is my fear of failure driving me to take on extra projects that overextend me.
Setting firm boundaries is essential to maximizing productivity and maintaining the balance that drives so many to pursue entrepreneurship. It will take time to get it right; some boundaries may be too rigid and others too loose. Adjustments will need to come with time. My boundaries around the type and number of projects I take on have shifted as work has become more plentiful and my interests have narrowed.
The first step in successfully setting boundaries is identifying where they are needed. Consider your scheduled time to work, the number of clients or projects you will take on at a time, the type of clients you will accept, the type of businesses or people you will collaborate with and what your financial goals are. Good boundaries not only protect your individual time and energy, but also protect your brand, values and goals.
For me, setting financial boundaries has been the easiest to do. Using my personal and business financial goals, I have determined the amounts I am willing to spend and minimum fees for projects. Even though they were easy to set, they aren’t always easy to enforce. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the discomfort of naming a fee and waiting to see how the other party will respond—sometimes I negotiate, other times I decline.
I have found it harder to define clear boundaries around my time and energy, but these are the most important assets to protect if you want to find a healthy integration between your personal and professional life. When I teach personal boundaries during one of my lectures on wellness for veterinary professionals, I remind attendees that they are more than a veterinary professional…And I am more than a veterinarian and an entrepreneur. I have an identity outside of my work as a daughter, mother, wife and friend. I must remember that I am a human being. My time and energy are not unlimited so I must work hard to protect them, whether it is from the stress of being a veterinarian in the clinic or the stress of being a business owner.
While entrepreneurship can be exciting and invigorating, any professional pursuit can lead to burnout if we are not careful. Use boundaries to maximize your productivity and create a client or project list that gives you energy instead of draining it.
Here are some questions to consider when setting up your schedule and the number of projects you will take on:
- When do you find yourself being most productive during the day?
- When you are working, how long until you find your energy or interest waning?
- What are your priorities outside of work and when do you need to be available for them?
- Looking at your last week or month of work, how did you feel?
- Do you find yourself feeling resentful about certain tasks or projects you are working on?
Sticking to Your Boundaries
Utilizing tools and having a plan to help you stick to your boundaries is essential. I often use productivity apps on my phone to help keep me focused when I am working. These apps can also remind me when it is time to take a break. When creating my schedule, I enter family and social events in my calendar first. I schedule time for myself and the activities that help me recharge, then I see how much time is left for work.
Outsourcing some tasks can also help to uphold boundaries. A friend once told me, “You either have the time to do something yourself, or you have the money to pay someone else to do it for you.” I’ve fallen back on this advice many times.
When it comes to my business, I regularly evaluate the tasks I need to do in order to continue to succeed and grow. I consider which tasks I enjoy, like writing content for my social media, and which I find tedious, like updating my website. Over time, I have taken the least desirable tasks and invested some money in hiring someone else to do them, or at least found software to make the tasks more efficient.
Advice for Future Entrepreneurs
Setting boundaries is hard, but sticking to them and asking others to respect them can be even harder. As a young entrepreneur, it is scary to say “no” to an opportunity—especially if it comes with a paycheck. But if that opportunity requires you to defy your boundaries, it’s probably not worth the cost of your time, energy, integrity or mental health. Not every client, collaborator or project is the right fit. Saying “no” to something or someone now could mean you have time to say “yes” to something even better later.
Setting and upholding boundaries around your time and energy will be what keeps you in the game for the long term. As Brené Brown once said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” +