Work-life balance is one of those topics that seems to be perpetually debated. But as any small-business owner knows, work-life balance is a myth, and trying to chase that elusive goal is about as productive as searching for Bigfoot.
Seriously—have you ever achieved work-life balance for more than a few minutes at a time? For most of us, work and life are more like opposite ends of a seesaw. One day, you’re on top of your professional responsibilities, smoothly meeting deadlines and delivering projects or fulfilling orders like a well-oiled machine. The next day, your car breaks down, your kid’s school calls in the middle of your big presentation to tell you she’s sick and needs to be picked up pronto, and when you finally get home from the office, you discover the dishwasher has flooded the kitchen and the dog drank the suds and threw up on your new couch.
The Real World
So how do you deal with the glorious expectations of work-life balance vs. the reality of the work-life seesaw? No one’s got it figured out, but here are five tips that work for me:
1. Accept reality. This is the first step, but it's also the hardest. We’re constantly being sold the dream of work-life balance, whether through articles in magazines or computer ads where happy entrepreneurs “work” at the beach barefoot with a laptop in hand. By recognizing this isn’t reality, you’ll be better able to deal with the unexpected (because you’ll expect it).
2. Develop a support system at work. This shouldn’t be hard—after all, you’re the boss, right?—but most small-business owners, even those with employees, have a hard time letting go and letting others help them get the job done. This not only hurts you, but also your business. If everything depends on you, your business will suffer when the work-life seesaw means you can’t fulfill your role.
Start small by figuring out which tasks only you can perform and which ones someone else can handle. Delegate the small stuff first until you get more comfortable letting go. Let employees manage the projects their way and don’t micromanage them.
Next, build a roster of freelancers or independent contractors you can call on. The more backup options you have, the merrier. Finally, develop a backup plan for those tasks only you can do. This could mean briefing your second-in-command on key projects so he or she can step in when necessary, or simply having a good assistant (in-office or virtual) who can reschedule events and soothe ruffled client feathers when a crisis strikes.
3. Develop a support system at home. If you’ve got people depending on you—your children, a spouse or partner or an aging parent—a backup plan is essential for handling the work-life seesaw. Is there another parent or relative who can pick up your kids from school in a pinch? Can a sibling take over when business prevents you from dealing with your parent’s care? If you don’t have family nearby or friends who are readily available, you may need to enlist paid help such as an in-home caregiver or on-call service, or day care for the kids. When you consider how much such help can save you in stress alone, it’s worth it.
4. Be open with your significant other, friends and family. When the work-life seesaw comes down hard on the work side, your loved ones sometimes feel crunched. Have honest discussions with your family, friends and other loved ones about the situation and what you need—it’s important to know their boundaries. If they feel they’re always playing second fiddle to your business, resentment will build. Make sure you have your blinders off and can see the situation from the other person’s perspective.
5. Take some real downtime. When you’re crazy-busy and things finally slow down for a day or two, sometimes your first instinct is to keep working hard so you can get a jump on the next wave of deliverables and deadlines. Try to resist that urge. Going full-tilt 24/7 will burn you out eventually, so when you do have the luxury of downtime, don’t feel the need to fill it with work. Take a day, an afternoon or at least a few hours to rejuvenate and recharge by spending some time on the “life” side of that seesaw.
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