in Entrepreneurship/Life as a founder, My journey, Startups

Lessons on work-life balance

Work-life balance just doesn’t exist as a startup founder. When your work IS your life, there is no balance. You’re ‘always on’.

Startups require an almost unhealthy obsession. I wouldn’t describe it as workaholism, more a deep desire and belief that what you are working on needs to exist. Unfortunately this comes at the expense of many other areas of your life. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Not in startups.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently around work-life balance in tech and startups. There was the much discussed article in the New York Times about Amazon’s work culture and their unreasonably high expectations of employees.

Mark Suster wrote a great response outlining his thoughts. This excerpt sums it up:
I’m not looking to fund people who err too much on the life side the work/life balance. Can you objectively say that you think rational investors would? I’m looking for maniacal, competitive, driven, hard-working, obsessed individuals who are deeply committed to winning in the same way that Kobe Bryant is committed to being at the best in his field. Why should I expect less?

Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook and Asana, penned his opinions and shared how his unhealthy work life in his twenties was costly to his health and productivity; he now holds the opinion that a better balance is better for business and makes him a more effective leader.

Closer to home, here in the UK, Paul Smith of Ignite, the Newcastle and London based accelerator, has been vocal in this medium post about the focus required from founders; particularly post investment. He and Dustin Moskovitz even entered into a brief exchange on Twitter about it.

As a founder, it’s a tough one. There are two sides of the coin. Work. And life. The two opposing forces, pulling in each direction. On the one hand, you want to be doing everything you possibly can to produce the best possible outcome for your startup. On the other, you know that it’s a marathon, and not a sprint, hence having a balance of some form is necessary to avoid burnout.

Guilt

Time off makes founders feel guilty when they know there is work to be done. Personally, this has always been a big struggle. I’m not the only one that battles with this either.

In her medium post titled, ‘Taking A Day Off Just Because‘, Danielle Morrill opens with the following:

“I’m taking the day off work today, which has been planned for 8 weeks. Yes, I have to plan that far ahead to take a single day off but not because I am so essential to my company — but because I need to work on the guilt I feel not being there. You probably know what I am talking about…”

Conversely, there is also the guilt and FOMO that occurs when opting to work over other social opportunities. Namely, the cut down on family time or the overly extended periods of time without seeing friends.

The guilt pulls both ways.

 

Self-Worth

The success and failure of the startup is ultimately tied to you, the founder. This is a dangerous game to play.

Failure rate is high, some say close to 90%, yet we can’t help but take it as a personal failure and tie every ounce of our self-worth to our venture. The startup is you.

This emotional attachment to the venture makes it exceptionally hard to let go and have down time away from work. This only fuels the work harder mentality.

Again, there is a conflicting argument. The more you tie your self-worth to the venture, the less of a life you create for yourself aside from your startup. This is why ignoring other areas of your life is detrimental to founder’s well being. It’s a very serious problem in startup circles. Depression is not uncommon among founders, and this self-worth attachment is probably the most likely cause. It’s a lonely game to be playing and your state of mind is closely tied to the current state of your startup at any particular point in time.

 

Burnout

Burnout outright sucks. It’s too easy to achieve and too difficult to avoid. Again, the first argument in work for work’s sake is to keep on working. If you’re not hustling, you’re not making progress.

Why only work smart, when you can work hard AND smart?

Yet, studies have shown time and time again that taking time to recharge and refresh the batteries makes room for far greater performance.

The trouble with all this is that it’s counterintuitive. Taking time off to achieve greater gains later down the line feels like a gamble as a founder, when you could squeeze out more productivity today.

Having the self-awareness to say enough is enough and switch off for the day is a tough skill to learn.

The worst thing I have observed myself doing is trying to work, being ineffective, and wasting that time altogether. This results in no tangible change of state. It wasn’t valuable time off to recharge. It wasn’t time working to make progress. It was lose-lose. This sucks.

 

A brief story: The impact of my half marathon training

Earlier today I took part in my first half marathon. This has meant that I have had to actively carve out time for training over for a number of weeks.

The benefits are apparent to me. I feel fitter (obviously). The time away from work to train has absolutely not eaten into time that would have been productively spent working. I was previously worried it would.

I’ve been eating healthier as a result too.

Psychologically I now feel better about myself. The half marathon (in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society – you can donate here if you’re feeling generous :) ) has given me an additional purpose outside of my startup. It’s a win on the self-worth front. I’ve become more focused.

I’ve also felt less burned out. The time spent training has given me time to let my mind wonder. I’m no longer ‘always on’.

I also don’t feel guilty about it. I’m doing it for a worthwhile cause. Even a small amount raised is a good contribution. It’s also an investment in my own health. This is a win-win.

 

My future rules for work-life balance

To make sense of all this I’ve tried to construct some kind of framework for myself to follow for the future. It’s by no means perfect and subject to revision, but it’s a start.

  1. Family first – where possible family comes first. If I have time to spare, this is where I would like to spend it first.
  2. Be there for the big things – every year there are always big things that happen; birthdays and so on. Always try to make these non-negotiable where possible. Make the time be there.
  3. Be there when really needed – be there when other people need you most. Be a good friend, son, brother, uncle etc.
  4. Seek out (learning) experiences – when not working, do things that help you progress as a person in other areas of your life. Do things that help you to become a more rounded person. Do cool stuff that doesn’t just make for great stories, but also helps you grow as a person. They say to be a good writer you have to do things worth writing about.
  5. Spend time wisely – do the things that are a high quality use of your time. Say no when necessary – it’s an important life skill. Saying yes is easy, no is often much harder but much more impactful.
  6. Look after yourself – be kind to yourself mentally and physically. Invest in yourself.
  7. The startup comes first if none of the above apply.

 

Final thoughts

I realise that work life balance means something different to everyone.

In the strange world of startups, there’s a difficult balancing act to play. It’s imperfect and even for those of us living it, it can be difficult to make sense of. We just have to try and do what’s right and what’s best.

 

What is your outlook on work-life balance? How do you find yourself dealing with different circumstances to create an effective lifestyle? Are you a founder and finding it hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle or do you have another outlook altogether? Would love to hear thoughts and have a discussion in the comments below.