Overwhelmed: The 1st Step to Getting Off The Hamster Wheel

Nov 15, 2013, Written by Sue Miley

Have you ever thought seriously about the gerbil wheel?  Seriously!  It is the perfect illustration of a small business owner whose business has outgrown the place where they can keep their arms around it.  You feel stuck, but it is not the “I am stuck but I will sit here and catch my breath for a minute” stuck.  Nope.  It is more like “I have to keep running or something in my business will drop.  But I am getting tired.  And, to make matters worse, I am not going anywhere.”  You can’t grow anymore, but you can’t slow down either, because you have to keep what you have going.

You are stuck.  At least as far as growth goes.

So back to that gerbil example.  How embarrassing!  I am literally hoping that when people look at me in those times, because we all have them, they are not seeing me on a spinning gerbil wheel!

Hopefully, now that you have the visual in your head, when you are feeling overwhelmed and stuck in your business, the sheer embarrassment of it all will be the motivation to get unstuck fast.  Hurt pride or pain and overwhelm, we all have our motivators!

But don’t forget the original motivation.  That God vision you had to start your business.  And, yes, I admit it….most small business owners, even Christian business owners, want a little freedom.

Freedom from making someone else’s company rich.

Freedom from strict 9-5 work hours.

Freedom from sub-par quality service.

Remember when your passion for your dream job energized you, rather than drained you.  It was the dream that was worth you investing most of your life savings, quitting your job, and stepping out in faith.  All of this positive is being threatened by a bit too much overwhelm:

  • Customers love your service, but everyone needs you immediately. You worry that if you don’t provide short timelines they will go to someone else.
  • You know you need more talent, but the idea of finding time to interview, much less train, almost stops the gerbil wheel from turning.
  • In the beginning, long hours made sense for your start-up, but well into year four, you don’t know how much longer you can last.

I have seen and felt this way before.  I am sure you want to find a way to continue to grow and to regain that passion and vision.  And get off the ridiculous gerbil wheel.

You know it is possible, because your friend Bob has his own business and he seems to be at the beach a week out of every month.  Besides you are smarter than Bob anyway.

You are smarter!  You are….

You are just too close to it.

We all know it is easier to give others advice and fix everyone else’s problems.

Now you need to turn your advice and wisdom on yourself.

Here is quick 3 step process to alleviate some of the overwhelm:

  1. Make a list of all of the things you are tolerating right now in your business.  Wake up 30 minutes early tomorrow (even if that means 3:30 a.m.) and let every small or large frustration, inefficiency, or pain flow from pen to paper.  Don’t worry about organizing it or prioritizing yet.  Just let it flow.
  2. Take your list and rank it based on time drain and energy drain.  Seriously, go down the long list and put a 1 by everything that takes the most time with least value, a 2 by the next highest time drainers, and a 3 by the least.  Then do the same for energy drain.  Energy can be sapped through exertion, stress, or even fear factor.  Do a similar ranking on energy drain.  Add them up and sort, lowest number to highest.  In this example, the lowest number are the biggest “suck the life out of you” activities in your work.
  3. Find solutions to rid yourself of the top 3 life suckers.  Usually the options are:
    1. Stop doing it – many times we do stuff that has no value just because we have always done it.  Evaluate the activity and if it has little to no value, just stop doing it.
    2. Find a better way – sometimes the activity is important, we are just super-inefficient.  We don’t have a process, we haven’t created a template, or maybe we could automate.  You may have to get up 30 minutes early for another week, but you can think of and create a better way.
    3. Get help – if the activity is important, and just time consuming, you may have to find help.  Options are outsourcing if it isn’t a full-time activity, delegating if you have other employees, or hiring a part-time person to handle the activity.

These steps will not double your business size, but they will free up a little time and energy.  After you get the first three off of your plate, hit the next three on your list.  You will soon be off of the gerbil wheel.

By the time you are halfway through your list of “life sucking activities”, you can begin to add activities into your week that will begin to create your foundation for growth.

These foundation building steps are what Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, coined as Quadrant II activities.  These are important, but not urgent.  These activities build foundations that support growing and thriving businesses.

You know…

Your dream business.

You started with strong consistent growth.  But now you are stuck.  Stuck in a painful, exhausting, and if you are like me, slightly embarrassing place.

Now is the time to get unstuck.

We have to start somewhere to slow down the gerbil wheel.  As it slows, through the establishment of a strong foundation,  get ready to jump!

Jump off of that wheel and start moving forward and up!

Reader Interactions


  1. Stephanie Calahan says

    Excellent post Sue! One of the best exercises I ever did was the one you mention here! Taking time to list all of the joy robbing activities in itself was freeing when I did it a few years ago. Then, identifying which activities just simply were no longer necessary was eye opening.

    Back in my corporate days I had been a master at delegation, but somehow owning my own business I had let that muscle get weak and flabby! I’m glad to say it is stronger today and I continue doing the exercise twice a year as my business changes and grows.

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Sue Miley

Sue Miley MBA, MA, LPC helps small business owners build successful businesses on a foundation of Christian values. After 20 years in business, and 10 years as a Christian counselor, Sue uses a combination of faith, business and psychology to help clients in business and in life.

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