Successful Entrepreneurs' Secrets to Mastering Work-Life Balance

From Warren Buffet to small-business owners, learn these leaders' smart strategies for creating more work-life balance.
July 08, 2014

Are you living the dream, or are you living a hectic nightmare?


Many entrepreneurs love what they do, but they struggle with achieving work-life balance—that idyllic, elusive goal of working manageable hours (9 to 5, anyone?), having free time to spend with loved ones and on personally fulfilling activities, and, on top of all that, getting enough sleep, healthy meals and exercise to maintain a  well-rounded life.

Unfortunately, work-life balance appears to be the bane of almost every entrepreneur. A recent survey by The Alternative Board, a business coaching organization, found that about half of all U.S. business owners work 50 or more hours per week, and 20 percent work 60 or more hours. Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they feel they work too much, and many would prefer to work fewer than 40 hours a week. The biggest reason they overwork? They feel there are some tasks that only they can handle, tasks they can’t easily delegate out to others.

But being overworked isn't healthy for anyone: It can lead to a number of health problems, most notably stress-induced issues like insomnia and heart disease. A lack of sleep can also lead to accidents and the inability to function at your best during the day.

Beyond health issues, however, is the fact that many entrepreneurs simply want to spend more time with their family. After all, many people start their own businesses to escape the rat race and create their own reality—one that includes determining their own schedule and spending ample time doing the things they love.

With the odds stacked against you, how can you achieve the dream?

Corporate America's (Lack of) Balancing Act

Before the Great Recession, it seemed that U.S. companies were starting to recognize the benefits of a happier, healthier, well-balanced workforce—businesses were even competing to offer their employees the best “soft benefits,” like flexible scheduling that would allow them to more easily juggle their personal lives with work. Unfortunately, the recession seems to have pushed some of those ideals to the back burner.

A few recent studies have shown that U.S. businesses have gotten stingier about allowing employees to set their own work schedules, take afternoons off for personal reasons or make other flexible work arrangements. Last year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision to ban telecommuting and require remote employees to work from an office, despite numerous studies, such as this Stanford University one, that show telecommuting employees are significantly more productive than office-based ones.

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A memo from Jackie Reses, the chief development officer at Yahoo, about the no-work-at-home policy even suggested that any personal reasons to work from home—like waiting for the cable guy—could be deemed inexcusable: “And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

Struggling electronics retailer Best Buy has also taken a step backward on employee work-life balance. Soon after Yahoo’s telecommuting ban went into effect, Best Buy announced it was ending its flexible work program, called “Results-Only Work Environment” (dubbed “ROWE”). That program had allowed employees to create their own work schedules, with the company measuring them instead on their results, not number of hours worked.

But not every company is so heavy-handed with employees' time. Some major companies have fought back and sought more ways to improve their workers’ work-life balance. In Ireland, for instance, Google—long known for promoting flexible schedules—has experimented with requiring its employees to turn in their office devices when leaving for the day. “Googlers reported blissful, stressless evenings," says Laslo Bock, the company’s senior vice president of people operations, according to AOL UK.

Tips From the Top

For small-business owners, however, work-life balance isn’t so straightforward. Especially as their business is growing, many owners find themselves immersed in the day-to-day needs of their company—from finding and hiring talent to marketing the opportunities. It’s hard to break away even for an hour, much less take a vacation.

But it's not an entirely impossible task—over the years, many high-profile entrepreneurs have shared their secrets for how they juggle their ultra-busy professional lives with their personal and social lives. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, says the keys to maintaining balance for him are flexibility, delegating work and prioritizing time for fun.

In a recent blog post, Branson says he doesn’t adhere to a rigid work schedule—rather, he uses various scheduling tools to fit everything into his day as needed. "I find that technology is a great help—I use phone calendars, email reminders and mobile reminders to maneuver my way to each meeting, event and party," he wrote on "You can also use these things to make sure you have time to eat regularly and that you can get a good sleep. My family is the center of my life, so wherever I am in the world, when I have a few minutes, I talk to my wife and kids."

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha,” told MBA students in 2012 that his decision to stay in Nebraska rather than move to New York City—where life is a constant rush and expensive—has helped him maintain a more balanced life. “You may need to do fifty things a day in New York, but I’d rather to do some reading in my office and do one to two things a day and do them well,” he said, according to the website Market Folly.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the popular book Lean In, has argued, “There's no such thing as work-life balance. There's work, and there's life, and there's no balance.” She says women and men just need to find a way to make it all work. As a high-powered female executive, Sandberg commits to only being in the office from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every workday, then going home to eat dinner with her husband and kids. She then works for a few more hours after the kids go to bed. She’s also a big proponent of women insisting that their spouse do half the housework and parenting chores so they're not stuck juggling more than necessary.

