In 2013, I went to bed. I started to walk up the stairs (there were 12 stairs in total) and I sat down on the 5th step.
My husband found me there 8 hours later still asleep. I was so exhausted from trying to juggle being a mother to a then 5 and 2 year old with running a full time business that I had been (literally) unable to make it to my bedroom.
That day changed everything. It was a serious reality check because I didn't consciously choose to sleep on the stairs. I didn't collapse but I guess I wasn't far off.
It bought flashbacks from my days as a lawyer where it was not uncommon to go to work on a Monday and leave the office some 36 to 48 hours later. I remember once being given so much work that I slept under my desk only for my boss to yell at me the next morning for being so stupid. Not because I slept on the floor but because "the goddam law firm has beds, Suzi. Use the office beds".
What was the problem?
The problem wasn't so much that I fell asleep on the stairs (heck - pre-kids, I could equally have done that after several glasses of wine and a kebab!). The problem was that I was, at that point, in the later stages of exhaustion and spiralling towards burn-out. I had not spotted the signs because I didn't know what I was supposed to be looking for. I didn't really believe that you could get so tired that your body closes down. And I made cakes and taught classes...was it REALLY possible to get sick doing something so fun?
I had been raised as part of the generation of "work hard, play hard". The problem was there was no allocation for "rest hard" either. So one by one, my peers started falling away from their careers. I remember the guy who collapsed at his desk. He was never seen again - probably paid off by the firm he worked for so he would not sue them. He hadn't slept in days and that was seen as a mark of honour. It was like he was a super achiever, a seriously top notch grafter and he was given an unspoken badge of achievement for keeping on going. WTF?
Part of the reason I wanted to focus on this "When Life Happens..." topic is because exhaustion is actually potentially really serious.
I have spotted it in other cake makers and small business owners and it is not a nice thing to witness. So, if you are reading this and thinking "Oh, that sounds like me" or "Oh that sounds like my mum/ sister/friend...", it's time to step in and help.
What are the warning signs of an exhausted caker?
These are the 5 major warning signs that you are exhausted and headed towards burn out:
Warning #1: Fatigue
I don't mean feeling a bit tired. We all feel a bit tired especially if you are a working mum because getting up early with young kids and working late to fit everything around your business as a caker kinda comes with the territory.
This is a tired where it doesn't seem to make any difference if you do sleep. You wake up, you eat breakfast and eating becomes enough to make you need to sleep it off.
Worse, you get more tired and then you cannot sleep. Then you get stressed because you cannot sleep and you suddenly are spiralling out of control. That's the kind of tiredness that should be ringing alarm bells.
Warning #2: Forgetfulness
So yes, we all have those moments where we walk into a room and we cannot remember why we went there.
But if your forgetfulness starts to be common or you start forgetting things like appointments, names of people or what you did that morning, it is often a symtom of exhaustion. Stress and constant worry become more acute and you almost become paranoid about things in the process.
The first thing to do if you have memory issues is seek out ways to ease your stress. This should improve your memory short term but don't then ignore the other warning signs.
Warning #3: You cannot think
You cannot think straight - or actually at all. It feels like you have to put all your energy into thinking about something and it becomes a real struggle.
Then any background noise or distraction can cause an over reaction. Someone asking you a question or the phone ringing, can send you into orbit of "arrrgrggggggh I. JUST. NEED. TO. HAVE. SOME. HEADSPACE"!
Sound familiar? If it does, you need to think about whether you are displaying the warning signs of exhaustion. 'Thinking' is not something that should literally hurt your mind but when you start to get exhausted, it can. And you can go from the above, to getting headaches when you try to focus and think. Because by this stage, you are now releasing so many stress hormones that your head starts to hurt!
Warning #4: Detachment and Isolation
You may have anxiety and depression or mood swings in the early stages. If you don't address these and you are looking at other warning signs of exhaustion, you enter the next level: social withdrawal.
You become detached from your family, friends and job and you tend to isolate yourself more and more. And that can lead to further depression.
If you are here you need to speak to a medical professional sooner rather than later.
