Entrepreneurs struggle with work-life balance

For hard-working entrepreneurs, the pursuit of work-life balance is a pipe dream. But how can you bring your best efforts if you're a burnt out basket case?

"If it is to be, it’s up to me."

That’s a phrase a friend of mine likes to quote.  And it certainly applies to the success of entrepreneurs.  When you run a small business, the responsibility of making it a success is yours and yours alone.

Sure, you may have a partner, and a team that shares the burden to some extent, but at the end of the day, entrepreneurs make the key decisions and have to find a way to do whatever is demanded to make the business thrive. They put in far more hours and carry more stress than the average employee.

To these hard-working individuals, the pursuit of work-life balance may sound like a pipe dream; nice in theory, but simply impractical to pursue.

But how can you bring your best efforts to your business if you’re a burnt-out basket-case?

Drive to build

Former Dragon Brett Wilson often shares his experience with a lack of work-life balance. He speaks openly about checking himself into rehab, having concluded he was a bona-fide workaholic who needed professional help. His drive to build his Calgary-based investment firm First Energy took a terrible toll on his personal life. 

His marriage fell apart, his relations with his children were damaged, and he was deeply unhappy.

A cancer diagnosis sealed the deal — Wilson decided to turn his life around.  After successful treatment, he patched up things with his kids (they all visited the Dragons’ Den set over the three seasons their dad was with the show), and donated millions to various charitable causes.  

It was clear he'd examined his values, and decided professional achievement wasn’t really the key to true happiness.  I often heard him ask "What price are you willing to pay for success?"

Dragons' Den has seen a number of examples of the havoc entrepreneurship can wreak on a person's life. One was the case of a gentleman who came to pitch his modular deck-building concept, back in our first season.  During the course of his presentation to the Dragons, he admitted his wife had left him because of his unrelenting commitment to a business that just wasn’t going anywhere.  It was sad. 

"It's a juggling act for sure," says Darrell Bachmann of Kickspike, a product that  inspired a bidding war among the Dragons when he came into the Den back in 2008.    

This entrepreneur from Penticton, B.C. patented a new type of golf shoe with retractable spikes, and has developed a new safety-oriented version of the shoe (for use on ice and snow) aimed at labourers and elderly people.  

So far, Bachmann says he’s satisfied with his level of balance.  His wife Colleen is at home with their three children aged 7, 10 and 15, and he says that gives him peace of mind.  But with a lot of business travel on the horizon, he’s somewhat concerned. 

 "We’re just about to start the manufacturing in Barrie, Ontario," says Bachmann.  "I can't really say exactly how the work-life balance is going to work, but it’s not going to be good."

Here are some suggestions for entrepreneurs who think they may have too much focus on their business and not enough on their own well-being:

  • Take time when you can.  It’s not always possible, but when it is possible to take a break, go for it.  Maybe it’s a month, maybe it’s 10 minutes. Take it, and enjoy it. Fully.
  • If you really want that break to feel like one, turn off your technology.  BlackBerries and cellphones supposedly make us more efficient — what they really do is make us more available for work! For many of us, it becomes a reflex action to constantly check our devices.  Sometimes it seems they control us, instead of vice versa.  If we don’t take charge, they’ll invade our every waking moment.  A real break means putting away the electronics, even for 10 minutes.
  • Recognize that you don’t need to revolutionize your life with grand, sweeping changes in order to achieve balance. "With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life," says Nigel Marsh.  He’s a former CEO of an Australian advertising firm who has written a couple of books on the subject of work-life balance.  (Both titles make me laugh:  Fat, Forty, and Fired, and Overworked & Underlaid.)  One of his points is that big sweeping changes are difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  Small adjustments are more manageable, and can do the trick.
  • Marsh also talks about considering the timeframe on which we choose to judge our balance. Family demands vary depending on the age of your children, just as businesses demand more of our time during the start-up phase. What we need in the way of balance changes depending on our stage of life, but you can't wait til you’re retired to relax. You have to find balance along the way. 
  • Establish boundaries.  Look at your schedule and pencil in personal time, whether it's for family or just for yourself.  Maybe dinner time has to be free of work talk, or Sunday evenings are sacred.  If you have a seasonal type of business, maybe your slow month becomes a time to recharge and restore yourself.
  • Make work-life balance a priority.  Life zooms past so much of the time, and unless you think about what you want, and make a schedule, that personal or family time just won’t happen. It’s just too easy for work to fill the hours. 

As the old story goes, when people on their deathbeds talk about their regrets, they never say "I wish I'd worked more."

Australia’s Nigel Marsh hopes that society as a whole can adjust its definition of success, "away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins, to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well-lived looks like."

Well said.