How to Get Off the Hamster Wheel and Get on With Life - Christine Kane

hamster2.jpgMy friend Donna had a dream of leaving her job and starting a landscaping business. Five years ago, she took the leap and began The Dirty Hoe. For a while, whenever I saw Donna, she was radiant. The business took off. Her dreams were coming true!

Last week, Donna visited me. She looked tired, and her enthusiasm had vanished. I recognized that look. It’s the “hamster-on-the-wheel” stage of self-employment. She confirmed my suspicion when she said, “I feel like I’m working just so I can pay my employees.”

I recalled a day when I was in a co-writing session in a Nashville office. The other songwriter and I began chatting about our careers. My CD Right Outta Nowhere had just been released, and I was on the road constantly. As I talked about my life, I started crying. Not the Ingrid Bergman eyes-brimming-glamorously kind of crying. This was the bad kind of crying. The kind that scares people.

On the outside, I had succeeded. My dreams had come true. My office was run by a well-paid, full-benefits, full-time employee. I had a packed touring schedule. My CD’s were selling well. And I was freakin’ exhausted. I had reached the hamster-on-a-wheel stage of being a musician. I was running and running just to keep my office going.

If you have your own business, if you’re self-employed, if you’re a musician, a massage therapist, a consultant, or an artist – then perhaps you know this feeling. Maybe you feel like that right now.

Here are 13 ways to break that cycle and take your work (and your life) back…

1 – Commit to getting off the wheel

I meet musicians all the time who say they need to break the cycle that puts them on the road all the time. But they never actually commit to that shift.

Don’t just say you want to get off the wheel. Commit to breaking the pattern. Even if it takes a year to create a new paradigm (it took me about two), make a choice to stop doing your work the same old way. This will take consistent practice.

2 – Stop assuming there’s only one way to do your career

Break your own new ground. Don’t assume that it has to be the way everyone else does it. Don’t follow the crowd. Find a new model. In fact, be the new model!

3 – Create a User’s Manual to You for you

Your User’s Manual to You is your own guide to you and your work. It reminds you how much you bill out for, when you get paid, that you require a deposit in advance, that no client is allowed to be rude or abusive to you, that you don’t respond to emails or work-related calls on weekends and if you make exceptions to that, and that a client can be fired if certain standards are not being met. Write everything you can think of, and then set it aside. Keep notes for a week as you discover new areas that need boundaries. Then revisit your Users Manual again. Make a final draft with bullet points, and post it on your wall by your desk.

4 – Create “Ultimate Profiles” for everything in your business

The Ultimate Client Profile describes the very best client you could imagine to the last detail. The Ultimate Employee Profile describes the traits of the ideal employee you hire. The Ultimate Business Partner Profile describes exactly what you want out of anyone with whom you do business.

I created an Ultimate Performance Profile – with a full description from my fee to the promoter’s great attitude.

Now, this isn’t to say that everything that comes along will effortlessly fall right into that description. But it does make you clear about what you want and most importantly what you don’t want – which brings us to the next item…

5 – Learn to say no

It was scary when I began turning down performance dates that didn’t match my Ultimate Performance Profile. Some promoters were rude to my agent, and some accused me of being a diva. (I sang an acoustic guitar version of the Titanic theme song for my retreaters this weekend. Does that count?) Those people were all mirroring the voices in my head that were shouting, “What are you thinking? You’re lucky to even be an artist!” But gradually, I learned to say no. And gradually, the ultimate performances began to appear.

Learning to say No creates self-respect. It teaches people how to treat you. It tells the universe that you trust it.

6 – Sunday Self Time

Schedule an hour every single Sunday. Two hours is ideal. Do nothing but “be with” your business. This is a time to evaluate the coming week, to set priorities, to allow some ideas to flow, to pay attention to your business life – rather than just spending your time in “reaction mode.” (It is not a time to answer emails!) The first time I read this idea in a business book, I thought, “Now, what they hell would I do for two hours on a Sunday just pondering my business?” What I came to realize is that I was creating space to generate ideas – much like the practice of creating songs. Only this was for my career – and was just as important as songwriting time.

