Learn from their mistakes and successes to carve out your own definition of work/life balance.

By Belle Beth Cooper (Co-founder, HelloCode & Content Writer, Ghost)

This post originally appeared on the Crew blog.

I love being an entrepreneur. It gives me the freedom to choose what I work on and when and how I do it.

But there are two sides to every coin. The life of an entrepreneur lends itself to throwing out any semblance of work/life balance.

Entrepreneurs often work harder, longer, and more than typical employees. There’s no 9-5, no weekends, no guaranteed holidays. We’re notorious for neglecting certain areas of our lives in the struggle to just stay above water.

With Exist, our aim is to help company founders and freelancers to find their own work/life balance, but along the way we’re struggling to find our own balance each day.

Since we’re not the only ones, I wanted to find out how other entrepreneurs manage the various facets of their lives. I think we can all learn a thing or two from the approaches I uncovered.

What Does Work/Life Balance Look Like?

I believe work/life balance is different for everyone. Some people want more work in their lives while others want to work the minimum they can and spend the rest of their time with family and friends or working on hobbies.
For independent developer John Saddington, the perfect balance is a mixture of work and play every day. John doesn’t stop working when he takes vacation days and incorporates downtime (such as reading, watching movies, and being with his kids) into his everyday routine.
As John says, this isn’t for everyone but it works for him. Because he enjoys his work so much, his downtime is the preparation for that work, rather than the reward to come later:
“[down time] shouldn’t be some ‘reward’ for the work that you’ve done but, I think, it should be in reverse. Your work should be the reward for taking the time required to get your mind, body, and spirit right with all the rest of your own individual world.”
Shoptiques founder Olga Vidisheva learned from experience that identifying herself with her company led to stress and lack of confidence. Over time Olga has learned to think of her company as something outside herself, so the success or failure of it doesn’t directly impact her self-esteem and confidence.
She says this has helped her to sleep soundly even when things aren’t going well, rather than being overly stressed out by seeing her company’s struggles as a reflection of herself.

  • Some work and some play every day can be balanced, just as full work days and full days to rest can be.
  • Work can be the reward for looking after all the other areas of your life.
  • Identifying your business with yourself can make it hard to let go at the end of the day. Try to see your business as something that has part of you in it rather than being an extension of yourself.

Fitting in Family

Plenty of entrepreneurs are balancing family commitments alongside building a business, which might very well be one of the biggest struggles in finding work/life balance.
YouMail founder Alex Quilici suggests focusing on being totally present during any small blocks of time you get to spend with your family, such as driving your kids to school. “Turn off the cell phone entirely when you’re playing with them,” he says. “Don’t think about work during that time. High-quality time really counts.”
Alex has also found that getting his family involved in what he’s making has helped his situation: “Have them use the product you’re making. When they see it and feel it, they tend to understand more about what it takes to deliver it.”
For Xirrus founder Dirk Gates, his family vacation time is still work time, just pared back. Rather than working 12-16 hours per day, Dirk works 4-6 hours on vacation days so he can keep on top of his business while still finding time to spend with his family.
Sam Shank, founder of Hotel Tonight, makes an effort to be present when he’s spending time with his kids and tries to give each child the individual attention they need. He also involves them in his work by letting them visit the office, giving them Hotel Tonight shirts to wear, and sharing how his day was each night at the dinner table.

  • Turn off your phone and be present during family time.
  • Involve your family in your work so they feel part of it: share your product with them and tell them how things are going when you get home from work.
  • Find a way to balance vacation and family time. That might mean working a few hours when everyone else is asleep so you can be present when they’re awake.

Side Projects and Hobbies

Justin Jackson is as big a proponent of building and launching side projects as anyone. But he also admits that life is messy, and it can get in the way.
Justin hosts an entire podcast dedicated to building side projects, so it’s refreshing to hear him admit that sometimes they’re not as easy as we think. Justin’s a big believer in focusing on your health and your relationships ahead of self-imposed deadlines:
“Ultimately, our relationships are way more important than any business we’re going to create. Let’s not sacrifice our friendships on our journey to build and create cool stuff.”
Justin places a lot of emphasis on the people in his life: his friends, family, and colleagues. And especially those people he can meet up with face-to-face:
“When it comes to ‘real life stuff’ nothing beats local support. You need friends that can actually show up at your doorstep and give you a helping hand, encouragement, and a listening ear.”
Justin also has a particular approach to avoid burnout while he has lots of side projects on the go. He tries to work until he’s burned just 80% of his creative energy. From past experience, Justin found that giving 110 percent to everything in his life at once led to burnout and depression:
“I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down. I experienced depression for the first time in my life.”
Now that he’s put a limit on how much energy he expends in his work, Justin’s found he’s able to deal with crises that arise, and he’s doing better work than ever.

  • Don’t sacrifice your relationships to spend all your time on work. Nobody on their deathbed ever wished they spent more time at work.
  • Keep something in the tank. Spending all the energy you have isn’t sustainable. Save some of that energy so you’ve got a buffer in case things go wrong.

The Trap of Working Too Much

Jason Zook’s experience is an extreme example of working too much. Jason’s company, IWearYourShirt, required him to work every single day of the year. Not only was he working every day, but Jason had to come up with new, creative ideas every day (his business was in making creative videos for different companies each day).
You’re probably not surprised to hear that Jason burned out from this work overload. He managed the impressive feat of working for over two years without a break before deciding to take Saturdays off. But that wasn’t enough:
“I couldn’t recharge my batteries completely on one day per week, especially after 730+ days without a break. Plus, those Saturdays became an attempt to try to get ahead of the game, so I ended up working anyway (ugh).”
In 2013 IWearYourShirt closed for good, and Jason finally found the time off he needed. He’d been having trouble sleeping, struggling to come up with new ideas, and missing out on opportunities because he lacked the energy to follow through.
Jason’s recommendation is to learn from his mistake, and not create a business that requires your input on every single day of the year:
“You can absolutely be the cornerstone of your business (especially if you’re a service provider; designer, developer, etc), but you should put systems in place that don’t require you.”
There’s nothing enjoyable about burning yourself out, and it takes a lot of time and energy to bounce back from. If you can find the time to rest and recover now, you’ll be better off for it in the long run.
This reminds me of one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: sharpen the saw. It took me a long time to really grasp this idea but now it’s the one I refer back to most often. The idea is this: If you’re cutting down a tree with a blunt saw, you’ll get the job done faster by taking the time to sharpen your saw (i.e. a break from your work to recover) than you would if you just continued sawing (i.e. working without rest).

  • Make time to rest. You’ll save yourself more time in the long run by stopping before you get burned out.
  • Build your business in a way that allows you to take time off.

Ultimately, you’re doing the work you are because you want a better life for yourself and your loved ones. And thinking this way makes it easy to put off your current happiness for the greener pastures of your future life. But the sad truth is that nothing is guaranteed and that the time you spend working yourself to exhaustion now is gone, forever.
Finding work/life balance for yourself will take some experimentation, but learn from the mistakes of others: don’t work every day without a break, don’t ignore your health or your relationships while you build your business, and try to separate your business’s success from your own self confidence.
When you look back 20 years from now what do you want to remember?

About the guest blogger: Belle Beth Cooper is a co-founder of Exist, a personal analytics platform that helps you understand your life. Find her on Twitter at @BelleBCooper.