Work life balance is the Millennial MacGuffin. It sits atop a golden pedestal, barely out of reach of us mortals causing all of us to strive and struggle to reach it and claim it for ourselves. But what is work life balance? Why do we need it? What happens if you are able to achieve it? And most importantly is it even accessible to us small business owners who work functionally (and often literally) non-stop?
What is work life balance?
It's probably best if we start out by saying what work life balance isn’t. Work life balance is not working the exact same amount of time you spend living. Work life balance is not loving your job. And work life balance is not feeling content all of the time with your work, your life and the balance between those two major life components.
Work life balance is working enough while living enough. It is getting enough sleep. It is enjoying the way we spend the majority of our time. It is connecting with the people we love, investing time into the hobbies we enjoy and contributing, in a meaningful way, to the society to which we are a part.
Before you throw up your hands in frustration, We know that is WAY easier said than done. We are small business owners. And parents. And spouses. And siblings. And … you get the point. Balance is hard!
That being said it’s September now and this is the time most of us find ourselves drifting more to our lives. Our kids are returning to school (in whatever fashion that is), the holidays are around the corner, the days are getting shorter and most of us are more content to snuggle on the couch in front of some football or a good Batman movie.
We will recommend The Dark Knight every time - but they’re all good. Even Batman and Robin. Yes. Batman and Robin The ice puns are too cool.
This is the time most of us find ourselves wanting more life and less work and reaching ever harder for that MacGuffin. The good news is we believe we can help. We’ve been doing this for a while and we’re all perfectionists over here at The Clever Catalyst and we think we may just have the Top 6 Tips for Achieving Work Life Balance as a Small Business Owner.
Work Life Balance Tip #1: Lower your expectations!
Let’s handle this one right out of the gate, you HAVE to lower your expectations. Progress over perfection. Good Enough is good enough. All that jazz. If you’re a small business owner and you are picturing perfect 9-5 days with long weekends spent without wondering if you sent that last invoice and easy vacation planning, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
But work life balance doesn’t mean a perfect, stress-free life. If you’re taking a weekend off and you’re only measuring success by being able to completely check out, relax and never let your thoughts wander to work, you might as well spend your weekend working.
Keep your perspective.
Work Life Balance Tip #2: Muddy the Waters
For example, right now I’m laying on my rug in the living room on a Friday afternoon that my husband had off because we took our daughter to a school thing. I am writing my business blog and my husband is playing a video game with my daughter on the couch above me. Does this belong in the work bucket for me because I’m doing something work-related? Or does this count as family time because I’m pretending to laugh at my daughter's AWFUL knock knock jokes and interacting with my family?
More importantly, why does that matter? I am as engaged with my family right now as I need to be. And I’m as engaged in this blog as I need to be. Why should I worry about cataloging this time.
When I see business tips about having “dedicated office hours” or advocating for “offices with doors” or “implementing standard working hours” I cringe. That is the opposite of helpful 99% of the time. Spend less time making things feel like they have to be work or life and more time just working and living.
If you want to work all day at a desk in a fancy office in your apartment with your hair done and your nice clothes on, fine! But work life balance can feel a lot more attainable if once in a while you work on the couch in a pair of sweatpants while watching Forensic Files reruns for the 7th time. (Possibly speaking from experience.)
Work Life Balance Tip #3: Know Your Limits
Feeling overworked is caused by OVER working. Not working in general. If you want to achieve any semblance of balance you have to know your limits.
Pop Quiz: You have a headache and you can’t seem to get any fraction of that big project that’s almost finished and you need to finish now according to your block schedule, so you can take Saturday off? What do you do?
Buck up buttercup and get it done.
Take five minutes and get a drink of water before powering through.
Take the rest of the day off and finish the project on Saturday. Or Sunday *gasp*
The only right answer is 3. If you have a headache and you aren’t making any progress, stop. You likely aren’t making any progress and you likely have that headache because you need a break. Breaks are something you NEED. Breaks are not rewards for accomplishing a task triathlon.
If you were to power through I promise you your work would not have been as good as it would have been if you were rested and inspired. Sorry but it’s true. And you force yourself to “work” when you desperately need to “live” so your balance is going to be way off.
Weekends off are a good goal but will finishing one project that was almost finished on a Saturday afternoon really be that bad? Probably not. But it will if you’ve already set yourself up for failure by thinking that if you don’t spend 100% of the weekend “off” then it wasn’t a success.
(See tip #1 again)
Work Life Balance Tip #4: Plan Smarter
Some of you are still thinking about that pop quiz. Some of you are thinking what if that project was due by the end of day? What if I couldn’t push it until over the weekend? Well you, my inquisitive friend, are on the right tip. Part of achieving work life balance is in how you plan.
First of all please don’t ever be working on a task as it is due. That is NEVER a good idea.
When planning your day/week you should always strive to plan it in a way that makes sense for YOU. There is plenty of advice floating around about how to structure your time: block schedules, handling big tasks first, handling only your top 3 tasks in a day (I wish!), small tasks to build momentum, etc. The thing is they are all wrong!
You need to plan your day and time in a way that makes sense for you. When are you most likely to be inspired to handle certain tasks?
You should also never block out your entire day or create plans that are too restrictive. If you find yourself constantly having to rearrange the blocks in your block schedule, maybe that isn’t the right system for you.
As a small business owner you need to be able to pivot when needed. Plan with pivots in mind.
Work Life Tip #5: Work Seasonally
Your work life balance doesn’t have to look the same day over day and week over week. If you have a busy season let that be your busy season. We see so many business owners and working moms giving themselves so much grief because they aren’t able to have the same amount of family time during their busy seasons as they do during non-busy seasons. (Some of those people are us!)
No offense but ..duh!
For example: I have one week of every month that is just bonkers. It’s the first week of every month, the result of a weird cosmic occurrence where lots of big, time-sensitive tasks are occurring at the exact same time. Tasks that cannot be pre-started. In my home we refer to it as hell week.
That week I lower my expectations of family time and me time A TON. I also muddy the waters A LOT, watching cartoons in the evening with my daughter while multitasking the loads of work I have. I also plan with my limits in mind and take loads of tiny breaks. Coffee breaks, exercise breaks, shower breaks, nap breaks. That first week of every month I work like a mad person.
And I give myself 0 guilt. The following two weeks always end up significantly lighter. I take half days frequently throughout those weeks and spend much more intentional time off. My Google calendar of the two week sides by side is almost comical.
I don’t strive to reduce that workload. It’s manageable and I’ve reduced it as much as possible already. Also don’t strive to bulk up the other weeks to match because that would be unsustainable. I simply roll with it and work seasonally. I am busy when I need to be and not when I can be.
Work life balance doesn’t mean giving equal parts of yourself to equal parts of your life. It means feeling like you’re living enough and like you’re working enough.
Work Life Balance Tip #6: Get a Life
If you’re ever going to achieve work life balance as a small business owner it helps to have something you want to do with your off time. Something realistic and enjoyable. (Not weekly European vacations) During your time off you need to be able to lose yourself in something else. Something that takes your mind ( at least partially) off of work. Something that makes you feel like you’re living a different life than when you are at work.
If your only goal on your time off is to be “not working” you’re never going to have any balance. Or any fun.
Work life balance is achievable; it just may require a little creative redefining and a whole lot of perspective. If you truly hate your job and can’t seem to muster any enjoyment from it whatsoever, the problem isn’t the balance it’s the job. If you love what you do but you feel overwhelmed you probably just need to do some minor tweaking. A wise man (Nelson Mandela) once said, “Everything seems impossible until it’s done.”
Just get it done!