It is important for introverts not to confuse this symtom. A natural introvert (like me!) will enjoy time alone. They will need time alone to recover from the stress of a social event. But it is short lived. You can bounce back to normal without problems if nothing else is going on. Introverts tend to deal with big social events by having a period of isolation afterwards for a few days - that is normal, that is not a sign of exhaustion.
Where it starts to be an issue is when the isolation becomes common. You would rather spend all your time alone, you are not really going to anything social and time off is just the TV and switching off your phone (although you then don't do that as answering calls becomes stressful too).
Warning #5: Chest pains, stomach pains, any pains...
If you are exhausted, it is fairly likely you have a very high stress level. And your body doesn't like stress. It sends out hormones to fight it and your body can become this toxic confusion trying to manage itself.
You are confused, tired, isolated and then you get back pains, or chest pains or stomach pains. And before long you have consulted Dr Google and convinced yourself you have all the most serious diseases and are going to croak it.
Physical symtoms can be brought on by stress and exhaustion and you can actually find it hard to believe you have potentially created this pain through a mix of other symptoms. It is not your fault but your body is sending out major warning signs and once again, it is time to take a reality check and get yourself off to see that doctor.
What is happening inside your body when your exhasted?
Now, I am not a doctor. But as a result of what happened to me, I did a heap of research into the physiological effects of exhaustion. And it does not make for pretty reading....
1. Your brain becomes very fuzzy
This is, in part, mixed up with the effects of poor sleep and stress. Instead of recovering from a normal day by sleeping and allowing your body and mind to rest, you are not sleeping enough, your mind is not resting and your brain starts suffering.
It is like feeling drunk. And, in a way, it is actually like being drunk. Your cognative functions slow down so your judgment and decision making processes become impaired - just as if you had downed a bottle of wine!
2. You get fat!
Typically people assume that if you are really tired or really stressed, you just won't bother to eat much. But in fact, when you are in the grips of exhaustion, you tend to eat WAY MORE.
And you almost always pick the junk food, the fries, high carbs, pizza foods - the ones that make you feel a bit better? Bit of cake anyone? And it is not your mind doing this. It is a hormone called ghrelin which is responsible for letting your brain know that you are hungry that goes up when you are exhausted. The hormone signals start getting confused and your brain thinks you need food when you don't. At the same time, your hormone leptin (which tells your brain when you are full), pretty much packs up and leaves home. It checks out and just doesn't send those messages. And so you just keep on eating.
3. Your immune system packs up
Yep - your body likes sleep! And if you deprive it of sleep, then your body starts resting in other ways - like lowering your defences. So you start getting more colds and coughs. Or a simple viral infection isn't fought off and you end up with illnesses like pneumonia which can have long lasting effects.
Because of Pretty Witty Cakes, I have been privileged to meet cakers and cake students from all over the world. I know 9 (NINE!) cake makers who have had pnemonia. I know 0 (ZERO!) people outside of the cake world who have had pnemonia. To me that speaks volumes.
Cold sores, colds, virus or random rashes etc. They all rise when your body doesn't have enough reserves to fight infection.
In my case, as a young lawyer, I started to get rashes when I was overworked (arriving at 8am and leaving and 2am the next day to be back by 8am again). When I quit law they went but when I started overworking in my cake business, they came back again. I got tested over and over again and it was only later on when every test came back negative did the dots line up. These were little rashes that my body's immune system was throwing out like warning signs. It was my body's way of screaming "heh - this is not ok. You need to slow down".
4. Your metabolism slows down
Yep - in some evil twist of ugggghhhh, not only are you eating more, but your body slows your metabolism. Net result, you put on even more weight.
Eventually your body's metabolism changes and you get an insulin resistance which can ultimately lead to problems like diabetes. All because you are working 24/7 for that dream life...but the more you work, the further away that dream life becomes. You need to work smarter, not longer hours. Longer hours have their place but if your entire working life is a non stop hamster wheel of exhausting long hours, something has gone wrong.
