I’ve worked in Silicon Valley startups and fast growing companies since 1997. Here are some tips to balance your personal life with career, especially if you’re building a new business.
1). Get focused. I worked at an ecommerce startup which was ultimately acquired for a valuation of $1.2 billion. On my first day of work, I asked the CEO if he had any advice. “The most important thing”, he said, “is to know what NOT to do. At any given moment, there are just a few things which will truly move the needle in growing the business. The rest is just b***s***, which you have to ignore.” It was often infuriating to work in a dingy office with primitive internal reporting systems, inadequate tools, and draconian managers, but it was an awesome lesson in execution.
What are you doing that you should not be doing at all? What aren’t you doing that would make a huge difference to your business? Differentiate between the urgent versus the important.
2). Get efficient. Many entrepreneurs and techies enjoy bragging about the long hours they put in – even though they’re not paid by the hour. My first three years at Yahoo, during the dot com boom, I worked about 70 hours per week. I was proud of my work ethic, and the impact I was having.
But even though I was working hard, I was not working smart. I was not forcing myself to get more efficient by streamlining or automating tasks. Sometimes I did phenomenally detailed work when a high level overview would have been more than enough. And I was slow to learn some software skills which would have made life a lot easier.
After about 9 months at this pace, I remember walking into the office on a Monday morning, after having worked all weekend. My mind was fried. I was mentally at about 30% to 40% of efficiency. I felt physically exhausted. And I was definitely not at my best when it came to creativity, analysis, or teamwork – let alone patience or sense of humor. I had to wait six more weeks until I managed to get a vacation, and recharge my batteries a little bit. If I had been working less during that whole time, I’m sure that I would have had higher quality output.
3). Optimize your day. Part of working efficiently is knowing what it takes to maintain your peak physical and mental abilities over long stretches of time. As one manager told me, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Are you most efficient right after waking up? Or from midnight to 2 AM? Do you do your best work right after yoga, or while you’re watching football? When I was at one startup, I used to love getting to work at 7 AM, because I had two full hours of silence in the office before my team arrived. And I was able to get home by 6:30 PM for dinner with my family, as well.
4). Set boundaries. I’ve always been a believer in Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you tell yourself that you’re open to working 65 hours per week, as an entrepreneur you’ll probably work the full 65 hours. But if you challenge yourself to get it all done in just 45 hours, you’d have to be much more decisive about what’s going to really have an impact on the business. You’d be much better at executing what you already decided to do. You’d improve your delegation and outsourcing skills. You’d find that urgency can be energizing.
Now, I know that smart phones have made it easy for people to work day and night. (I look back with nostalgia when I worked at Yahoo in 1999 — leaving my desktop computer in my cubicle at 8 PM, and really not doing any work at all until I got back into the office at 8 AM the next day.) Many managers have come to expect 24/7 responses from their employees. But whether you’re the CEO or a mid-level manager, setting boundaries on work hours can help everybody in your organization have a little time for living their lives. At Google, individual teams determine hours when they will not email each other unless there are true emergencies. How many “true emergencies” really happen, on a daily basis? Not many.
5). Go slower to improve your chances for success. Entrepreneurs often feel enormous pressure to build their business as fast as possible. But I encourage you to set your own pace, rather than letting outside factors force you into a worklife which you won’t be able to sustain.
My friend Daniel is a “recovering entrepreneur” of a tech startup in San Francisco. Despite Daniel working 24/7, his startup failed. If he could do it again, what would he do differently? “I would keep focusing on the parts of my life which are important, other than work — friends, family, religion, good health. In order to increase the chances of success, I’d build the business slower, not faster. Going slower would allow me to make better decisions and sustain myself, which means I’d be able to sustain the company, as well.”
6). Remember why you’re doing this work in the first place. You probably know someone who’s had a great career, made lots of money — but has no family, friends, or community. When I talk about purpose in my happiness workshop entitled “Live Before You Die! Find Your Pleasure, Purpose, and Peace”, I like to quote Harvard Psychology Professor Dan Gilbert: “We are happy when we have family. And we are happy when we have friends. And almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”
If you follow the tips outlined above, then I’m confident that you’ll be a lot happier in your journey of building a successful business. And if you’re happier, then your family, friends, employees and customers will probably be a lot happier, too.
I honor the courage of entrepreneurs, and hope that you all get enough sleep tonight! In the comments section, I’d love to hear your suggestions for how you maintain a work / life balance.
And if you liked this post, thanks for sharing it! Jim
Photo Credit: Lee Scott / Unsplash