Sara Louise Fox
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Coming Clean On 2017 – A Year In Review

Successes, Lessons Learned And looking Forward to 2018

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I don’t know about you, but 2017 was a roller-coaster year for me. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, as life as a business owner is full of highs and lows at the best of times, but throw a house move and a wedding into the mix and that makes for a full-on year.

I spent a couple of days doing some planning before Christmas and took the opportunity to review 2017, inspired by this article by Anna Hunt on the importance of closing one cycle well before entering a new one. Here some of are my insights from following her process, both personal and professional (because they are never rarely exclusive).

Health warning: This is a longer post than usual, so you may want to make a cuppa before you get started.


Gratitude And Successes

Clockwise from the left. Highlights from 2017: my wedding, moving to the seaside, and having a business flexible enough to do things my way (yes, often in coffee shops)

There were lots of things to be grateful for in 2017 so here I’m listing my top three, which I’d also describe as successes:

#1 - Getting Married (twice!)

I thought it was an exaggeration when people described their wedding as the best day of their lives, but I think mine actually was! In fact, I was greedy and had not just one but two best days ever!

We had decided to get married in Portugal and to avoid all the red tape of doing “the legal bit” abroad, we had a small civil wedding in Southend with only immediate family before we left the UK for the big party. As an ambivert, this suited me nicely – with the small civil wedding satisfying my more introverted side that just wanted my most inner-circle of loved ones around me, whilst the big wedding in Portugal kept my inner-party-girl happy… as well as my inner-sun-worshipper 🙂 We had 90 amazing guests who were all there in a spirit of love and celebration, and it was also the first proper holiday my family have had together since I was a teenager, so we got to create some treasured memories.

The best thing is, after getting married I feel a closer bond with my husband, Robert Fox (and I now have a name that fits into the little box on online forms whoop!) I’m so grateful for him in particular – in all honesty, he did most of the heavy lifting when it came to organising our weddings and they wouldn’t have been so wonderful without all his time and effort.

#2 – My new home by the sea

Before the adventures of the double wedding, I moved in with my then fiancé, moving from my parents’ home in North London, which had been my home (and office) since just before I started my first business in 2011. Since March we have lived in the seaside town of Westcliff-on-sea in Essex.

It’s been a wonderful place to start married life, close to the sea (which I love) and away from the hustle and stress-ness of London. There are things I miss about living in The Big Smoke, but luckily we’re only a relatively short train ride away.

#3 - My business

I’ll be honest that I didn’t achieve anywhere near all of the things that I had in mind at the start of 2017 but once I decided to stop being so hard on myself, I realised that the business gave me an enormous amount of freedom to take the time I needed to move home and get married in the way I wanted. A “normal job” certainly wouldn’t have given me the flexibility I needed to make it all happen this way and maintain a consistent income. So I’ve again been reminded of the value of being my own boss and why I wouldn’t want to swap this entrepreneurial roller-coaster for a 9-5 (not that my 9-5's were ever just 9-5.)

Things I want to do more of in 2018:

  • Making memories with my new husband, family and friends. 
  • Travel - short breaks in new places as well as longer holidays. 
  • Getting to know my new home town.
  • Sleep, exercise and healthy eating (you'll see why in the next section.)
  • The work I really love in my business. 

Lessons Learned In 2017

Lessons learned

It’s also important to remove the rose coloured glasses now and then and look at the things that didn’t go quite so well in order to learn from them. They could be called failures, but here I’ll call them lessons learned as that's where the value is. Each year brings multiple lessons but the biggest lesson I learned from this year is…

Neglecting self-care doesn’t just affect me!

Although I was happy with my income, I didn’t always manage my personal and professional boundaries and when things got busy it was my self-care that dropped off the list. I’ll confess this is not the first time this lesson has had to be learned. Having been a personal trainer in the fitness industry, I knew logically that this wasn’t good for me, but I think this year it hit home how bad it was for the people around me too. It was only towards the end of the year that I realised that I had been functioning on the brink of burnout for most of the year.

I use the phrase “on the brink of burnout” deliberately, because I know that full-on burnout can be serious – leading to exhaustion and even chronic illness that can stop you in your tracks for weeks, months, or years at a time! Being on the brink of burnout meant lots of mini-burnouts through the year – which might just last a few days  but they had a cumulative effect. These burnouts could be emotional (feeling depressed or regularly bursting into tears), physical (colds, flu or other ailments), or mental (loss of focus, fuzzy-headedness, and forgetting small but important things.) I think that a lot of women experience burnout in this way, and because it doesn’t quite stop them completely in their tracks and they are still able to function on some level, they might not give it the attention it requires. 