5. Your heart can be affected
In 2013, one of the warning signs I didn't ignore was sudden chest pains. My grandad died of a heart attack when he was 43 and my dad (who was 63 in 2013) had had 3 heart attacks. I was 38 back then and thinking "oh shit...this isn't good". Maybe I am gonna die of a heart attack.
With my family history, the GP sent me off for some heart tests. But everything came back fine - in fact I was seeminly healthy from a heart attack/collesterol level. I remember posting on facebook how my collesterol test was "the lowest seen in years" at my surgery.
But that was the problem. Where was the heart pain coming from? It was only once all those tests showed that it was nothing sinister, that again the dots started to be joined together. It was exhaustion again but manifesting itself in another physical symptom.
What happens if you just ignore it?
What I think people don't realise is that a good night's sleep won't cure the exhaustion if you are this far in. It will take weeks or months to get back to normal and you will need to re-assess how you are running your life and make some pretty big changes.
By this stage, you may well have burnt some bridges in the way you deal with people or situations because your tired mind and body means you don't function as well. You can be snappy, blunt, argumentative (more than you normally are!) and take everything way too personally.
You cannot just ignore this. You have to get some help. Whether you do that through a doctor helping monitor you or through support around you, you have to do more than take a couple of days off work.
You will probably need to look at your long term plans. Can you reduce your work load but still maintain your income, can you do less hours? Can you restructure your business to work smarter not harder? The latter for me was the key. How could I continue doing what I loved without working the same hours.
In my case, part of the reason I was so tired is that I was writing a book on top of everything else. I should have said no but in the early days of a business, you don't say no to anything, do you (big mistake!). One of the best skills you can acquire in your cake business is learning when to turn down work.
These days, I know what I will take on and what I won't. I have pretty defined working hours and I try not to deviate. That doesn't mean I work "normal hours" because being a working mum means I have to work unusual hours to fit everything in. But I don't push myself to go to every social event, or every industry event. I focus on whether my business is working AND whether my family is happy. If both are in sync, then I try not to change much. People often comment that I am not at big trade shows or cake shows. I am not because I don't need to be to run my business. It is an optional luxury for me and sometimes I go, sometimes I don't depending on how busy I am.
What should you do to deal with exhaustion and your business?
Running a cake business can be right up there with the high stress level things in life partly due to the hours and partly becuase it is a creative business where you want to do your absolute best work (even when you may not have been paid enough to justify that!).
Here are my top tips for simple steps to take if you recognise yourself in the above post:
Tip #1: Remove stress triggers
You are not going to be able to remove stress in one go from your life, and if you try, you will end up failing, feel like you failed and the vicious cycle will start over.
Instead focus on individual stress triggers. So, for example, if you are someone who gets stressed if the house is messy, set a goal to finish your work 30 mins before you need to finish. Set your phone alarm and use that 30 mins to tidy things up. This means when you return to work you will face a clean place to work and you will feel more in control and more on top of things.
Tip #2: Give your mind some memory props
At the end of each day, before leaving for that day, write on a post it note the 3 things you will do the next morning as soon as you get in.
They could be:
This is because at the end of a day, you tend to be calm and relaxed having achieved some or all of what you wanted to achieve that day. You can focus better on what still needs doing. When you come in the next morning, and you are tired, cranky or worried about just how much you need to get done, you can look at your list written the night before and just execute it - almost without thinking. It is much easier to follow a list that to plan a day out when you are tired and cranky. That then gently eases you into your working day and you then pick up jobs 4, 5 and 6 much more swiftly. It is part of the working smarter strategy I focus on in the Pretty Witty Academy.
BUT, don't make that list unrealistic. Don't put 12 things on it when you know that you only have time for 3. If you put too much on, you set yourself up to fail and then feel like you have failed further compounding the mental issues surrounding exhaustion.
Tip #3: Stop letting customers dictate your time
This is about setting boundaries. If you run a cake business but you have no open and closing times, customers WILL call you at 9pm on a Sunday.
If you reply to emails at 9pm on a Tuesday evening, your customers will think it is what you choose to do, and will email again out of hours and expect a reply.
