I Burned Out in Finance. Now I Work Fewer Hours As a Consultant.

Steven Spielberg
  • Diane Lam is a business consultant who left the corporate world in 2018.
  • She said working in finance burned her out and taught her how to set boundaries in her life.
  • Here’s her career journey, as told to writer Robin Madell.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Diane Lam, a consultant in Seattle. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I worked long hours in finance. I was told that if you had to stay until 2 a.m. to finish, you’d do it because you’re a real professional.

I once worked through an electrical fire on the floor above me to finish up work as firefighters came up the stairs asking what the hell I was still doing there during an emergency. I got a pat on the back for this the next day when my boss told me, “No one makes a million dollars by running at the first sign of fire.” Never mind that wasn’t the one making the millions.

I worked evenings and weekends more than a few times. I was constantly exhausted and not taking care of myself.

That all changed when I decided enough was enough. Today, I’m a business consultant who made more than $175,000 in revenue last year while working only five hours a day, four days a week — less than half the time I previously worked.

If we’re being technical, I make more in my business than I did in corporate salary because bonuses were a big part of my compensation. So while I often ended up with bonuses that bumped up my income, they weren’t guaranteed.

It seemed like I had it all while working in finance, but I hated everything about my life 

I justified it by telling myself I was living the dream life. I was making a generous salary a few years out of college and worked on investment vehicles that people twice my age didn’t get to work on. 

One morning, despite spending the weekend curled up in bed, I thought to myself, “I’d rather kill myself than go to the office today.”

That was my first wake-up call. I’d never thought that before, and it scared me. 

I made some changes, like moving to a less intensive finance job, but I fell right back into the same burnout pattern. Tired of my constant complaints about wanting to punch something, a friend took me to a kickboxing class to help relieve the stress. This was the first step in a chain reaction. Through the gym, I met other professionals whose only goals were work-life balance. It opened my eyes to the fact that the way I was working was not normal.

I eventually quit my job and spent the next six months traveling. I met tons of digital nomads, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners. They included people who had the “work-to-live” mentality that I admired and those at the edge of burnout as they managed their growing businesses. 

I realized burnout wasn’t confined to the corporate world 

Corporate escapees seeking freedom can get locked in a burnout cage of their own making. I saw myself in them and knew I could help.  

I started my consulting business in 2018 with a focus on building systems to turn the business into a machine that didn’t doesn’t need sweat equity to fuel it, putting software and tools in place to make those systems easy to manage, and creating teams to run the business for them so they could have the entrepreneurial freedom that they started their businesses for.

One of the first things I did when I was planning to leave my corporate job was starting to take barter and reduced-rate projects in exchange for testimonials. I quit my job at the end of April 2018 and took the summer off to recharge.

That summer was big for me. I didn’t realize how burned out I was until my schedule was wide open and I was free. That contrast made me realize just how overworked and exhausted I was.

The biggest difference in my days is that I have the freedom to flow with my energy and focus

I know I start losing focus about 2 p.m. I know I’m most creative and productive in the morning. I know that I need a day between calls and meeting days to recharge, and I know that I can’t have more than four client meetings in a day. 

So I built my schedule, my boundaries, my services, and how my work is delivered around how I operate best. That’s something I never could do in the corporate world and, in retrospect, was a big factor in burning me out because I had to show up every day at top form, no matter what.

I don’t work weekends, and if I need to work “late” because of a special project or launch, that means 4 or 5 p.m. Evenings are always reserved for activities that bring me joy or nourish me in some way. I traveled constantly pre-COVID-19, taking off for Asia, South Africa, and crisscrossing the US because I could and wanted to. There are no boundaries or restrictions on my days off or travel.

When I started my business, I felt guilty for not working a full day

Now, my set hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday. I sometimes work on Friday, and if so I’m usually done by noon.

My team knows my hours, and there’s no pressure because I intentionally built my team and operations so that I could take off in the afternoons. So our timelines are reasonable, and our deliverables are always manageable. 

Last week, I had an intense therapy session early in the week. It wiped me out emotionally and energetically. Instead of forcing myself to work, I rested. I took a nap at 12:30 p.m. I read. I went on long walks and sat in the park without feeling pressured to get over it and get back to work. I let myself do whatever I wanted to recharge. I turned on my computer Thursday morning and was totally refocused and productive. I would never have been able to listen to my body and mind and rest if I were still in the corporate world.


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