Anyway, I can only really speak for myself, and with each mini-burnout, I would recognise it, take a short break or reinstate self-care practices just long enough to bring myself back to functioning (or survival) levels, but not quite enough to fully recover and be thriving in my business. This had a cumulative effect. Each time hit me a bit harder, I’d need just a bit longer to recover, and the gaps in between got shorter.

This had a very real ripple effect on the people around me including:

  • My husband. As Robert watched me go through this “work-crash-repeat” cycle, I knew he was struggling with it because there wasn’t much he could do to help apart from mop up some tears, tell me it would all be OK, and suggest I don’t work so hard.
  • My family and friends. I don’t have children, but I have seen the worry in my family and friends’ eyes when we’ve met up and they can see how tired I am rather than the lively, bubbly, person I am when I’m at my best.
  • My clients. I love being useful, helpful, and supportive in my role as a Virtual Assistant for my clients, but there have been points through the year when I had nothing to give, but because I tried to keep going regardless, mistakes were made and balls were dropped, which made me effectively an “expensive liability.” With some clients, I was able to turn things around and make up for it, but I’ll confess that there were a couple of clients where our business relationship ended earlier than either side would have liked. This is the bit I want to share a bit more about…

Client Mistakes I Made Because Of Burnout 

Since you’re reading this you are probably a female business owner and entrepreneur, so it is probably helpful to get a bit more insight into the mistakes I made with my clients. You see, burning out in this way led to some quite specific mistakes because the cumulative impact on my energy, focus, and health also affected my decision making and judgement. Here are five of those mistakes...

Not communicating what was happening.
It’s easy to think that we need to be seen as “perfect” by our clients and in turn think that you need to pretend everything is ok and just keep going. However, when you start getting to the point of making mistakes it means that they can’t make sense of what’s going on, so they just end up frustrated and disappointed. Chances are they would understand if given the chance, but they can only cut you some slack if they know what's going on.

Biting off more than I could chew.
In the process of trying to pretend everything is ok, it’s easy to say yes to too many requests – especially when you’re working at diminished capacity. Making promises you can’t keep is a lot more frustrating and disappointing for your clients than if you were honest in the first place. Sometimes this can’t be helped, as work can take longer than first anticipated, but keeping your clients in the loop and letting them know in advance is essential, as it can mean a workaround can be put in place or priorities can be re-assessed.

Taking on additional clients when you don't really have capacity can be another problem - when you are offering a time-based service it can be difficult to turn-down much welcome and needed income. And if you're excited about the new clients and their businesses it can be even harder to turn down because you want to be part of the action. However, this year I learned that doing this just does them a disservice and referring them on to someone else would be much better for the client and for you.  

Letting boundaries slip.
In any business, and particularly in a service role like Virtual Assistant, it is essential to have some boundaries in place particularly when it comes to your time. You need time set aside so you can rest and recharge, and work on your business. However, when you get busy, tired, and overwhelmed these boundaries can start to slip as you find it harder to manage your workload and it starts bleeding into your personal time. This leads to blurred boundaries on both sides and is confusing for your clients. For example, if you say that you don’t work on Wednesdays, then you clients start getting emails from you on Wednesdays, their expectations become blurred and it becomes harder for you to reinforce that boundary later.  

Not taking regular breaks.
To keep functioning you need regular breaks during your day, time off during the week (even if it’s just at the weekend), and even regular days and weeks off so that you can re-charge and replenish. You also need some planning and reflection time for your own business. As a service professional it can be easy to just keep going unless you have a specific holiday or some other activity booked in. But actually I’ve realised taking time off just for the sake of it is actually needed so that I can maintain my energy and be much more productive and professional on the days that I am working. Otherwise my body eventually forces me to take a break!

Spending a lot of time working way outside of my “Zone of Genius”
In his book “The Big Leap,” Gay Hendricks writes about the need to work in your Zone of Genius in order to have a truly fulfilling life. However, most of us spend our time working in our Zone of Competence (or even Incompetence) and, if we’re lucky, our Zone of Excellence (things we’re very good at but aren’t aligned with our purpose). In trying to be all things to my clients, I realised that I was spending vast chunks of my time nowhere near my Zone of Genius, this made my working day exhausting and depleting, rather than energising and fun – which is how I always saw having my own business, and how I believe it should (and can) be!

