You wake up at 3 a.m. Stare at the ceiling. Overwhelmed. Anxious … and then the running monologue starts like a bad song stuck in your head. Oh shit, it’s “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae with those lyrics repeating in a virtual loop: Hey I just met you – And this is crazy – But here’s my number – So call me maybe … Only the lyrics running through your head are: Am I going to hit projections this week – If I don’t make payroll I’m gonna freak – I can’t face failure – Just wish I could sleep later … There’s no escaping business – it even invades our sleep!
For entrepreneurs, the boundary between the workplace and personal life is porous at best, which causes stress and impacts mental health. It’s a refrain we hear time and time again from fellow entrepreneurs. Saying you need to compartmentalize the two doesn’t cut it; we can’t just flip the switch off. But if we could strengthen that boundary, it’d go a long way towards us keeping our sanity. Fortunately, toward that end, in talking about this with peers, some clear strategies and tactics have emerged that can help.
Build an Identity Outside of Work
Yeah, many entrepreneurs’ identity is their company – expected and understandable – but don’t let that happen. You need to invest time and energy into having parts of your identity attached to things outside of work. “Build a life centered on the belief that self-worth is not the same as net worth,” says Dr. Michael Freeman, a very cool psychiatrist and entrepreneur himself whom we spoke with. “Other dimensions of your life should be part of your identity.” Some examples he cited include “raising a family, sitting on the board of a local charity, building model rockets in the backyard, or going swing dancing on weekends.” Now some of us aren’t ready for families or swing dancing for that matter, but you get the drift. It’s about having a meaningful hobby or interest.
It doesn’t have to consume hours, but it should have value to you. For example, Andy Chan, a Carnegie Mellon University dropout, Thiel Fellow Finalist and co-founder of VIT Initiative, rediscovered the music he had given up years earlier. “I had this preconceived notion that oh my god I’m an entrepreneur, I’ve got to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I started breaking myself of these preconceived notions I had,” Chan explained. “The one thing I think that has been my grace and savior is music actually. Everyday I try to take at least an hour to play some music. I was classically trained on the piano growing up, but when I came to college I stopped playing music altogether. I felt something was terribly wrong and missing in my life. When I started playing music again, it made me feel better. It is hyper-cathartic.”
Focus on Maintaining a Few Good Friendships
“Don’t let your business squeeze out your connections with human beings,” Freeman also says. For how important a social life is to getting separation from work, it can be near impossible. Consider what Briana Gardell, founder of the very successful toy company Goblies, told us: “I’m definitely afraid of making plans over the weekends because I’m not sure what’s going to come up.” Rather than trying to have a vibrant social life, she has focused on maintaining a few high quality friendships. So she’ll take time to see old roommates, go to graduations and weddings. “At the end of the day I tend be good at that,” she said. “When I need to be there I’ll be there for important things, for important milestones.”
Other entrepreneurs we talked to echoed Gardell’s sentiments, including the 27-year old co-founder and CEO of Wethos, Rachel Renock, who said, “I want to make sure I’m prioritizing people in my life as much as I am the company, which is really, really hard because we’re at such an early stage and we have so much to do. But I don’t want to come out the other side of this with an IPO, for example, and have no one there to pop the champagne with because I totally ignored my entire personal life for five years.” If you can’t get together very often, you can at least stay engaged with your good friends on social media. Stay on top of what they’re doing, comment on posts, let them know you’re thinking about them.
Treat Dates and Socializing Like a Business Meeting
Tied to maintaining friendships and having a social life, is the commitment to actually showing up; after all, it can be so easy to blow off happy hour drinks with friends, or a movie night, or a dinner date. Multiple entrepreneurs talked about putting dates and social events on their calendars and committing to them just like they would an important business meeting. By effectively putting it in stone, they know they’re going to feel like shit if they don’t show up. “If anything I think I’ve just made it more of a priority,” Chan said of managing personal relationships, “like every single week I’ll hang out with friends a minimum of once. It’s just a commitment to myself. I obviously have to work, have to sleep, but I also need to maintain relationships.”