7 – Simplify

Automate as much as you can. Automatic payments and automatic deposits have cut my finances time in half. Get a Skype line rather than an office phone if you can. Don’t print things out just so you can file them. Store them in a folder on your computer. Create systems that simplify. Don’t assume that just because it’s the way you learned how to do it is the way to continue doing it. You might find ways to significantly cut your operating costs.

8 – Ditch the “Get it while you can” mindset

You know this mindset well. It goes like this: “I have to take every client/performance/opportunity that comes along because six months down the road, I may have nothing. I gotta get it while I can.” This mindset is insidious. It will take over your business. And if you’re not careful to change it and learn how to trust your process, then don’t be surprised if you wake up one day to discover that you have whiskers and are sleeping on a bed of sawdust.

9 – Learn about Multiple streams of income

Blogging has taught me that my income can come from many sources. That way, if one thing falls through (a performance date, for instance) then it’s not the end of the world. Most of my income sources come through automatic deposits. I get income from being an affiliate to several products and companies, from donations to me from my readers, from my iTunes sales, as well as from CD sales on my site. In other words, my income doesn’t come solely because I show up at a venue and play my songs and sell CD’s. This took time to create – and is an on-going venture – but it keeps building and it goes a long way to keep me off of that wheel.

10 – Put a monetary value on your time and/or your assets

How much do you value your work time per hour? When I first began to think about this, I thought it was impossible to tell. But then I asked myself, “What pays me?” I thought about how a song like “No Such Thing as Girls Like That” isn’t just a “funny” song – but it’s my most requested song. It’s also the song people ask about at the CD Sales table after the show. Songs were my biggest assets for a long time. I realized that if I spent time writing songs, then my “billable” time was worth quite a bit, and the value continued to serve me over the years. (Whereas, if I spent my time at a show that paid me much less than I was worth, then I wasn’t really creating wealth in the long run.) Not every song is that kind of song – but this helped me recognize the value of the time I put in at my guitar. This process will be different for everyone – but it’s an invaluable way to start claiming your worth as a business.

11 – Hire People

You don’t have to hire people for your office. You can hire people to help you in other ways too. Once you determine how much your time is worth, then you have an easier time hiring someone to, say, mow the lawn. You’re worth $85/hour, so you pay the kid down the street $30 to mow the lawn because you could be generating income during that time. (Provided you don’t sit at the window, biting your nails thinking of the money you’re spending.) If you want to hire someone to help you at the office, get very clear about what that person will do, and what your expectations are. Create an Ultimate Profile before you hire that person.

12 – Plan vacations

One of the successful self-employed women at my last retreat told the group that this was the first time she had allowed herself any vacation time since she started her business. She admitted that she was exhausted and had no idea why she never lets herself take a vacation. Many self-employed people don’t take vacations.

Wanna know why?

Because they don’t plan one.

You really must get into the habit of planning time away from the desk. (Step away from the computer!) Many people crave time away, but they don’t plan ahead for it. Plan at least one vacation in the coming year. I’m up to three at this point.

13 – Become an entrepreneur


I know. This one sounds weird. But trust me on this. Stop seeing yourself as self-employed, and start seeing yourself as an entrepreneur. The change in your awareness will be palpable. As Richard Branson said, “I wanted to be an editor or a journalist… but I soon found I had to become an entrepreneur in order to keep my magazine going.” Secretly be an entrepreneur, even while you are an artist or whatever else you call yourself.


Recently, I spoke with the songwriter who had to witness my outburst that day in Nashville. He said, “Wow. You know what? You’ve done it. You’ve really done what you said you were going to do with your career.” It’s nice to have that validation from someone who saw me in such a bad place. But it’s even nicer to have my life back. And I am proof positive that anyone can step off the hamster wheel.

  • Karoline Brattås

    Hi Christine. I came to read a blog of yours here the other day when i googled ‘how to be creative’ and your words were so helpful to me, so thank you for that.

