Work-life balance is an overused phrase for a misunderstood ideal. “Balance” suggests a measuring of weights – or maybe hours. But surely there is no golden ratio of work to personal life that will result in happiness for everyone.
Yet we intuitively understand what the phrase means. And what it means, I think, is the feeling that you aren’t working too much; a state where you’re enjoying the values from both home life and work life, and one isn’t being sacrificed to the other. That’s not easy to achieve for entrepreneurs.
“The work/life balance is tricky and sometimes I feel like a tightrope walker balancing a bunch of spinning plates on sticks, hoping that nothing drops or slips through the cracks,” says Dana Marlowe, principal partner at Accessibility Partners.
Below are nine (or maybe eight) strategies entrepreneurs use to achieve that elusive work-life balance.
1. Schedule time to relax
We schedule meetings, we schedule interviews, we schedule doctor’s appointments; but somewhere in that mass of work, personal time gets lost. Relaxation seems like a luxury rather than a necessity, when it’s actually one of the keys to sanity.
So some entrepreneurs actually block off time to wind down, whether that’s evenings, weekends, Sundays, Friday nights, or in the morning.
“Having an hour each morning to myself is a critical part of my work-life balance. I treat this time like personal meditation, no talking, only coffee, breakfast, NPR, and some simple writing to clear my head for the day,” says Megan West, the NYC community manager at Grubwithus.
Danny Boice, the cofounder and CTO of Speek, a Tech Cocktail contributor, and a husband and father, takes his time off in chunks: gym in the mornings with his wife, martial arts class with the kids on Thursday, and “Daddy day” on Saturday. Cofounder Bridgette Hylton of ShopRagHouse takes an hour during the work day to play with her son.
2. Take your mind off work
Easier said than done, this strategy is different from relaxing because it means actively focusing on something other than work. Entrepreneurs in particular tend to have work on the brain 24/7, so sometimes this calls for extreme measures.
“Going to the gym or a run won’t fix it because you’ll over-think. I'm Level 4 Krav Maga and by partnering in self defense, I cannot veer off for one moment because a) it's disrespectful to my training partner and b) I'll get punched,” says Heddi Cundle, the head of MyTab.
Other options might include yoga (assuming you’re good at the “mind clearing” part), poker, a dance party, jet skiing, or baking.
“I bake, a lot. Brownies, cupcakes, pies, cookies – you name it. Baking is a science and requires a decent amount of concentration so it forces me to leave behind the day's work, at least for a little while,” says Amy Partridge, director of communications at Grubwithus.
You can also try Ready, Set, Pause, an eight-minute meeting you schedule with yourself every day where you listen to music, meditate, or walk – anything to get away from the stress of work.
And these breaks shouldn’t be guilt-inducing. Creativity often comes from combining ideas from different domains, so it helps to expand your perspective beyond just the rectangle of your desk.
These activities also give you a hearty dose of perspective. You can have an identity – and interests and hobbies and a family – that is separate from your job, so work problems and stresses don’t seem as important.
3. Make friends with your coworkers
This one is simple: if your coworkers are your friends, work isn’t just work anymore. The lines between work and life start to blur.
“Have fun everyday with your coworkers. Not only does sharing a joke or taking a 5-minute gossip break help make you happier, but those few minutes of personal connection can keep your mind fresh and inspired,” says Nicole Gardner, business development and operations at Dormify.
You’ll see this strategy at work if you ever visit the Downtown Project in Las Vegas. Meetings are conducted in bars, employees get their own theme song, robots wander the floors – it’s what Tony Hsieh likes to call work-life integration.
4. Choose the right spouse
In a world where most people rush out of their offices at 5:01 pm, not everyone understands the allure of 12-hour days and work-filled weekends. So finding a partner who accepts your crazy lifestyle is key. As mentioned below, that person can also keep you accountable and make sure you don’t overwork yourself into exhaustion.
