6 steps to finding work-life integration amidst the stress of entrepreneurship

27th Feb 2018
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Startups wear their hard work and struggle on their sleeves, and why shouldn’t they? They are cool and fun, and matters like work-life balance can seem low priority when you do all that startups do, despite being either cash- or resource-crunched at any given time.

But there’s a catch. To solve problems or to keep doing what the highs of entrepreneurship demand, founders and startup employees both need fresh perspectives, creative thinking, and constant, relentless motivation, and that is hard when you are physically and mentally exhausted.

Startup employees and founders have more to their lives than their work. But many of them prioritize it over everything else, sometimes because of all that is at stake and sometimes due to the sheer adrenaline rush of it. Most entrepreneurs will admit to being workaholics at some stage, including the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Choosing to focus on your startup over every other aspect of your life – leisure, health, family, and community – can be harmful to the pursuit of a balanced work life.

So how does one build the foundations of work-life balance in the high-stakes, high-stress environment many startups function in? Here are a few steps to get started:

Image: Shutterstock

Take charge

Whether you’re a newbie to the startup world or a seasoned entrepreneur, it is important to remember that the first step towards a good work-life balance starts with you. There is a reason that a handful of venture capitalists around the world are now taking on the charge of encouraging work-life balance in their portfolio companies and founders. In the book Start, Love, Repeat by columnist Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Goodwater Capital Co-founder Eric Kim says, “We want our entrepreneurs to be holistically empowered. We want them to be great leaders and great spouses." He further explains in the book that there is often a close relationship between the personal and professional.

According to Eric, the best entrepreneur and manager is usually the best spouse and parent too. Andy Kuper, the founder and CEO of Leapfrog Investments, ensures that beyond valuation and leverage, he also speaks to his investees about what he calls “the human struggle” of building a company and its impact on personal lives and families.

The power is in the hands of the founder

It is often fear or insecurity that makes founders or any employee not want to let go and let their hair down for a bit. According to Elizabeth Saunders, the Founder & CEO of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training, “Many entrepreneurs struggle with the fear that if they’re not working every minute that they could possibly be working, their business will fail and they will regret not having put in more time. However, in my own experience and in observing other successful entrepreneurs, letting go of this fear not only leads to work-life balance but also more meaningful productivity and accomplishment.”

In the end, it is going to be the entrepreneur and his/her team who will actually set in motion the work-life balance charter of their startup on the ground. Does a better work-life balance necessarily mean less work and fewer outcomes? Perhaps not, and this is where work-life integration comes into play. It will have to start at the very top for it to become the new normal in entrepreneurship circles. The sooner founders take note of this, the faster Indian startups too can get to the next level of evolution as far as work-life balance is concerned.

Flexibility over reduced work is the key to work-life integration

Let’s be realistic. The volume of work in resource-crunched startups will not go down overnight. The next best thing to do is to get more flexible about schedules and locations. It is 2018 and despite our smartphones and messaging services and video conferencing tools, if we still need employees to be in office to do the work all the time, we probably need to start hiring better, more committed, and honest people.

Understand life priorities

Founders must think deeply about their own life priorities. Sure, the business is important, but is there anything else that is more important? Family, for instance? This is simply the starting point of understanding life priorities. Know and remember always that there will be times when family demands more attention and times when work needs your all. When entrepreneurs and their teams understand their life priorities better, they will mindfully work towards meeting them all. As part of the leadership team of one of the world’s most transformative startups SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell considers this prioritization as the key to finding a better balance. She says it is not about striking the perfect 50-50, but about putting your time in the aspect of life that needs the most attention at any given time.

Gwynne says, “There are times when the balance is far more devoted towards work. And you get to pick the times that you get to spend with your family and you make those count. To me, work-life balance means stable, not necessarily 50-50.”

Encourage productivity and important outcomes, not hours

Once the founder understands the very concept of life priorities, he/she must ensure delivery of outcomes, not crazy hours in the office. He/she also needs to ensure their second-rung managers and leaders understand and help build a culture that rewards outcomes and peak productivity, not merely long hours. While this is still a challenge in old-school corporate setups, startups are doing everything new, so they might as well try their hands at this new reward system too. Doing more per hour and managing and owning your time ensures that you get out of office at a sane time and have a life outside of it.

Get organized, encourage your teams to get organized, spend as little time as possible in pointless pursuits like perfecting what’s already great or meetings that have no agendas, get the job done, banish the fear of missing out, and get a life. Productivity makes it all possible, and a good place to start understanding how to go about it is Randy Pausch’s lectures. Sample this: “The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.” This forms the essence of time management and productivity, and as a founder who is personally invested in work, you’ll be better off revisiting Randy’s lessons.

Be 100 percent mindful and present

One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that in order to be an amazing entrepreneur or professional, our role in the community and family, or our sense of self, must diminish, or at the very least, become a bit of a trade-off. But work-life integration is a different ballgame. It is basically the art of being 100 percent present in whatever you are doing at the moment. Parent-teachers meeting in school? That call from work can wait for 30 minutes, and the world will still not end. Try it and see for yourself. That Monday morning meeting? Stay on course, stick to the point, go back to your desk, and let everyone else go back to theirs. Mindful meetings are never three hours long and if you are doing these meetings, you need to rethink your working style and how this approach is harming work-life balance and integration within your organization.

According to HBR’s Stewart D. Friedman, “Balance assumes we must always make trade-offs…among the four main aspects of our lives: work or school, home or family (however you define that), community (friends, neighbours, religious or social groups), and self (mind, body, spirit). A more realistic and more gratifying goal is better integration between work and the rest of life.” This starts with rethinking how we approach each task, project, and meeting, both as a professional and as a person with a life and commitments outside of work.

Work-life balance and integration are simply matters of proactively taking charge of time as much as they are about organizational culture. Even with the intent and effort to find the perfect balance, you are still going to have a few long days at work and a few missed commitments outside of it. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Set realistic goals and accept your human limitations instead of trying to win at everything it. In one word, simplify.

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