“It’s a matter of being committed,” Renock echoed. If she puts a business meeting on a calendar, she will be there. She doesn’t like shifting things around, being flaky. “I want to apply that to my personal life,” she said. “Don’t bail on plans. If you’re going to make a dinner date or drink date, show up. Even if you’re tired, even if you want to go home, just be as committed to that as you are to the company. I’m hoping that that small shift in and of itself will help.” It’s like using your calendar as a tool in building that boundary between work and personal life. If it’s on the calendar you do it.
Turn Off, Tune Out
In the 1960s LSD proponent Timothy Leary famously declared, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” How about turn off and tune out? The point here is because technology helps bring work with you everywhere, periodically disconnecting from your devices is a great way to create some separation, catch your breath, recharge your batteries, and be present for friends and family! Others call it an information fast. You could disconnect for an hour each day, once home, Sunday afternoons, or all of Sunday, etc. Take serial entrepreneur Yuki Aoyama who was getting his MBA at the prestigious Tuck School of Business. Of a leadership and personality course, he said, “I learned a new framework for my life.” Part of that was creating a legitimate action plan to change his behavior when with his family. He used to wake up at 8 or 9 a.m., then work until 2 a.m. Now he wakes at 5 a.m. and is home by 7 p.m. When he walks through the door he completely unplugs. No iPhone, no laptop, nothing. It’s a hard and fast rule.
Founder of Colorado Glasses and web designer Jeremiah Prummer takes it a different tactic. “One of the things I’ve done that’s really helpful is that I don’t have a data plan on my cell phone,” he explained. “I have a tablet that I use for when I need access to those things. But my personal cell phone has no data, so I can’t check emails, I can’t look at sales numbers or do those kinds of things.” It gives him space and quality time with family and friends. Others we spoke to have deleted all social media off their phones and even closed personal accounts.
Set Company Policies for Yourself and Team
Just because you’re a small team, even a team of two, doesn’t mean you can’t have company policies to create work-life balance. Take the case of Renock, who in the beginning was slugging down Red Bulls and working until 2 a.m. “The only time we would take breaks is when we were right at that tipping point of like I’m gong to lose my mind if I don’t take a day off soon,” she recalled. Now with some VC backing and a team of 10, she has put company policies in place to set boundaries. “I think hiring a couple people and keeping in mind that those people have lives and mental health to take care of, we were able to strike a better life-work balance than our first year.” The company has set work hours like any other business. Team members are expected to be offline at 8 p.m. and all day Sunday. If you’re sick or on vacation, you’re to stay offline. Renock’s message: “Please take the time to rest. Regain your strength. Because burnout doesn’t affect just one person, it affects the entire team. It goes beyond just creating that culture, beyond just policy, but putting a stake in the ground.” As the CEO can she always follow those policies? No, but you do your best to set an example.
Stacey Doherty, a young mother and co-founder of Prodoh, a successful children’s apparel company, uses policy to create a boundary between work and motherhood. “This is kind of funny and I know people think this is unconventional,” she explained, “but this is what we do: Our workday ends at 2:30.” Why 2:30? That’s when the kids get out of school. “It’s been very important to us to be able to pick up our kids from school,” Doherty said of her and her co-founder. No doubt there are plenty of entrepreneurs who would find that kind of funny. Truth be told, their workday really doesn’t end at 2:30. They have a playroom at the office where their kids can hunker down if need be. Also, once her kids go to bed at 8 p.m., Doherty might work until midnight. The point is, by setting that policy she strikes a balance she finds acceptable.
For sanity’s sake, it’s possible to create a stronger boundary between work and personal life. It can be done with a moderate amount of energy and time, but requires commitment. To summarize some tactics: Build interests and identity outside of work, no matter how modest; develop and maintain a few high quality friendships rather than a so-called vibrant social life (clubbing or otherwise); use your calendar and be 100 percent committed to what’s on your calendar; unplug from electronics so you can be present for yourself and others; and set company policies and abide by them.