:Mindset / Productivity

The hidden cause of procrastination in entrepreneurs

Karen Curry Parker headshot Karen Curry Parker headshot

The following is a guest post from Teachable creator, Karen Curry Parker. Karen is the Founder & Creator of two professional trainings, the Quantum Human Design for Everyone Training System™ and The Quantum Alignment System™ and the Founder of the Understanding Human Design Membership Community. She’s also one of the world’s leading Human Design teachers and best-selling author in Human Design, a TEDx Speaker, and has been teaching, speaking, coaching clients and training students for over three decades. Karen has a deep love for helping people activate their highest potential, which in part is why she created Quantum Human Design™. In honor of Teachable’s Creator Month, in which we celebrate and share the expertise of creators everywhere, Karen discusses the hidden cause of procrastination in entrepreneurs.

A familiar story

Procrastination for entrepreneurs and business is more common than you think. Does this sound familiar?

“I’m too burned out to cook.”

“Too burned out to exercise.”

“I’m too burned out to get organized.”

“Too burned out to…you fill in the blank.”

Some of you may even relate and feel too burned out to set up your Teachable account and create powerful content that helps you expand your business—so you procrastinate instead of doing what you know you need to do to take your business to the next level. As a high-performance coach for more than 30 years, I find the most common thing my clients say is they’re too burned out. The don’t know how to take the steps necessary to create an exceptional life or build their businesses. They’re too burned out to write that book, set up lead generation and other automation systems, or to work towards their dreams.

So, imagine my delight when I read that The World Health Organization proclaimed in 2018 burnout as a legitimate medical diagnosis. Finally, I thought, a real diagnosis that explained why so many of my clients felt trapped in a cycle of joy-less living that impacted their physical vitality.

WHO facts

When I read the full description from the World Health Organization, which said that burnout is related to employment issues, applies only to work related circumstances, and shouldnt be applied to other life situations,” I was confused.

This didn’t match what happened with my clients at all. Most of my clients didn’t hate their jobs or feel overworked and underpaid. In fact, many of my clients loved their work. They simply felt exhausted and burned out because of underlying patterns of self-sabotage linked to traumatic events from their past. Procrastination in entrepreneurs may have deeper roots than we think. 

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This started me exploring the question:

What if the real cause of burnout is not overworking, low pay, or hating your job. What if it was unresolved trauma?

I decided to survey my weekly newsletter. I sent out a survey to about 20,000 people and approximately a 1,000 people filled it out. Obviously, this wasn’t a scientifically targeted random group. This was a group of self-selected people who were interested in high performance living and who liked my writing and my work. The results were:

  • 97% of the survey participants described themselves as having low self-worth
  • 92% described themselves as having experienced some sort of trauma
  • 87% reported themselves as burned out—many of them so burned out they literally could not go to work

According to the Harvard School of Public Medicine, unresolved trauma is a significant cause of low self-worth and motivational dysfunction—something that my survey seemed to reflect. Also, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the “gold standard” for mental health assessment—the psychological diagnosis of trauma requires actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Obviously, these kinds of events are extremely traumatic.

No wonder procrastination in entrepreneurs in common. 

The gap

However, this diagnostic criteria didnt fit what I saw in my coaching practice. Even though most of my clients felt somehow traumatized by life, very few of them actually experienced these kinds of major traumatic events. The trauma I saw wasn’t always obvious.

For example, one of my clients, Amy, was a burned-out journalist who struggled with an exhausting auto-immune disorder. After working with a therapist, Amy uncovered a memory of her father discouraging her from pursuing a career in creative writing while she was in college because creative writing didnt pay well. In response, Amy changed her major to journalism.  

The real change

Now, you might think that changing majors and landing a job that pays the bills isn’t that big a deal. But Amy lost her sense of value around the one thing she perceived to be her greatest gift: her creative writing ability. Eventually, this sense of loss deeply hurt her career and, ultimately, took a toll on her physical health. Amy resolved her sense of being traumatized by her father’s well-intending advice. Once she embraced the idea it was OK for her to be a creative writer, she returned to work and started writing for fun again.

