Achieving Balance: live while you work
“Work-Life Balance” is a popular phrase today, and we often use that phrase to rationalize what we do outside of work. Instead, we need to accept that we can not thrive without regular rest.
Our entire existence – indeed, everything in the biological world – exists in balance. There is a rise and fall to almost every part of life, and those parts oppose each other: light and dark, heat and cold, and, importantly, activity and rest.
In order to perform well, you need to balance your effort with rest. Indeed, rest is a part of work, not the opposite.
Launching and running a business is hard, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy and resilience. Although working in more mature businesses can also require a lot of time and effort, the challenges in leading a new, growing business are unique and often require additional attention. The biggest difference: a founder must have the energy to learn and implement new skills as the business grows because launching a business and running a business requires different skills.
Where does this energy come from? A founder can get by with force of will for some part of it, or he or she can lean on friends, family and a savings account for support, but a founder’s well runs dry quickly if it is not replenished. An empty well results in poor decisions, a lack of creativity, engagement, and happiness – a lack of energy ultimately results in failure.
There is no other option, and no other way, to perform well than to have a well of energy that you can draw from.
Here’s a primer on what you can do:
How to sustain effort
Triathletes often fuel during long races because their bodies burn more energy than they can store, and so they need to eat to complete the race. Sustaining energy like this during the short term works (even though a triathlon feels anything but short), but only refueling with energy drinks and gels won’t sustain your energy over multiple years.
Triathletes regularly rest and take time away from training in order to compete again. An athlete’s rest period is critical – as one of my coaches used to say, “Train hard but rest harder.”
To sustain effort in business, you must “refuel” by filling your well with activity and rest that is not work.
Founders need to make rest and non-work activity part of their life. Without regularly doing that, your energy to perform will dwindle, no matter what your will, attitude, or positive affirmations have to say about it.
In your long effort to build a business, you must refill your energy well regularly and consistently with short daily breaks, longer weekly breaks and take true breaks that span multiple days or weeks during the year.
Why it’s difficult to rest
We live in a culture that promotes and supports performative work theatre (at worst) and socially rewards a derivation of the Puritan work ethic.1The Economist, “The rise of performative work“ Many people – not just founders and leaders – confess that they feel badly if they are not somehow able to show that they are working – and working hard – even if they are not that productive.
“I’m just so busy.”
As a founder and leader of your business, you have the responsibility to care for yourself so you can perform, but also create a work culture that is healthy and successful for everyone else.
Not resting is real social pressure, and it starts when we are young and continues until we stop working. (Even in retirement, many people are quick to say that they like to keep busy, as if there were something wrong with not doing so.) 47% of Americans don’t take all their vacation time and 21% left more than five days of time expire.2Kimble: No Vacation Nation People report management pressure to stay at work, additional stress as a result of taking time off, and being unable to disconnect due to work phones, email access and leaders’ expectations.
But being a leader in a new business doesn’t mean you have to work until you break.
Want to perform well at work?
People who deliberately and regularly take short breaks after cognitive or physical work perform better than people who do not take those breaks.3Scientific American, “Why your brain needs more downtime“
People who deliberately and regularly take longer breaks during the weeks and months report higher passion, job engagement, happiness, lesser incidence of illness, and made more money.4Harvard Business Reveiw, “The Data-Driven Case for Vacation” Adequate rest also makes you more prone to learn from failure.
So if you’re looking to reduce your performance at work, be less satisfied, less happy, and increase the chance of illness and disease, by all means, keep grinding without pause.
However, if you want to achieve balance in your life, consider these ideas:
Consciously decide to treat yourself well
What does “treat yourself well” mean?
It means taking care of every aspect of yourself so that you have the energy to perform at work and make your business successful, as well as have the energy to repair your body and maintain your closest relationships.
Treating yourself poorly: not taking breaks (small and large), not resting, and not participating in activity that isn’t work.
In order to make any kind of change or sustain a change that you want, the first step is to consciously decide that you will take whatever is necessary to support this change. This could include telling people around you what you are doing, blocking out time on your calendar, making plans with others that increases the chance that you will go through with them, and learning about how we create habits.
It may seem daunting at the beginning, but challenges that you face voluntarily (compared to those faced from a hospital bed) are far more manageable because you faced them by choice – your body literally runs on a different neural network when you act under your own will instead of by reaction.5Jordan Peterson on facing things voluntarily
Consider giving yourself the space and time away from our digital lifestyle on a regular basis. A Digital Sabbath6The Wikipedia definition is a great idea, where you spend a predetermined amount of time away from phones, tablets, computers or any other screen.
There is no magic rule that defines how much time away is beneficial, but it will probably be more time than you’re initially comfortable with, and that’s the idea, because you’ve become accustomed to the continuous barrage.
It will be okay, the world will not end.
Other ideas about decreasing the number of inputs into your brain:
- Learn about NSDR (Non-sleep deep rest) practice that will enhance cognition.7Dr. Andrew Huberman Interview, Improving Sleep and Stress
- Shut off alerts on your phone and computer, that way you can concentrate on what you’re actually doing.
- Pick times of day that you will and won’t check email and messages.
- Don’t sleep with your phone. (Simon Sinek will buy you an alarm clock.)
- Use the apps on your phone to track digital and social usage. Be honest about it, and then deliberately reduce it.
Examine your load
Outside factors don’t define your capacity for stress, how much time you have, or how much rest you need. ”We need this by the end of the day” or ”I just have to get this done” won’t give you more energy or ability, no matter how much you rationalize the demand.
Without balancing those demands with rest, you will perform poorly and be less satisfied. I experienced burnout myself.
So for a week or two, track what you are doing at regular intervals and be honest about it. Keep a notepad with you all the time and write down what you’re doing every hour, every time you switch tasks, and record your phone and screen time. Then look at it critically.
What can you change? Maybe your first answer will be “nothing” or maybe you’ll see “one-time exceptions” when you are looking for ways to achieve balance, but “exceptions” happen almost every day – don’t they?
So keep looking, knowing that if you don’t change your load, your work performance and your health will suffer. Find the places to make changes to your load and commit to them.
It is sometimes harder for a founder to make these changes because you were responsible for almost everything at the start. But as your business grows, you must shift focus to your employees so that the demands on you don’t destroy your performance and health. It’s very common for founders to become “hero operators,” doing so much that they become burnt out and suffering as a result. Being able to delegate, organize, and give employees responsibility is critical to success.
Commit to other interests
Don’t merely think about joining that group or event that crosses your mind, but call and sign up. Making a commitment means changing “I really should” to practical action.
Friends, family, and people at work are great resources to help you keep decisions like this. If you “really should” take a long weekend, pick one, tell everyone you are working with, make plans with your family and friends, and book a place to stay. This will help you stay accountable to yourself and your decision.
Don’t procrastinate until it’s too late, waiting until someone has booked a meeting, there aren’t any vacancies, so that you can push your trip further down the road.
Make a commitment to all breaks from work. Book your daily walks on your calendar, and shut your phone off. Even 20 minutes is enough recovery to enable you to perform better during the rest of the day. Imagine if you did it twice.
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