“Elizabeth” had a big block. Lately she had been unintentionally sabotaging her relationships with her big clients She was worried that it was jeopardizing her business, and she was right. She needed to get rid of her block. But her block wasn’t quite what she thought it was.

Elizabeth works hard at everything she does. When her clients say they need something, she always takes on the project immediately no matter how unreasonable the time frame. Then she knocks herself and her staff out getting it done. She has taken that old adage to “underpromise and overdeliver” and thrown away the “underpromise” part. She promises her clients everything they want in record time, struggles to make it happen, and then finds that they don’t appreciate how hard she works. Of course, she rarely tells them how difficult it will be to meet their deadlines, so how could they?

stressed callerShe also overdoes things at home. Despite having a successful business making more than enough money, she does all the cleaning and cooking at home. She manages her seventh grade son’s schedule, personally making sure he gets to all his after school activities, attends his games, and hosts his friends at home at least once a week. And when he started struggling in math, she researched geometry books, got the one with the most recommendations, and tutored him herself. When her husband complained about their outdated kitchen, she hired the general contractor then made all the decisions and dealt with the inevitable problems on her own.

She was stressed out and not sleeping well the few hours she allowed herself to lie down. Her health was deteriorating. The doctors were prescribing more and more medication. And she was miserable. No surprise there.

What surprised Elizabeth were the slip-ups at work. She didn’t notice a significant mistake in a preliminary report to one of her major clients. She caught it the next day but not before it went out to the client, who was upset that he had already relied on it. Now, a mistake like this could happen to anyone, and she caught it very quickly. Still, Elizabeth was in shock. “Nancy, I never make a mistake like that,” she told me. “Never!”

The next week, this same careful, thoughtful business owner made a flippant remark to another major client in a meeting that had everyone in the room staring at her. She had to scramble to apologize and undo the damage. She was desperate for me to root out what was going on inside of her that was making her undercut her business in these ways before she did something she couldn’t recover from. She wanted this mysterious block removed so she could get back to business as usual.

Only I couldn’t do that. Oh, she had a block all right, and I was more than happy to help her get rid of it. But there was no way I would help her get back to business as usual. That self-sabotage wasn’t caused by her block—well, not directly. The real internal block was the one that was driving her to work way too hard, putting an incredible strain on her mind and body. The self-sabotage “block” was actually her unconscious way of protecting herself from that strain. If she didn’t make some sort of change, she was on her way to karoshi, which in Japanese means “death from overwork.” (Yes, that really does happen.) So I would never try to get rid of the “self-sabotage” without first getting rid of the true problem, her need to do everything and do it right now.

Of course, Elizabeth needed a bit of convincing. After all, it is a given that business owners must work very hard if they want their businesses to be successful. And while I could get her to see rationally that overworking at home was actually undermining her effectiveness at work, she was less willing to acknowledge that she would actually do better if she pushed back with her clients, insisting on getting enough time to do the work right and have some down time. I talked until I was blue in the face about clients valuing her more if she were more of a “finite commodity,” and about her needing downtime to be able to use her brain more efficiently and creatively. “Yes, yes, Nancy, but I need to take care of my clients, and they’ll only respect me if I deliver!”

So I tried a different tack. I had her say out loud “I want my clients to fire me.” Then I had her judge on a scale of 0 to 100 percent how true that statement felt. Now we both knew that she didn’t consciously want them to fire her. If I’d asked her if she wanted her clients to pull their business, she would have said absolutely not. But when she checked how true the statement felt, the answer came back “Eighty percent.” Eighty percent! Now I had her attention. If some part of her was that hell bent on losing her clients, she knew she needed to make a significant change.

It’s taken time. We’ve uncovered the reason for her irrational need to work non-stop, and we’ve started to defuse it. As we do, Elizabeth has found it easier to delegate. More importantly, she is starting to say “no,” both at home and with her clients. It isn’t easy yet, but it is at least possible now. And it is a lot better than dying of a heart attack or stroke before she turns fifty from all that stress.

Not every business owner has an internal demon like Elizabeth’s driving them to work way too hard. But a lot of owners do work too hard, regularly working late into the night and on weekends, even going for years without a vacation. They don’t delegate and they let their clients set unreasonable deadlines. Then they wonder why they start making mistakes, or even get into fights with those clients.

If you are finding yourself sabotaging your business in any way, the first place to look at is whether you are trying to get yourself a break. Say out loud “I want my clients to fire me.” How true did that feel on a scale of 0 to 100 percent? Consider anything over 20 percent a warning. While there could be a number of reasons this statement might feel true (for example, you really should fire a particularly nasty client to make room on your schedule for a better one), a need to cut back on the hours you put into your business is a common one and a good starting point.

So do a reality check. What is your typical schedule? When do you start work? When do you quit? Do you come home, but keep going back and back to do one more thing on your computer? Do you allow yourself a two-day weekend, or are you usually working during at least one of those days? When is the last time you took a real vacation away from work?

If you see a pattern of overwork here, it’s time to make some changes. Delegating is usually a key part to getting your hours down to a manageable number. For a few ideas on delegating, check out my post on getting past a money block. If you are having trouble thinking about ways you could change your business, try this approach. At the very least, schedule a real (i.e., not a “working”) vacation.

Overwork is a common problem with small business owners. If you suspect you have been undercutting your own business, like Elizabeth was, consider first whether that self-sabotage is really a way to protect you from the stress of your work schedule. If that seems likely, make changes now. A business based on a self-destructive life-style isn’t sustainable. And no business, no matter how successful, is worth karoshi!

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