Startup Diaries: One Hand for Oneself & One for the Ship

This hot summer seems like the perfect time to write about something that gives many entrepreneurs the creeps.

Among many other problems that we battle every day,  taking some time off from work seems to be at the top of the list. You can’t call yourself an entrepreneur if you’re not willing to make sacrifices for your startup, or put in more work than the usual employee, but how much work is too much?

Two weeks ago I was sitting at my desk, staring at the screen and trying to come up with amazing ideas for a new design. A day went by in this way and, at the end of it, I hadn’t accomplished anything.  That’s when I decided that enough is enough and I should take the next week off. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize when your productivity drops below zero – the signs are there for everyone to see. It was obvious that I was pushing myself needlessly, without any visible results except getting more tired than I already was.

So, I took the next week off and enjoyed my free time. Sort of.

Mistake #1

Because my holiday wasn’t planned, it overlapped with me looking for a new place to stay. I wasn’t able to get away from the city right away, so from Saturday to Wednesday I was imprisoned at home, waiting for the real estate agent to call. It was too hot to go outside, so it’s needless to say I had to fill my time by watching TV and going to the occasional house seeing. By Wednesday, I was as pleasant as a porcupine.

Mistake #2

I knew the rest of the team was still at the office, so why not call and check up on them? I feared nothing was getting done properly because I wasn’t there, a familiar feeling for many entrepreneurs, I’m sure. I felt slightly left out when I concluded they were managing just fine without me.

Mistake #3

Without a list of planned activities to keep me occupied, guilt set in quite fast. I knew I was too tired to actually work, but that didn’t help from feeling guilty for not working. I’m sure many entrepreneurs face this type of irrational guilt that sets in quite fast whenever we are doing something not related to our business.

I’m not a terminal case, but I know this is a serious issue that plagues almost every entrepreneur I have met. I do not work more than 40-50 hours per week, but I have seen many people that do.  They always say stuff like “I’m going to take some time off after I’m done with this and that”, but there are always more tasks to finish, more meetings to be held, more goals to accomplish, in a never-ending cycle. I believe some of them realize they are putting in a huge amount of work, but are unwilling to stop.  What pushes them is a core belief that this is the only way for their business to succeed, that if they step back even a little everything will crumble. Sometimes they are being unfair to their families, asking them to understand their situation, effectively bullying them into accepting the current state of affairs or move on without them.

It’s not a joke – some entrepreneurs have managed to literally work themselves to death.

Like I said, I’m not one of these extreme cases, but I understand their reasons. Ten years ago I was working from home, every day of the week. I had no schedule, no time off or holidays. Since I was at home all the time, I couldn’t separate my personal time from work. Whenever a client sent an “urgent” task, I pushed my personal needs aside and got it done. To this day, I struggle with the side effects of this method of working and have to stop myself from seeing my Inbox as a “to-do” list.

My schedule improved once we moved to an office. For a couple of years, we also worked on Saturdays, but eventually migrated to a normal Monday to Friday schedule. Call it what you will – I might have gotten older and lost some of my energy, but I believe it has more to do with the work itself. It got more intense, the projects got bigger and the meetings multiplied. Instead of coding, I had to manage the team and several clients, which fragmented my time and consumed more energy.

The balance was again disrupted with the birth of our startup. Since work is never done in a startup, it now introduced the guilt-feeling of never finishing my tasks.

I recently read a book called “Winning without losing”. It collects stories about very successful entrepreneurs that have achieved the work-personal life balance. These people are like gods, living in another plane of existence. I basically managed to “keep the balance” for 3 days before a set of urgent tasks came and it all went down the drain. Our CEO even laughed at me and said something like “Oh, you thought this book was for programmers?”.

So, I’m aware I’m not an expert at balancing personal life and work. However, I can recognize that pushing my personal life to the side doesn’t make me a better entrepreneur. It just makes me tired, grumpy and ineffectient. Besides short holidays, I have my own stress relief methods that I apply on a regular basis, like going to the gym or reading.

I don’t think anyone should sacrifice their well-being for the sake of their business, no matter how important it is to them. There’s a saying: “One hand for oneself and one for the ship” that perfectly describes how I feel.  I’m aware I’m still a long way from achieving true balance, but I believe I can get there at some point, as long as I am willing to try.