Shes currently working on her second novel.

Defining trauma

Because the traditional definition of trauma wasn’t really addressing my client’s pain, I created a new definition. Based on my research, my definition of trauma gives us a better way to get to the root cause of burnout and gives us a broader base from which to tackle healing the relationship between trauma and burnout.

I define trauma as any event, perception, or experience that causes us to lose our connection to our sense of value and to our unique gifts we have to give the world.

When we’re coaching people and only looking for the evidence of big trauma (such as violence) and we don’t take into account that most people have in some way perceived themselves as being judged, criticized, or told they can’t do with their life what they dream of doing, it has a similar effect on their self-worth as major trauma.

If we use this more expanded definition of trauma, it also explains why so many people feel burned out, even though they haven’t experienced “textbook” trauma.

What happened to Mark

One of my clients, Mark, was a business man who had a terrible fear of failing. Mark’s father had been very successful and deeply critical of his son growing up. In spite of being very capable and brilliant in his own right, Mark kept sabotaging his success. He consistently miscalculated the time it took him to complete projects. He eventually was so exhausted by his self-generated chaos that he completely stopped trying to work at all. 

When we explored this pattern of failure, we discovered that Mark’s bad time-management skills were actually a way of controlling his crippling fear of failure rooted in his trauma from his hyper-critical father. If he could basically “fail in advance,” then he didn’t have to take the risk of discovering his best effort wasn’t good enough. Once Mark healed his trauma, he expressed his own talents and defined success on his own terms. 

Where the trouble really lies

Trauma doesn’t only make becoming successful a struggle, it also creates a stress response. This causes your body to produce the hormone cortisol—putting you in a state of chronic fight or flight and at risk form many health issues.

I’m in the middle of researching the relationship between trauma, elevated cortisol, and resiliency. High cortisol levels make it difficult to “bounce back” from the twists and turns that life inevitably throws at us. This makes us less resilient—something that’s essential to be successful as an entrepreneur. If you can’t pivot quickly because you’re too stressed and you can’t see other creative options, it can make having your own business extra challenging.

In my coaching, I assess resiliency using a system of modern, cross-cultural archetypes called, Quantum Human Design™.  Quantum Human Design™ is a powerful tool to help my clients discover their strengths, their natural gifts, and key insights into their Life Purpose. Most importantly, it helps them understand how to optimize their energy so they work without burning out. Quantum Human Design™ also uses a scale that includes nine core characteristics called The Resiliency Keys. 

Vitality and burnout

Vitality is having the energy to take action to do what you need to do in life. When you have low vitality, it’s hard for you to do things such as: keeping  your house in order, exercising, or taking the time to buy and cook healthy food. What’s more, it’s even harder to do those things that give your life meaning.

When we cant access our vitality, we feel burned out. Understanding the components of resiliency and how trauma affects resiliency helps us understand why some people work terrible jobs and never burn out while others have amazing, dream jobs and struggle with burnout.

Allen’s story

One of my clients, Allen, was a highly successful surgeon. He owned several medical technology patents and lived in a large mansion in a thriving metropolitan area. Additionally, he set his own hours and received an enormous amount of respect and acknowledgment at his job. 

Yet, when I first met Allen, he reported himself as being burned out” and gave himself a very low Vitality” score on the resiliency key scale. He struggled to get out of bed in the mornings. Furthermore, he had developed a strong coffee addiction to help him stay alert during surgery.

Allen had gone through a very contentious break up of a business partnership that left him doubting his worthiness of having success. When we worked on restoring his sense of self-worth, his vitality returned. And, he reclaimed his normal state of productivity. Not only did he get back to his normal, vibrant self, with a new sense of self-worth, but the quality of his relationships also improved. Hes now happily married with a brand new baby daughter.

