In my last blog post, I discussed my career as a travel agent and how I leveraged old-school retail techniques to have greater success in ecommerce. What I didn’t tell you was why I left that career. Simply put, I was exhausted.
I had no work/life balance. Weekdays I went into work at 6 a.m. (so the phones would be open at 9 a.m. in NY) and left work at 9 p.m. I worked shorter days on weekends, but still I was working 7 days per week. I worked 80 to 100 hours per week with no life outside my job. Commission-based sales, as this was, encouraged these work habits because if you aren’t working you aren’t making sales.
I sat for 15 hours each day, ate fast food for every meal, gained weight, and lacked energy. This made me unfulfilled and unhappy. I left the job that I loved and went back to college so that I could prepare for a better career that allowed me to live my life more fully.
Going to college full-time forced a change in my routine. I actually went places and did things that weren’t “work” related! I forged new relationships and opened myself up to new experiences. I was broke, but I was happy. I’d rediscovered the “life” part of the work/life balance ratio.
Now that I’m an ecommerce entrepreneur, I frequently find that my old work habits resurface. I have important relationships that need nurturing, and that can’t happen if I work 100 hours/week. I find myself searching again for work/life balance. Below, I share some of my “balance steps” which are helping me in the hopes that they may serve as resources in your work/life balance journey.
Before any other balance steps are taken, the first thing you need to do is define what work/life balance will mean to you. What is missing in your life? More time with family? More time to go out to the theater? More travel? Before you can plan for it, you need to define what work/life balance will look like for you.
In his Ted Talk (above), author Nigel Marsh does a nice job of explaining the process he went through to answer these questions. Essentially, he came to realize that work/life balance isn’t about a regimented schedule with X% work time and Y% family time but instead it was a holistic approach to this balance for which he was striving.
Once you have an understanding of what work/life balance means for you, you need to have an open and honest conversation with the people in your personal life who will be most affected by your work schedule.
It is critical to have this conversation so there can be a consensus with everyone involved. Work together to set boundaries for your work time, and then be prepared to gently (but firmly) enforce those boundaries.
Once you have a consensus on expectations, do everything possible to meet those expectations. If your loved ones understand that you need to work 12-hour days Monday through Friday so you can have weekends free, then make absolutely sure you do not work weekends but instead give them the time you promised.
Melissa Cooley, a career consultant, offers some great advice on setting boundaries. Suggestions include clear visual signs when working from home that indicate when you can (and cannot) be interrupted, scheduling certain tasks when you are certain to have alone time, and having realistic expectations about what you can truly accomplish when there are other people in your work space so you don’t set yourself up for failure.
I advocate having a prepared boundary statement that never varies.
This boundary statement sends a clear message to your loved one that s/he is important to you but this is work time and you cannot be disturbed. For example, if your 13-year old bounces into your office and wants you to drive her to the mall after school (without notice), you could say “I love you and I understand this is important for you, but this is work time for me. I know you love me, and I hope you can respect my schedule is important, too.” Repeat this boundary statement often enough, without fail, and your teenage daughter will give up or get bored and you can get back to work.
Creating a physical boundary between your work and your home life is also important. If you work from home, make sure your office is completely focused on your work. Is it a catch-all storage room plus office? Is it a guest bedroom plus office? Is it a TV room plus office? Refocus your space to be purely work related, and close the door behind you when you leave for the night.
Find your centering ritual
First thing each morning, it is important to have a morning “ritual” that you follow which can help you get centered and focused for the day ahead. This centering ritual will be very different for everyone, the core tenet is to focus your thoughts on the day ahead.
For me, my centering ritual is coffee plus coaching. I bring my mug of coffee to a comfy chair, put my feet up, and listen to the daily podcast of my business coach. I have a notebook and pen nearby so I can make notes as ideas pop into my head. I minimize external distractions, turning off instant messaging and putting my phone out of reach. I listen. I think. I consume huge amounts of caffeine. This takes about 15-20 minutes, maybe a little longer if I am inspired and need to re-listen or I am writing extensive notes. This is the calmest part of my day. I use it to open my mind in a stress-free environment and to motivate me for whatever is next.
My husband’s centering routine is different. He reads his favorite blogs on the iPad while doing his morning stretching routine. Others may do yoga, meditate, listen to music, exercise, or other activities. The core element for your centering ritual is finding something that is relaxing, enjoyable, and inspiring and then spending time with that activity as you begin your day.
JB Glossinger, author and life coach, advocates the “Sacred Six” method for checklists. This approach, also called the Ivy Lee Method (it originated with Ivy Lee for Charles Schwab when he was CEO of Bethlehem Steel), is simple.
- Before you leave work at night, write (on paper) the 6 manageable tasks you need to accomplish tomorrow – tasks with will help you reach your core business goals.
- Go home. Leave work at work. Be with your family. Have a life.
- The next morning, use this list as your blueprint for the day. Start at the top, and cross items off as they are accomplished. If you are distracted, use the list to center you and get back on track.