In addition to all the advice out there from uber successful entrepreneurs, many business owners have discovered their own solutions to maintaining a healthy and fulfilling balance between managing their company and managing their personal lives. Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs and the strategies they use to help them achieve work/life balance.

Outsourcing Key Tasks

Nanette Miner is founder of The Training Doctor LLC , a Charleston, South Carolina company that custom-designs employee training programs for many Fortune 1000 companies. Miner works about 10 hours per day and takes about 12 weeks of vacation per year.

As a one-person operation, the secret to Miner's time management is to hire out all non-revenue-generating tasks, including administrative work, website maintenance and social media posts. Miner mainly uses eLance, an online staffing site, to find freelancers. She outsources about 40 hours of work per week, including using a woman in South Africa she hired through eLance to transcribe audio recordings, another woman who's an expert at using Microsoft Excel, and a third person who handles search engine optimization on Training Doctor’s website.

Miner also pays a local high school student to come in for about 10 hours per week to handle various tasks, such as assembling and testing the company’s monthly newsletter and posting to the company blog and Twitter. “She does a lot of the tedious and repetitive tasks that don't make me any money," Miner says, "but that have to be done if you want to stay in business.”

She also keeps a board on her office wall on which she prioritizes tasks using Post-It notes, putting them into three columns: to do, in process and done. The board helps Miner plan out how long each activity should take and more easily assign tasks to her part-time employee. “I can quickly see what has to be done and get a sense of priorities and timing,” she notes.

Outsourcing has also afforded her the time to focus on growing her business and keep a manageable schedule that allows her to have a personal life. “There’s no reason for me to learn SEO optimization and how to make a Twitter page,” Miner says. “It would be a waste of my time. I just focus on what I’m good at doing, and I hire everything else out.”

Hiring the Right People

Jim Belosic, founder and CEO of Shortstack, a Reno, Nevada, company that makes software that businesses can use to create online campaigns, says he suffered from poor work-life balance for many years running his one-person graphic design business because he was always working to fulfill client projects on his own. He worked about 80 hours per week with little spare time, and he was doing everything himself to keep his business running.


In 2008, after the birth of his first child, Belosic decided to hire another graphic designer to assist with client work. At first, the transition was painful: The new designer needed a lot of training, which required even more of Belosic's time. But after about six months, the new designer was able to handle all his own tasks, allowing Belosic to reduce his time in the office.

After hiring that first employee, he kept going, and today, he has 17 employees, including administrative assistants and software engineers. He works about 40 hours a week and focuses more on “big picture” issues, such as business growth and management, rather than doing the day-to-day graphic design work. Because he’s trained his employees how to run the business, he's able to take vacations and afternoons off without worrying about whether someone will be around to take a client phone call. Belosic says he’s learned the importance of hiring very competent people, smarter than himself, so he doesn’t have to micromanage and can trust them to keep the business moving smoothly in his absence.

Having employees has made a huge difference on Belosic's family life, allowing him to take vacations and days off when needed. “If they have a two o'clock [event] at my daughter’s school, I can leave work and go see it,” he says. “My wife totally appreciates it. If my kids are sick, I can work at home, and I’m not missed [at work]. It’s just so much easier on the whole household.”

Prioritizing Personal Life

Marianne O’Connor, CEO of Sterling Communications, a 25-employee company with offices in Silicon Valley and Seattle, has always had a hectic work schedule. She and her husband—the CEO of another company—have juggled jam-packed work schedules along with taking care of their two children and three pets for years. She's sometimes had to make difficult sacrifices, once being “reduced to tears” when she missed a school play her daughter was in because she was traveling to London for work.

But a few years ago, when her daughter got very sick and needed ongoing medical attention, O'Connor had a wake-up call. “When you have a child who suddenly becomes very ill, it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced … the sheer number of doctor appointments and emergency room visits.“ O’Connor says the experience was life-altering and changed how she approaches running her company and managing her personal time.


Never knowing if something was going to flare up with her daughter’s illness and require her time was very difficult, she says. “It was really the first time that I had to sort of reach out to my colleagues and ask them to fill in," she explains. "It’s especially hard to do that when I’m the CEO—I’m the problem solver.”

Though her daughter is better now, O’Connor says the two-and-a-half years of intense health issues taught her to take a step back with her work schedule and make family and personal time a priority. She doesn’t fill up her weekends with errands but instead tries to spend quality time with the people who matter most. She takes pottery classes, too—a form of meditation for her. She’s also tried to make work-life balance a bigger priority at her company, stressing that employees not work in the evenings unless there's a very big need to.

There’s no overarching secret to balancing work time with personal time, O’Connor says, except making it a priority. “Before, I didn’t consciously think about how I was spending my spare time. But I’ve learned that you have to take care of yourself first, or everything else gets out of whack.”

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Photos from top: Getty Images; Courtesy of  Shortstack; Courtesy of Sterling Communications