“You have to (or end up) marrying or living with a person who can accommodate an entrepreneur. There are no true vacations when you can really disconnect. You will end up checking emails during an anniversary dinner or a wedding,” says Naeem Zafar, CEO of Bitzer Mobile.
You’ll find many insights about this topic in an upcoming book from TechStars cofounder Brad Feld and his wife, Amy Batchelor, Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.
5. Set expectations
One of the best ways to ensure that people don’t make unreasonable demands on your time is to set expectations. At work, that starts with telling employees, customers, and partners when you will and won’t be working.
For example, web agency Ethercycle includes an “availability policy” in their proposals to clients that explains when they will respond to email and phone calls and be available for meetings. This ensures that the client isn’t sitting by the computer waiting for a response on Sunday night.
At home, your family deserves to know how often they can expect to see you. That might include blocking off specific times, as discussed above; one entrepreneur spends Friday nights catching up with his wife over wine. You might also explain what constitutes a “work emergency” that could pull you away from your family.
And finally, one entrepreneur talked about setting his own expectations about what startup life is like. He realized that he couldn’t delay the “life” part of the equation while waiting for things to get easier.
“I’ve (almost) made peace with the fact that there’s no end to the work. There’s too much to do when a company is struggling, but often there’s even more to do when it’s succeeding – so if you’re putting life on hold until you get to the top of the next hill, you’re forever setting your sights on a false summit,” says Ethan Imboden, founder and chief creative officer of Jimmyjane.
6. Be accountable to someone
Vows to take a break, relax, or go to the gym can end up as empty promises unless you have an external source of accountability. That might be a spouse who makes sure you get home at a certain time, or a friend who refuses to let you cancel your weekly hangout. Or even a dog:
“I bought a dog and bring him to work with me every day,” says Arin Sarkissian, founder and CEO of Well. “He does a great job at cheering me up and more or less forces me to leave the office at a certain time; after 7 pm he’ll insist that we go home and play.”
7. Say no
Another common piece of advice is to say no: say no to extra projects, commitments, and anything else that will eat up your time. To figure out what to say no to, take inventory of the goals you’re hoping to accomplish in your personal and work lives. That networking event might be fun, but is building a network really one of your business’s goals right now? Maybe not.
The corollary is that you can't do everything – something Marlowe realized when her extensive work hours cut into time she could have spent with her toddler.
“My best advice is the most realistic: you can’t do everything. I wish I could say that I can do it all, every mother or business owner does, but in reality, you have to choose your battles, and that's what made me most successful. I've signed on huge Fortune 500 clients and federal agencies, and it's dazzling. Yet, it's really unfortunate that I've missed out on some key parts of my son growing up because I've put him in daycare in order to stay in business,” she says.
8. Ask for help
Recognize that you can’t do everything – and if all else fails – ask for help.
“People like to help one another. Think about it as a service to them if you feel uncomfortable about asking a friend, colleague, neighbor, or family member for help. It’s okay to need help once in a while,” says CEO Lauren Elward of Castle Ink.
That goes for delegation, too. Some people are afraid to delegate work because they worry things won’t turn out well. But if you’re floundering under a crazy work-life imbalance, things already aren’t turning out well.
9. Forget balance
Many entrepreneurs just reject the notion of work-life balance outright. They love their jobs, so work doesn’t seem like work anymore. Work is life and life is work.
“When you run a tech startup, work is life. There is ‘working,’ which happens in the office, and there is ‘networking,’ which happens outside the office. This is how I balance my work life, and still maintain a social life,” says Carrie Layne, founder and CEO of BestBuzz.
Or, you can just forget about life for a while (as Billy Joel said). “To succeed, you need to be off balance and a bit insane. Breakthroughs take life-consuming obsessiveness,” says CEO Sam Lawrence of Crushpath. But that’s a short-term strategy, at best.
Whether or not you believe in work-life balance, these strategies should at least make work and life a little more enjoyable. And whatever you do, do something.
“You have to force the work-life balance to come into place,” says Joel Gross, founder and CEO of Coalition Technologies. “Because I speak from experience: it will never come on its own.”