Any of this sound familiar? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be honest with your clients so they know what's happening in your world. 
  • Set clear boundaries - when you will and won't be working, what type of work you are willing to do or not do, and stick to them!
  • Don't be afraid to refuse requests - lovingly of course. If something new comes up that wasn't planned into your workload and you know in your heart that you can't fit it in without exhausting yourself, explain that something will need to give and work with your client to re-prioritise your to-do list. 

Looking Forward to 2018

Sara Louise Fox - close up

All these insights aren’t terribly useful if I don’t do something about it. So here are some of the actions I plan to take in 2018 so that I can turn things around.

Re-prioritise Self-Care As A Business Essential.

I always knew this intellectually, but it seemed the universe wanted me to learn this first-hand. Experiencing how a neglect of my self-care has impacted my clients, not to mention my loved ones, has re-inspired me to put this right back at the top of my prioritisation list. Putting me first is not selfish. Putting me first means I am not trying to pour from an empty cup. It means I am well topped up, and even overflowing with energy, abundance, and all things good, so that I have more to give to my husband, my family, my friends, and my clients, and enjoy life (and my business) a whole lot more.

Get Support With My Systems And Processes. 

Many people think that as a VA I’d be automatically all about the systems and processes. I don’t know if you are familiar with Wealth Dynamics, but I am a Supporter profile. This means I am all about people and personal connections rather than details and systems. When I have the systems to help with the detail I am a great asset to any team, but without them things can fall flat. In the words of one of my clients, my talent is with “words and people.” So I already have a call booked in with Maria Watson, aka The Details Director, to help me get my systems and processes up to scratch, so that the detail is taken care of and I can focus on my strengths.

Redefine And Re-Assert My Business Boundaries.

I took a good break over the Christmas and New Year period and have been re-thinking the boundaries I need to set based on what I really need. So I’ll be communicating these to my clients in my first calls of the year and reviewing these as I go through the year to ensure that I’m not letting them slip – watch this space.

Booking Regular Time Off For Reflection, Planning And R&R.

Booking this time off in advance and getting it in the diaries of my clients is essential. Even if the dates/days change slightly closer to the time, at least my clients have some clear expectations or when I will and won’t be working so that we can work around them. And I’ll have some scheduled time for replenishing my energy and refocusing on my business so that I can be my best self in all my personal and professional life roles… and feel happier and more fulfilled myself.

Creating regular content.

In the last few months I have carved out time to work on this website and transfer and revive some content from my old website. It has reminded how much I enjoy writing and creating. So I am re-committing to writing and sharing regular content on my blog, and maybe I’ll even get around to doing some Facebook Live videos.  

More Focus On "Being" And Not Just Doing.

No doubt you'll have heard the phrase "We are human beings not human doings." And I'd like this year to be more about "being" than doing. Of course there will be lots to get done but by taking more time to just be I can better connect in with myself, my higher purpose, and my source, so that whatever doing I do feels in alignment and in flow. 

If you are thinking of making changes in your business next year, this may help: 

  • Look back over the last year and think about what worked and what didn't work, what you loved and what didn't quite light you up. Then decide what you'd like to do more of, or less of. 
  • Book in conversations with your clients to talk through any changes that may affect them. Just because things are changing it doesn't mean that you can't still work together. Think in advance how you can help your client make the transition easier. 
  • Remember, you don't have to make all your changes in one go. Make a transition plan so it's not such a shock to the system - this gives your mindset a chance to catch up with your plans if needed. 

Wrapping it up

As an expert in TMI (too much information), I’ve probably confessed to more than I should have in a blog post. But I know how easy it can be to compare yourself to the shiny public personas put out there online by other business owners and think that you must somehow be getting it wrong because it looks like everyone else is finding it a piece of cake.

I know I find it refreshing to see that other business owners are also human beings just like me, and that we’re all making mistakes and learning along the way. Then we can celebrate each others’ successes in their true light and learn together. I hope this has helped you in a similar way.

Over to you...

I’d love to learn about your successes and lessons learned in 2017, and if there are any changes you'll be planning in 2018. Have any of my experiences resonated with you? I can't wait to read your insights and ideas so please share in the comments below.

About the Author Sara Louise Fox

I am passionate about women in business achieving success in a way that works for them and making the changes they need to make in order to make that happen. However, though change can be exciting it can also be scary, triggering behaviours that might not make sense to you (procrastination or self-sabotage anyone?). I help entrepreneurial women to navigate change with more clarity, confidence and courage so that these behaviours can be dissolved and they can move forward with ease and flow. If that sounds good, I'd love to hear from you!

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