It is your business, so you set the rules. Choose your working hours and stick to them. Do not let a customer stretch a 9 hour day into a 15 hour day. If you set rules, on the whole people respect them and respect you more for it.
Tip #4: Simplify things
You don't need to have 47 flavours on offer to run a successful cake business. You can do it with 4 (I did!).
You don't need to be able to make every style of cake. You can pick your niche (I did!).
You don't have to work 7 days a week, you can streamline your business and work harder on the more profitable sides (again, I did).
People often ask me "Why did you stop running classes on 1 January 2014". Classes are incredibly profitable but I stopped them. There were many reasons (which I talk more about in the Academy) but one of them was streamlining. My business had been hugely successful on a global level and I had way too much work coming in. I had a choice. Keep working on every single thing (classes, cake making, shop, online tutorials, books, product design, pictorials, video making etc). Or, choose the bits I felt that I could build a big future in.
Making money in the cake industry is not about doing every single thing at the same time. It is about diversification and choosing the bits that are the most profitable, consistent and reliable for you.
For me, running classes was a brilliant experience and I may well restart them in the future. But, there is no denying that they come with a LOT of hard work. There is a full course coming soon to the the Pretty Witty Academy that describes the entire process of how you set up and run successful cake classes, the ups and downs, the hights and the lows.
For tutorials that give you more than "How To Guides" about starting, building and growing a successful cake based business, the Pretty Witty Academy. It is the best online cake and cake business school in the world.
Tip #5: Get up and get out, every day
One of the things that entrepreneurs do, almost by default, is put in more or more hours. You are often so busy that you just keep working to keep all the wheels rolling.
But you have to ask yourself, "Are you running this business or is it running you?". If it is running you, you need to take back control.
One of the first things you can do is to implement a proper time to stop and get out. It does not have to be a lunch break. But it has to be a break.
In my case, I do this by stopping work from 3 to 6pm most days. This is my time to do the school run, get out of the house and be a mum to my kids. I didn't always used to do that. I used to stick them in all the after school clubs to extend my day until 6pm. Then from 6pm it was a rush to get everything done and the concept of quality time kind of vanished.
I slowly realised this wasn't working for me. So I changed things up and now my typical working day is 9.15 to 2.45 and then again after the kids have gone to bed. It works for me but I am not going to lie - it took me years to figure it out and accept that that was actually ok. We are taught to work certain hours - that the day time is for working. But there is nothing wrong with saying "I am going to work 9 hours today but break it into 5 hours in the day and 4 hours later in the evening"
The problem with changing your hours to be more flexible around your life is that initially you can feel guilty if you leave your office or the kitchen. That is some nasty mind game that your mind can play on you so don't let it. Set yout break times and make sure you get them. It is perfectly achievable. Just because you run a cake business does not mean you signed up to be a slave!
If you really cannot find the time to get out, instead take cat naps. Take short 15 min breaks where you sit and do nothing much. Listen to a podcast, read the paper or play on facebook - just something that gives you some non-work "you" time for your brain to slow down a little bit. Listening to podcasts, reading the news, reading a trashy magazine. All these things rest your mind and actually help you see more clearly.
Most days, I start my working day by spending 30 minutes reading a book or listening to a podcast. It could be a business or a fictional book but it is 30 mins of relaxing doing something I love before I start work. It makes a HUGE difference to my productivity.
Exhaustion is pretty common in the cake making world and the real danger is that you don't spot it and just keep on going.
If you see any of the warning signs of exhaustion, you need to think about making some big changes to your working patterns. The old phrase of "work smarter, not harder" could not be more true here.
There are many ways to make money in the cake industry. But none of them should involve you working 20 hour days, 7 days a week. That is not sustainable and it is not a life. If you are doing that, you need to think about what changes you can make to make your career your paycheck or your hobby more enjoyable.
For more insights into life behind running a cake business, how to guides and more than how to guides, have a look at the Pretty Witty Academy - the Membership site for cake makers who want more than just How To Guides.
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