    I am only 17 and I’m struggeling with choosing a career path, so I’m wondering if you have any good advice..? I feel like i have to make a desicion now about something that will affect my whole life..! -and I’m not even sure if I want to make a career out of the posibilities I have thougt of at this point, even..

    I know this is difficult to answer (obviously;P) but your blogs have helped me a lot in other areas, and they’ve really made a difference, therefore I thought I’d ask you.

    (I’m norwegian, so sorry about any spelling mistakes!)

  • Yet Another Jessica

    AAAA! Number 8! Ack! I’ve been self-employed (freelancing) for about three years now, and spent those three years taking everything that came my way (admittedly not much, which added to the sense of desperation). Any time not spent working was spent in front of the computer, searching for other possible work, including full-time, regular jobs. That’s three years of no vacation. I finally cracked last July after some personal events, and ended up losing projects and lots of money because I just couldn’t make myself work anymore. Take those vacations, people!!!
    The advantage in all this has been realizing I needed to redo my life, which led me to a lot of the law of attraction/Science of Mind writings, including yours just two days ago. Thank you so much for all you’ve written. I’ve been in those quiet-desperation jobs, one of which really was killing me slowly, and when I’ve mentioned finding a roommate or some other money-saving strategy when work was scarce, I’ve been told to just get an administrative job to keep up my current standard of living. Thank you for validating my sense that there’s another way to go about it all, even if I don’t quite know yet how to do it.

  • Brian

    I loved where you said, “be the new model” for your business. It takes courage, and time. I am slowly starting to listen to my own voice, rather than the voices(ghosts?) from the past, and realize that I don’t need to follow the other models, but instead to make my own – with confidence! Thanks for such sage advice.

  • june lehman

    thanks so much for the “hamster” article. I was working with tears in my eyes, blood pressure escalating, when I opened your email. This is igniting that aha moment to speak my mind, graciously and courteously, to a client whose rudeness has pushed me to the brink. It is time to take care of myself and my mental health, You have renewed my spirit and helped me to forge ahead in a better way.

  • K.C. Clifford

    Hey Christine, I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to talk with David and me after the Norman “in the dark” house concert. I really had an a-ha moment when you said “Stop asking.” That was a palpable turning point for me in my process of letting go and embracing this new life like the gift it is. As I walked to the car, I knew something had shifted in me and I haven’t looked back. So, thank you… KC Clifford

    ps… we are enjoying listening to the live album as well!

  • rusvw

    On my blog I listed the top six people I’d like to meet, but after reading your newsletter this morning, I think I’d bump half the list just to get to meet you at one of your conferences/retreats. Your words are so inspiring to me as I make my transition to full-time writing/workshopping/speaking on writing. At 43, it’s a little scary to do with a family of three, but I’m learning a lot about how to do it the right way so I bypass the hamster wheel entirely and keep the focus of why I’m making the change in the first place.
    Keep writing, keep inspiring! I’m sure there are many, many people out there who are listening intently to your words, gathering their own courage as they embark on their wonderful journeys….

  • Tom Volkar / Delightful Work

    Christine your numbers two and three are outstanding! “Stop assuming there’s only one way to do your career. Create a User’s Manual to You for you.”

    Entrepreneurs need to understand that they can make it all up to suit them. Actually that’s what creates the freedom. If the work doesn’t suit us we need to adjust it until it does. You are a fine example of this. Thank you.

  • Angela

    Thank you so much for posting this Christine. I have held back from developing my own business successfully precisely because I’ve been terrified that if I go all out for it I’ll end up on the hamster wheel. And everything I’ve read to date talks about the long hours self-employment involves and how hard it is. So instead I’ve unsatisfactorily dabbled in different things whilst keeping the business going in a very small unsustainable way in the background. Your post has really given me lots of things to think about – about creating a new work paradigm. I particularly like the idea of setting aside some time each week just to think about the business – this is very helpful.