- At the end of the day, anything you haven’t completed goes on tomorrow’s list.
I really like this approach because it is simple and manageable. You can use the list to make sure the most important business tasks are accomplished, and you are always working towards your business goals.
It may seem obvious, but keeping a calendar is crucial to keep you focused on your journey for a work/life balance. When you use a calendar tool such as iCal, Google Calendar, or Outlook, you are able to stay on track with your appointments.
I recommend finding a calendar tool that works in concert with your smart phone. For example, I have a Windows phone. It synchronizes the calendar in my phone with my laptop computer for free. Regardless of which device is in front of me, I am able to stay on track with the webinars, client meetings, and online radio programs (such as eBay Radio) that help me stay up to date with industry developments.
I also find time to schedule “thinking time” on a regular basis. Setting time aside Thursday or Friday mornings is a good opportunity for me to look back at the past week and organize my thoughts for changes, improvements, or learning opportunities that can help me develop my business going forward.
Apps, tools, and outsourcing
The most important change to my business operations that has helped me with balance has simply been leveraging new technologies so I become more efficient. Services such as GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping, Terapeak, and Sellbrite help me work as efficiently as possible. While they do have a monthly fee, I realize if I were to spend time manually doing the research and record keeping they facilitate it would take 10+ hours of my time each week. Valuing my time at as little as $25/hour, I know that if these services cost me less than $1,000 per month ($25/hour x 10 hours/week x 4 weeks/month) then it is completely worth my time to pay for their services. This adds 40 hours/month back into my schedule!
The same is true for outsourcing tasks. I did analysis on my listing flow to see if there were any bottlenecks in operations. I discovered I had a huge one: photography. I estimated that I was spending 40 minutes per listing just on pictures (taking the photos and editing them). Because I was only a fair photographer and was working with cheap lights, my pictures were not good at all. I was overcompensating for bad pictures with extensive photo editing. I realized I could hire community college students in the photography program to do a much better job, as they had both the skill and the professional quality equipment that I was lacking. Because they are students, they are willing to work for much less than a professional photographer ($10-25 per hour, depending on where you live) for the opportunity to build their portfolio with catalog work and add a client reference. This has saved me both time and money while helping the students with their career goals.
Consider where you are spending your time in operations on a regular basis. Is there a tool or app that can help you work more efficiently, even if there is a cost? Is there a skilled person you can hire to do part of the work flow more effectively than you could?
If you run your own ecommerce company, your success is dependent on your health. If you don’t take care of yourself, it will eventually catch up with you. Remember what I said earlier? I left my career as a travel agent because I wasn’t healthy. Staying healthy is a critical component to finding work/life balance so you are able to spend quality time with your friends and family when you aren’t working and so you can optimize productivity when you are working.
The two primary health concerns that stem from working for yourself in e-commerce are the effects of stress and ‘sitting disease’.
The CDC recognizes stress as a serious health concern, and defines it this way: “Job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”
When you are a solo-preneur, you are responsible for every aspect of the business from marketing to office management to order fulfillment. Success or failure rests purely on your shoulders. The resulting job stress can be significant.
The CDC gives the following early warning signs for stress: headache, sleep disturbances, difficulty in concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, and low morale. At best, unresolved stress can lead to lower productivity. At worst, studies have shown that cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders, cancer, ulcers, and impaired immune function (among other concerns).
If you think you are affected by job stress, there are resources at the CDC which can help you make the needed changes. You should also check with your doctor as there may already be physical affects from your job stress that need attention.
In 2010, two studies were released that brought the dangers of extensive sitting into clear focus. First, a British study linked prolonged periods of sitting to a greater likelihood for disease. At the same time, Australian Researchers reported that each hour sitting and watching TV is linked to an 18% increase in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Globally, the average person sits 7.7 hours per day. As ecommerce entrepreneurs, we surely sit much more than that! (Click here to calculate your daily sitting time.)
The Mayo Clinic clearly outlines the myriad of health concerns that can arise from sitting too much. “Researchers have linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
This article from Harvard scares me the most: Sitting too much Linked to an Earlier Death. The evidence is clear, we need to stand up!
After first learning about sitting disease, I immediately made changes to my office. I’ve acquired a large tall table and put it on risers so I now have a standing work station. There is still a comfy chair in my office for when I need to sit, but I have drastically reduced the amount of time I sit. I also try to stand more during non-work hours and watch less TV. Cooking our dinner from scratch every night has the dual benefit of healthier food and standing more – which doesn’t happen with take out. I’ve already noticed drastic improvements in my cardiovascular health and posture, and will be exploring ways to reduce sitting even further.
Other solutions include more exercise (some people have bought or built treadmill desks), rotating your work around different parts of the office so you are regularly moving, and taking the stairs instead of elevators.
Your path to find work/life balance will be ongoing. There isn’t a magic formula that you can follow, or perfect schedule that will always work. Consider work/life balance as a philosophy you try to live by, rather than a goal which can be reached. Learn to value all parts of your life, and enjoy the journey to reach your unique balance.