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Preventing Burnout: The Founder’s Work Contract

I gave up dating, friendships, and salary when I started my company.

When I explained to an investor that I was starting to feel sucking into the company, he told that his best entrepreneurs were obsessed with their companies too. I felt vindicated.

But that’s exactly the wrong framework.

It’s the path to burnout.

“Burned out? Take a vacation!” Bullshit.

Vacation doesn’t touch real burnout. That’s because burnout isn’t just about the number of hours worked.

The best framework I’ve found is from researcher Geri Puleo who describes it as your psychological contract with work being violated.

I’ve never thought of having a contract with work. Never thought that in order to give I still have expectations of receiving. I’ve always thought of it as a one-way relationship where I give and give until I have nothing left, depleted.

How fucked up is that?

We are allowed to have expectations of work, in fact we can’t deny that we do. It could be as simple as expecting a good salary and as expansive as fulfilling your purpose.

What would be in your contract? And how highly would you rate the fulfillment of that expectation right now on a scale of 1 to 10?

An example contract

Doing this exercise myself yielded some interesting insights. Here’s what my expectations look like:

⭐️ Salary enough that I can save each month towards a house and have enough to do a 5 trips a year (8)

⭐️ Sense of purpose, that I’m actually helping others move forward in their business, make space in their lives, see the larger pictures (7 – when I doubt myself, I wonder if I’m having the impact on my clients I would wish for)

⭐️ Connection with my clients, I love deep connection (9)

⭐️ Self-expansion, that the topics I’m learning about or that my founders bring me are causing me to reflect, grow (even if uncomfortable), and ultimately expand my resilience and views of the world. (9)

⭐️ Flexibility to surf in the afternoons and not have to work into the evening (10)

⭐️ 1 flex week a month without meetings where I can dedicate to research, content, or travel (10)

If any of these expectations are violated for too long, then I would not be getting the deal I expected.

The first 9 months of my practice, I was not making my desired salary — but I knew that this was a building period and I was okay with that. Now that my practice has grown, if I went 9 months going paycheck to paycheck, unable to save and go on a trip, then I would start to feel the burn.

If my workload were too much, even though I had more salary (reward), it would violate another principle of my contract which is flexibility to surf. So the point of this contract isn’t to maximize, sometimes I’m willing to come down on one area to ensure that another is being fulfilled.

So for me, here’s what I’m willing to give in my contract with my work:

✅ 6 hours a day, 4 days a week (not rigid, but my average across weeks) which includes meetings, admin, and outside client work

✅ Time outside meetings to learn, grow, and train to deepen in my profession

✅ 3 weeks of travel annually (this will grow when my energy returns)

✅ Time outside meetings to give to clients via text, email, and phone calls flexibly

This month, I’m over on the number of hours I’m working, but it’s psychedelic assisted work, which I’m deeply interested in. So it doesn’t feel like its burning me out. In fact, it’s teaching me where I could possibly expand in my offerings to work.

I was nervous about being flexible with client interactions outside meetings, but I’ve found I love it so this is a more recent addition to what I’m willing to give in my contract with my job.

Write out your contract honestly

The exercise with this framework is simple. Write out your key expectations of what your job will give you, alongside what you are willing to give it.

Then do an analysis:

❓ Am I honoring what I think I’m healthfully willing to give in my contract with work? Where is it too much? Too little?

❓ Am I receiving what I expect from my work? Where am I not receiving enough, and what am I willing to change to get more from it?

❓ Where does the contract need revision?

❓ Who in my life can I share this with to help hold me accountable to my contract?

Doing this exercise takes some real emotional honesty.

We are often in denial of even being at risk of burning out. To truly look at your role would require being able to lift the mask of denial.

“Everything is fine! I can handle this.” People say that until they are well far down the path of burnout.

Set up this contract as early as possible, and then re-evaluate every 6 months.

In the early stages of building a company, you are going to have to give more than you’re used to. Even as a coach who urges balance, I know it’s impossible to expect too much. At the earliest stages the balance is tilted towards giving than receiving, like raising a puppy where those first months and even years are much tougher.

But it’s still worth being aware of what you eventually expect from the company and not losing sight of that. This will preserve an emotional honesty such that 5 years down the line when you still don’t have product-market fit, your co-founder as left, and you are running out of money AGAIN, you can come back to the question of what you are doing this for.

Founders are hesitant to share (even with me, their coach!) that they have any financial motivation. We’re trained to only paint the vision of mission and impact. This is baloney, unless you are already independently wealthy. Even leaders need to pay the bills.

You’re allowed to list money as an expectation! Just get real about how important that is and how a proper salary will enable you to live as you build. This framework allows you to list financial reward among the multi-variate soup of what’s driving you to build your company or career.

It takes patience to build a business, but honesty to know when you’ve given too much. Writing out the contract can give you clarity when the road is long and motivation is hard to find.

Preventing Burnout: The Founder’s Work Contract

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