  • Susana

    Years ago I took one of those job & interests areas related tests for a governmetn job placement office. I can’t remember which one, but a pie type wheel marked the different areas of interests and related or compatible jobs/careers. My final results where in the areas labeled “artistic,” “enterprising,” and “investigative.” The test evaluator got very very upset. He said, that there was no where to place me with those results, that there is no way one could be and artist (or investigative) and an entrepenuer. None of those areas matched each other. At that time I let his words get to me. I now know that this one person’s asseement was inaccurate and invalid. It has taken me many years, but I am finally working on making these areas work for me my way.
    Thanks Christine for remninding that one can be an artist and an entrepenuer and many other productive and profitable things all at the same time.

  • stephanie

    I have been taking back the weekend for myself and my for at least 3 years now. Its the best thing I can do for me, even if its tweaking my site, learning a new skill, or taking a nap. The point is that its my choice.

  • rl

    As a self-employed artist who is ready to take my business to the “next step” by incorporating, I find your words very helpful. This post couldn’t have come at a better time. And I second what amylia says up above. Thank you for your willingness to share your life experiences with us in this forum — I’m truly grateful!

  • Amylia Grace

    Another excellent post, Christine. Thank you for this, and for being who you are. You remind us that such things are possible–not because you just write about it, but because you LIVE IT. You don’t call yourself a teacher, but you are the embodiment of a true teacher.

  • jessica

    Thanks Christine! for the entirety of Monday, I refused to even LOOK at emails. It was AMAZING. I’m tempted to remove the emails from my Blackberry so that I am forced to check them from a computer and only when I really have time to take a look. The other way around is an obsessive, hamster activity. I’m also finding myself remembering that my clients need me, and that is the primary thing. Which means that I can be selective, I can say no and it’s all okay.
    Thank you again, for the inspiration to get real and get happy. — Jessica

  • Christine Kane

    Hey Mark – the RichDadPoorDad book was the first thing I listened to that made me evaluate my songs as “assets.” (other than that, it totally depressed me. he’s not too nice to artists!)

    lance – saying no to yet another activity can really help! I hope it works!

    thanks pamdora, joy, laura and brian.

    mags and diane – excellent of you to share such great examples of your own lives!

    andi – i think you nailed it on the head when you wrote “not marketing at all has been a wheel of its own.” that was so true for me!

  • Andi

    That is one reason I haven’t actively pursued any one form of my work to market is because I’ve been afraid of ending up on the wheel, even though not marketing at all has been a wheel of its own. Thank you for the post. I’ve not been taking the Sunday time since DH lost his job, and your post is a reminder of how important that was for me.

  • Diane

    Thanks for the wonderful tips! I always have many ideas but not a plan. I have experienced the wheel and so glad I got off and am no longer spinning my wheels! I do however need to make a plan and figure out what I really really want to do to make a living. The blessing in not having much money is like J.K. Rowling said, “It strips away the non-essential.” I’ve often dreamed of having my own gardening business and I must say I love the name “The Dirty Hoe.” Too funny!

    In the past I’ve attempted to paint furniture, folkie art type stuff. I’d find old pieces at yard sales and transform them into something really cool. When I added up my hours of stripping paint or varnish, sanding and then to the fun part of painting I wasn’t making much at all. I didn’t enjoy the preparation part and it was taking the joy and fun out of painting. I’d explain to people how labor intensive it was and that is why I needed to charge X amount. I usually got the deer in the headlights look. I often got what amounted to “But you don’t have a real job aren’t you glad to get some money?” Like you said, it goes back to how valuable my time is! Now I tell people they need to bring me their stuff ready to paint. It is very hard to find people to inexpensively strip furniture. I don’t paint that much anymore and that is OK!

  • Mags | Woo-Woo Wisdom

    I love the metaphor of the hamster wheel – it captures this state of frantic going-nowhereness so well!

    When I left secure employment to start my own business in 2005, I was told by people already doing the work that I wanted to do that I was going to be working till midnight every night including weekends, that I would be perpetually behind on my reports and would feel rushed and stressed all the time. I loved the work but didn’t love the lifestyle that apparently came with it so I decided to design my own way of doing the work so that I could have evenings and weekends free. I was told it would never work, that I’d never (for example) be able to say no to a senior advocate when he/she asked to have a meeting at 8pm at night… well, I could and I did! It felt scary the first time, but less scary the next until soon the attorneys and advocates I worked with just accepted that I wasn’t available after hours or on weekends. I never lacked for work and in fact was often the first choice to provide an assessment for a case because my reports were never late as a result of me packing my schedule too full. I may not have earned as much as others doing the work, but I earned a large income, which was 1.5 times what I had earned in my full-time employment. Plus I wasn’t stressed every day – big bonus!

