One quality of an ideal job is that it gives employees the freedom to find a balance between the time and effort they put into their work, and the rest of their lives. The desired balance changes depending on the individual employee, of course, but I think almost everyone has a preference one way or another.
For founders, this leads to two parallel challenges. The first is creating a company culture that helps your team find and maintain healthy work/life tradeoffs. The second is, as founders, figuring out what work/life balance means for you, and how to set a good example for the team.
There’s obviously a ton to say on this topic, but for this post I want to avoid speculating and just speak to my own experience, which means I’ll really be speaking to the second challenge I mentioned above.
So, how do you strike a work/life balance as a founder?
The first answer is that, at least for me, you kind of don’t. I’m pretty much always “on”and thinking about Modulate in some way – whether it’s planning what to say when I hear back from a customer, recognizing a new game that could make use of our tech, or slapping together a quick demo app of some or another functionality to show off to my team or our investors. But it’s been important to me to not let the fact that Modulate is always on my mind prevent me from doing other important things – staying in touch with friends and family, for instance, or getting exercise to stay healthy.
So here are some tricks that I’ve found that help me to strike this difficult balance.
The most obvious, and also very effective, tactic I’ve found is to schedule time during which I must break away from Modulate work. I try to get exercise four times a week in scheduled slots – and while I do miss them every now and again, the advantage of the schedule is that I can then register in my mind “I have missed one workout.” Without the schedule, I might have gone two or three weeks of skipping exercise before I’d notice it had become a true problem, so the ability to recognize myself deviating early is crucial.
I’ve also found schedules extremely helpful when it comes to socializing. My cofounder and I, along with several of our other friends, have a general rule that Tuesday evening is “social night.” What exactly that means changes each week, but the key rules are that work talk is not allowed (again, we sometimes fail, but it’s important that we’ve empowered others to scold us when we do!) and that we try to make the event active, rather than passive. (Sometimes we’ll all gather to watch someone play a video game – a pretty passive activity in general – but what usually happens is that the video game becomes the backdrop to larger conversations, rather than us simply sitting around starting at a screen together.) We know we won’t have as much time with some of our friends as we might have if we weren’t running a startup, so we want to ensure we’re making the most of the time we do spend with them.
Subtly different from schedules are quotas. Where a schedule involves exact timing, quotas simply are my requirements for myself that I must fulfill within a given time frame, but not at any specific moment. I’ve found that these are most helpful for ensuring I spend time really paying attention with my significant other. Since we’re only two people, we have flexibility in when we decide to hang out, so we wanted to avoid the overbearing nature of schedules while still ensuring we stay connected. Our quotas are pretty light – one “date night” per month, and at least one full, connected hour of talking about how each other are doing per week – but they serve as extremely helpful reminders to ensure I don’t get too consumed in my work – or exhausted by it – to show my SO the attention she deserves.
One of the toughest things about being a founder is that there’s always something more to be done. It’s easy for that to become overwhelming – in fact, for the first few months I was working on Modulate full-time, my weekends and weekdays basically were indistinguishable, because I was simply always working.
I knew that this was probably bad – that I was burning myself out and would need to find a better balance. But when I tried to come up with rules, I was unable to convince myself. “Take one day to recharge” was my first rule – but what if something comes up during that day? Besides, maybe I only need 6 hours, not a whole day. Yadda yadda yadda. So since I couldn’t come up with a good rule, I fell back to my default – which was to not recharge at all.
The key for me was encountering objective arguments for why weekends are different. This includes things like:
- Working on weekends sets a bad precedent for our employees, so if I’m doing it I need to be careful about how I present it.
- Nobody reads emails over the weekend, and a large part of my job is sending emails. So pushing myself to finish everything can actually hurt if those emails are missed or lost.
- Our office building, which provides real value to us as we work to complete our tasks, is partially closed over the weekend.
None of these are knockdown arguments – they still permit some work on weekends, which is probably okay. But it was hugely helpful for my mentality to use these to create a sort of positive slippery slope – once I had these arguments to get me to ever stop working, it became easier to relax a bit more without feeling like I was slacking. (Though I confess I am still working a little most weekends, on one thing or another.)
Getting Ideas On Paper
When I know I have to write an important email, or have a big pitch or meeting coming up, my brain rehearses a lot. I try all kinds of different approaches to saying something, experiment with different twists and flourishes, and ultimately analyze the thing to death. I can’t really help it, even if I’m confident that the conversation will go well.
The one strategy I have discovered is to write things down. Beyond getting the ideas out of my head so I can hear how they sound, this has the huge benefit that I am no longer in any danger of losing these ideas. Sometimes, this drives me to just send the email earlier – for whatever reason, my mind is much more capable of letting go of the analysis when it knows I can’t change my approach any longer. But other times, I’ll genuinely get out of bed to write something down for a conversation later, just so that my brain will shut up already and let me go to sleep. The ideas aren’t always good, but it definitely helps me calm down my hyperactive analysis reflex.
These are the key tactics that I’ve found helpful thus far, but finding this balance is tricky and the parameters of the task are always changing. I’d love to hear in the comments about the techniques that work for you – and what the work/life balance is that you’re trying to strike!