020: From Burnout to Boundaries
Isha Cogborn is the founder of Startup Life Support, where she helps entrepreneurs overcome the fear, frustration, and isolation that comes with starting a business. She is also the creator of Platform for Purpose incubator, a comprehensive program that helps clients develop the confidence to share their voice on a bigger platform as a speaker, writer, and on-air personality.
At 33 years old, Isha Cogborn was shoulders deep in her corporate career…and suffering from several health problems that usually afflict much older people. She was struggling with an autoimmune disorder, losing her hair, and taking a daily regimen of several pills.
“I was literally on the verge of killing myself within a few years,” she recalls. “I remember my old boss – who was a total workaholic – telling me, ‘Isha, you gotta get off that medication. You’re too young to be on that.’”
But it wasn’t until she heard her god speak to her that Isha realized the true weight of her situation. If she didn’t correct the path she was on, and soon, he told her, she wouldn’t make it to 40.
“I don’t believe in ignoring stuff like that,” she said. “I knew something had to change.”
No Role Models
Growing up in a blue-collar Midwestern community to a mom who was single for part of her childhood, for Isha, the term “self-care” was completely foreign.
“Everybody worked hard. It was ‘you do what you got to do to get stuff done,’” said Isha. “I mean, self-care? What was that?”
When Isha began her career, the expectation to work around the clock was only further reinforced. In her first few jobs, Isha worked for strong, powerful, type-A women who never seemed to unplug. She recalls one boss even calling and leaving a voicemail at three o’clock in the morning. As a young professional just learning the ropes, Isha was quickly under the misconception that she had to function the same way to be successful.
“I did not see self-care modeled. I saw workaholicism modeled. And that’s what I took on,” said Isha.
In order to make self-care a consistent part of her life and start on a new path, Isha realized she must set her own definition of success and work on unlearning some of the toxic behaviors that had been ingrained in her. She was able to develop new habits that allowed her to live and work more sustainably during her remaining time in corporate and that she was able to carry forward when striking out on her own.
Giving Herself Permission
As a young professional, Isha didn’t see a single boundary set among her leaders in the corporate world. She quickly realized how critical boundaries were to achieving a harmonious work-life balance; when working around the clock and pulling all-nighters, she was setting the expectation for a high level of productivity that could not be maintained on a more abbreviated schedule.
Isha slowly began pulling back and establishing boundaries around her time to set new expectations both with herself and among her colleagues. She gave herself permission to shut off the computer and go home at a reasonable hour, accepting that the work would be there tomorrow. Now, working for herself, she refuses to bring her laptop into her bedroom, maintaining dedicated spaces for work and relaxation.
Asking for Help
Many entrepreneurs are under the misconception that they have to build their visions alone. But let’s face it – we’re all human, and there are simply times where we need help.
Isha experienced this in a big way when her stepfather fell sick over the past year. A significant chunk of her time and energy went toward traveling back and forth cross-country to care for him.
But Isha still had a business to run and clients to take care of. Instead of letting her clients fall by the wayside or offering “half-butt” services, she realized there was another option: to tap into her extensive network and ask for help. For example, she held a monthly mastermind session for her Platform for Purpose clients. Instead of canceling, she reached out to one of her trusted contacts to give the presentation instead, allowing her to focus on more pressing things that needed her attention without sacrificing value for her clients.
Another way Isha was able to balance work, her family, and herself during her stepfather’s illness was to better prioritize her business activities. She split everything into two categories: critical and non-critical. Anything deemed non-critical went on the backburner temporarily to give Isha the emotional and physical space she needed to take care of her family.
Critical activities included any client work or other tasks essential to her bottom line. Non-critical activities consisted of things Isha enjoyed doing but weren’t necessary to keep her business afloat, like hosting her podcast and running an entrepreneurship committee for her graduate sorority.
“If I stopped doing this, what would happen?,” Isha asked. “If the answer is really nothing, then that may let you know that that's a non-critical activity.”
In fact, after realizing that nothing significant happened when she stopped doing certain things, Isha decided to retire some of them for good – even when she was back at full capacity.
Listening to Her Body
Perhaps most importantly, Isha learned to let her body set boundaries for her.
“My definition of self-care is listening to my body and giving my body what it needs,” she said.
What Isha’s body needs varies from day to day. Sometimes it could be spending time with friends, while other times it could be vegging out on the couch or feeling the sun on her face. According to Isha, self-care is also about making creative adjustments to give your body what it needs regardless of circumstance – for example, doing early-morning yoga under a shady tree when you need outdoor activity but it’s too hot for a walk.
Building self-care into your life consistently isn’t just a one and done activity. Instead, it’s a lifelong process that requires checking in with yourself frequently. You will have slips and surges. What’s important is that you pay attention to your body to realize when the signs of burnout are creeping in.
One way Isha screens where she’s at with her self-care is by asking herself, “Am I building a Frankenstein business?” For those unfamiliar with the Frankenstein narrative, the general plot revolves around the scientist Frankenstein (not the monster per popular misconception!), who becomes so obsessed with building this vision that it ultimately ends up destroying his life – an apt metaphor for our businesses if we’re not careful in our approach.
Whenever Isha gets to the point where she feels like she’s slipping back into her old ways, she takes a step back to try to reconnect with herself and the other things that are important in her life. She also tries to honor what her body is telling her. For example, if she’s tired, she’ll rest, even if it’s 2 PM (granted she doesn’t have any meetings or pressing deadlines).
For others who know they need to make changes to start working toward consistent self-care but don’t know where to start? Isha’s advice: “And so you have to ask yourself, no matter how much you believe in your vision, how committed are you to your business, and at what cost?”
If it’s at the expense of your mental wellbeing, physical health, or relationships with people you care about most, it may be time to reconsider. Will you end up regretting your success if you’ve missed too many moments with loved ones or opportunities to engage in the experiences that truly make a life well-lived?
“Because as wonderful as ‘success’ is on paper, it's more than just the business,” said Isha. “So, count the cost. And whatever you do, whatever sacrifices you make – and we will make them – just make sure that the cost isn't too high.”