    I’ve now left that work, but the lessons I learned were invaluable and I continue to apply them, and I’m very appreciative of reminders like your post which help me stay committed and focused on creating my ideal life. Thank you!

  • Brian Clark

    Great post, Christine. I had to make this move in dramatic fashion three years ago, and I’m glad to see the message getting out from more and more people who have done themselves.

  • Laura

    THANK YOU! Christine, I am so on that hampster wheel, I can’t even read this blog post carefully right now – maybe tonight. However, just knowing I’m not alone, that there are alternatives, makes me feel less burdened. I’ve had this haunting thought in the back of my mind of “If I’m working sooooooo hard, why am I not more prosperous?” I now recognize the “get it while you can” tendency, which comes from fear. Thank you! I send you big hugs!

  • Joy

    my experience with “bad tears”, the gut wrenching, loud sobbing, wetness-on-your-face and-below-your-nose kind of tears, is that they are cleansing like no other cleansing i know of. after them i feel exceptionally quiet and can hear that “still small voice” that usually gets obscured by a steady stream of loud and usually repetitive thoughts and feelings. i can rest. i can see with new eyes…

    thank you for this post. it is filled with wisdom and helpful tips.

    how freeing it must be to let go of the “get it while you can” syndrome!

  • PaMdora

    Good post! I think artists are the ultimate entrepreneurs, they have to be to succeed.

  • Lance

    Good stuff Christine – I like (and appreciate) you open-ness and honesty.

    I sometimes feel like the hamster through my involvement in many of my children’s activities. Sometimes I feel so stretched that I don’t think I’m helping at all. I need to learn to say no (#5). It’s easy to take on too much, and then not be able to give the required quality or quantity of time to any of the projects – everything suffers because too much has been taken on.

    I really need to do the Sunday self time (#6) as well. It’s one of those important, but not urgent things that are easy to forget about (well, at least for me!). So, thanks for the reminder.

    OK, I’m jumping off now…

  • Mark

    Holy Moly this is a much-needed post for me, so thanks Christine!

    Tim Ferris’ book “Four Hour Work Week” is all about lifestyle paradigm change. There are things about the book (and him) I don’t particularly like, but there are amazing ideas similar to what you’re saying.

    Also, the book “E-Myth Revisited” by (last name >) Gerber is all about getting off the wheel.

    I heard Ferris interviewed on Internet Business Mastery and he kept saying: the key is to design the lifestyle you want, then build your work & business model around that.

    Lastly, the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books say similar stuff. When you’re self-employed, you “own a job.” As a longtime freelancer this is very true. I’ve been trying to shift my paradigm for some time now. I feel like a cruise ship that wants to make a fast turn, but can’t – ships take a long time to make that slow turn, but eventually it happens!

    Thanks Christine!

  • Christine Kane

    hi tammy – i understand that mode well. i think that’s the place a lot of people get to – and then they turn back and run to the “old way” of doing things. (after all, i may have been tired, but at least i was safe!) the sunday self time is imperative as a practice. also – i stretched way beyond my comfort zone and read books and blog by marketing types (only the upbeat kind – seth, joe vitale, brian clarke, alex mandossian) just so I could open up a few new doors in my head. sitting still will pay off after a while. it’s just uncomfortable when you’re in the thick of non-motion!

  • Tammy Vitale

    II’m definitely in a “breaking new ground” mode and have no idea where to go and what ground to break…any thoughts about how to break up some of this “soil?”

  • Christine Kane

    Thanks back at you Jannie!

  • Jannie Sue

    Christine, you certainly are an embodiment of your tip #2 by being “a new model” yourself with this blog and its inspiration that touches so many of us.

    Thank you!