How Overwhelmed Small-Business Owners Can Find Hope

“It doesn’t have to be this way.”

That’s a powerful phrase. It marks an awakening. A turn. A pivot. It’s that moment when a person stuck in oppressive, repetitive, grueling and stressful circumstances expresses – maybe for the first time – hope.

And hope is a powerful thing.

It doesn’t fix anything. The simple expression of hope doesn’t make it all better. But, it provides the first rung of the ladder – and then, the second, and the third – to climbing out of a prison of despair.

That prison is where so many small business owners find themselves after launching their company, whether after one year, or five, or ten. A company that started with a passion to make the world a better place turns into a desperate struggle to simply keep up with the demands of doing tasks they never wanted to manage in the first place. Gradually, they find themselves working hard on areas of their business that suck up their time and peace of mind.

The greatest challenge for anyone starting a business is to maintain balance so that they spend quality time on the things that will most directly facilitate business growth. Not doing so leads to wasting time and accomplishing little. This can wreak havoc on one’s personal and social life.

Recently, I visited a friend who had recently been appointed the president of a local chamber of commerce. She is active and dynamic in the chamber and was a perfect choice for the role. With an outgoing personality and sales and marketing background, she entered the stage full of excitement and with a vision to grow and strengthen the organization.

When I visited her, she had been on the job only three weeks. It was after normal business hours, and she was hunched over her computer with her head in her hands. If I had image-searched “overwhelmed” in Google, she would’ve been the first picture. In fact, that was the exact word she used to describe how she felt. “Overwhelmed.”

When I met with her a month later, her dream of growing the chamber had all-but dried up. Rather than stepping confidently out as president, CEO and leader, she found herself underneath a sea of operational tasks. To make matters worse, she was swimming inside an inherited system of filing and processes that felt foreign, and simply didn’t work. So, even the job of accomplishing those “simple” operational tasks became fifty times slower.

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Can you relate? How do you know if this is you (or someone you know and love)? Chances are, you knew it from the first sentence. But just in case, here are a few more facts.

In a survey of small-business owners, Constant Contact found that:

  • 56% say they feel like they can never be away from their business.
  • 51% say they don’t have time to focus on themselves.
  • 43% say they don’t take vacations.
  • 40% say they don’t see their friends and family enough.

Very often, these owners second-guess starting their business in the first place, suffering from regret and doubt. They feel like the results of the business are no longer worth the effort.

Is this a new phenomenon? Likely not. But it is growing and becoming more amplified in recent years. Why? Small-business owner burnout is becoming more common because entrepreneurship has gotten much more complex. Technology has empowered entrepreneurs to carry out many tasks that used to be the domain of experts. Things like digital marketing, customer acquisition and taxes can now be tackled with sophisticated software platforms, but often present more complexities than they solve and put severe strains on human time and capital.

It’s enticing to get caught up in the constant stream of slick silicon-valley tools promising to make life easier (and some of them actually do!). Knowing how to navigate and discern the right tech mix can be nearly a full-time job.

One thing hasn’t changed: small-business owners still need to work hard. But working hard on the right things is the key to success.  Working hard is important, but working smart is crucial. If you’re a small-business owner, there are several tell-tale signals that you may not be spending your business hours in the best ways.



In our market research fleshing out the top pain points of our clients, this was number one.  Small-business owners are classically family men and women with a strong desire to make a better life for those they love at home.

Far too often, it’s that very goal that gets flipped on its head when the unexpected, annoying and boring work starts stacking up. When there are only so many hours in the day, sacrifices are made. And, too often, the family (for whom a better life was imagined) is the first one to suffer. The long hours create tension and stress on the most valued relationships with their spouse and kids.



If time with family is suffering because of the demands of a small business, time with friends is virtually impossible. Any semblance of a social life has vanished long ago. While friendships might continue, strengthening those friendships by spending time, and drawing from their support is non-existent.

In report on healthy adult lifestyle, the Mayo Clinic states that time with friends can:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose.
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress.
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth.
  • Help you cope with traumas (such as loss, or a stressful business).

Time with friends is one of the joys of life and is just as important as time with family. Sometimes, it suffers even more than family time because most people don’t think it’s as important, but it takes a toll on a person’s psychological well-being.



Taking care of yourself in the midst of a burdened business, failing family and fleeting friendships sounds like an incredible luxury you just can’t afford. Managing the demands of life requires every minute of your day, and the one who comes in last place is – you.

Most of us underestimate the importance of spending time alone to reflect on how we fit into the bigger picture and to plan for the future. Without it, it’s hard to make progress in life.

Particularly as the CEO of your small business, your primary job should be vision-casting and looking forward. But who has time for that?

Psychology Today offers several reasons to make alone-time a priority, including:

  • Allowing our brain to reboot and unwind.
  • Improving concentration and productivity.
  • Discovering yourself, and your own voice.
  • Providing time to think deeply.
  • Helping you work through problems more effectively.


WebMD offers several ideas for enhancing your alone time, whether you have 10, 30 and 60 minutes. (Written for women, but most are great for anyone.)

Remember, there’s a reason you’re supposed to “put on your mask first” when they drop into the cabin, even before assisting others.

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The chamber of commerce president was not alone, and neither are you. An overwhelming majority of small-business owners feel . . . overwhelmed. It’s an epidemic, and an unfortunate state of “normal.”

Fortunately, there are ways to set the course for a “new normal.”

Step 1.
Say it with me: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Literally, go ahead. Say it. Out loud.
When you say it, believe it. Putting your foot on the first rung of hope is the beginning of what’s next.

Step 2.
Recognize that you’re not an island. None of us are as smart as all of us. Begin to consider reaching out for help. Make strategic moves to put one or more trusted experts in place who can help you with things that are eating up your time.

At Agents of Efficiency, we provide fractional COO and small business management services to help small-business owners navigate a better way. We start by bringing in an expert business coach trained in a process designed to help small-business owners see a clear path out of the over-work trap. Then, we pull specialized experts into the team to manage the back-end operational tasks that keep a CEO distracted from doing what they love, and even manage those tasks for them, all with an eye toward improving their bottom line. Or, as we like to say, “We do the boring stuff. You do the happy dance.”

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As Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham says, “Starting a startup is too hard for one person. Even if you could do all the work yourself, you need colleagues to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong.”

Hard work is good. But hard work done wisely is better.

When a business is set up well and operating smoothly, when its owner can have time to focus and do what they do best, many other parts of life begin to fall into place.


“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Begin today to take steps toward doing business better.