If we don’t help people heal from “everyday” trauma and only focus on extreme trauma, we miss the boat on how to help people tap into their ability to fulfill their life’s potential. Plus, we actually limit the chances that we find the solutions to the challenges facing humanity today.

The biology behind it

People who are burned out and have high levels of cortisol are more reactive and less creative. When the body is in constant survival mode, it physiologically shuts down the more creative parts of your brain. (You don’t need those parts of your brain when you’re running from a bear or fighting for your life.) When we feel vital, we access a more expansive brain state that makes us more creative. We’re able to better find ground-breaking solutions to problems. Without this kind of creativity, we never would have gone to the moon, created lightbulbs, or electricity.

You need this kind of creativity to not only run your business but also to use your business as a platform to find innovative and ground-breaking solutions to helping the world. A world facing issues of sustainability, equitability, and more needs healthy, creative people in order to access the elegant solutions necessary to peacefully resolve the challenges facing humanity today.  

Why it matters

Burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare spending, according to an article published in the Harvard Business Review. The number of people reporting themselves as burned out is on the rise every year. So, why is this important for entrepreneurs to understand?

The number one symptom of burnout is procrastination. Many new entrepreneurs scramble to build a business on the side as a way of escaping a job they hate. (Especially, if they think their day job is the cause of their burnout.) However, if the root cause of burnout isn’t work-related issues as the WHO suggests—but rather unresolved trauma, many would-be entrepreneurs are tackling this debilitating and costly syndrome the wrong way.  

Getting a better job or starting your own business wont help until you heal your burnout. This doesn’t mean you can’t keep working. But, you have to do it with the mindset that you are healing while you’re building.

What does that look like?

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, to be more productive, stop procrastinating, take bold actions and leaps of faith, find your joy, and spark your ingenuity and vitality, you must counterbalance all of your actions with rest and renewal.

When you find yourself pushing with energy you don’t have, embrace your resistance.  

1. Practice self-care

See your resistance and procrastination as a symptom of burnout. And, balance it out with self-care and self-renewal. Go for a walk, take a nap, take a nice relaxing bath, play with your dogs, paint, draw, read, or do something that inspires your creativity. Most importantly, give yourself the gift of compassionate awareness

You simply can’t push when you’re burned out and expect to generate more energy. Recognize the most effective use of your time isn’t in artificially trying to inspire a spark that isn’t there. But rather, it’s in being gentle and sweet with yourself. So, take a break and treat yourself as if you’re recovering. The pauses and metered use of your energy helps you restock and refill your energy supplies so that you’ll have more to give later.

2. Listen to yourself

Burnout is considered a loving nudge from your “higher self.” Use this time to heal any trauma you may have experienced that left you doubting your value or feeling disconnected from your purpose in the world. When you’re building your business, it’s tempting to push, hustle, or draw upon will power and grind to lay the foundation of your business. 

However, the foundation you build your business upon sets the tone and the direction for your business. It’s natural to have a bit of a hustle at the onset. However, be mindful of not letting it become a lifestyle. You want 20% of your efforts to produce 80% of your results. If you get this formula backwards, you run the risk of destroying your physical health and well-being. Plus, your business won’t be successful or sustainable. And, you’ll be back at square one.  

You’re the foundation of your business. Procrastination in entrepreneurs is common, but it doesn’t have to be. Take care of yourself first. You’ll have a greater chance of creating not only long-term success but also a business that sustains you and your ability to serve over time.  

Author: Karen Curry Parker, Karen Curry Parker is the Founder & Creator of two professional trainings, the Quantum Human Design for Everyone Training System™ and The Quantum Alignment System™ and the Founder of the Understanding Human Design Membership Community. She's also one of the world’s leading Human Design teachers and best-selling author in Human Design, a TEDx Speaker, and has been teaching, speaking, coaching clients and training students for over three decades. Karen hosts the Quantum Conversations and Quantum Human Design™ Podcasts and Co-Founder of GracePoint Publishing.