4 Warning Signs That Startup Founders Are Screwing Up Their Personal Lives
As the co-founder of a startup now in its fourth year of life, I'm not surprised to see that, according to a recent Kabbage survey, 29 percent of the small-business owners it surveyed said they spend more than 50 hours a week working, and 86 percent take their work home on weekends and holidays (like the just-passed Memorial Day holiday).
I'm not surprised because I've done those things myself.
A startup has a lot in common with a child, after all; and making sure any 3-year-old -- whether human or business -- can become self-sufficient requires a nearly 24/7 commitment. So, just as happens with a child, an entrepreneur generally finds that that company becomes a core component of his or her identity. In short, you can't help but want to spend all your time with it.
However, there comes a point when neglecting your non-work life in favor of your startup becomes toxic -- not only for you, but also for the company you created.
When to draw the line
I know I'm working too long, too hard and too dumb when I start choosing unimportant work over interactions with friends and family. If you land a major account after spending long hours working on a presentation, that's great. But how do you define the importance of that account in relation to your own well-being? Or the overall health of your company?
I have a tendency to use work as an escape from my social life. Unfortunately, that leads to lower-quality work. Most entrepreneurs work a lot because they genuinely enjoy it, but when you're working long hours just to get away from the rest of your life, you're no longer motivated by the right reasons. And that, to me, is where the line between a healthy and unhealthy work-life balance lies (even if that line can be somewhat gray and blurry).
The key, then, is to recognize when you cross that line. Simply be aware of when your work is suffering because you spend too much time on it or when your personal life is suffering because you spend too much time escaping into work. Here are a few warning signs to look out for:
1. Neglecting exercise
Exercise can seem like a waste of time -- not only because it’s time you could spend working, but also because it makes you too tired to get anything done afterward.
Or, at least, those are the excuses I used when I stopped exercising after starting Ora Organic. When I finally decided to commit to both physical and mental fitness, however, I quickly saw how untrue those lines of reasoning were.
It doesn’t take long to get past the "tired physically, tired mentally" stage. When you commit to exercise, you enjoy it more. When you enjoy it, you feel more energized. Also, there are a lot of hours in a day, and many types of exercise -- daily jogging, for example -- take up only two to four hours of the 168 hours you have in a week.
After reserving this small part of my week for exercising, I’ve felt more confident about myself and my work, which successful entrepreneurs -- Richard Branson, for one -- carry over into their companies. Branson addressed the importance of exercise last year in a blog post, writing, "I seriously doubt that I would have been as successful in my career (and happy in my personal life) if I hadn’t always placed importance on my health and fitness."
2. Always being "on"
According to Larry Rosen, psychology professor and author of The Distracted Mind, smartphones have enabled compulsive behavior that can negatively affect our minds. In an interview with CNBC, Rosen said, "Most people check their phone every 15 minutes or less, even if they have no alerts or notifications."
I've seen this occur in my own family, and I can tell you that it has a detrimental effect on both the "always-on" user and the family as a unit. Having a family member constantly anticipating work can feel devaluing.
Excessive phone use also leads your colleagues and business partners to think that your time is less valuable, which will exacerbate the problem because they'll give you more work. Then, because you'll be working more, you’ll lose your sense of objectivity. If you can't approach something as a person rather than an entrepreneur, you'll distort valuable experiences that you could be having.
The solution is simple: Turn off your phone! That means letting people chase you. It means letting things happen outside your control. It might take a while to find a phone-free rhythm that works for you, but you'll be happier and more successful when you do.
3. Not branching out
Being friends with your co-workers is great, but it can be unhealthy to spend all your time with the same people. Whenever I think about this phenomenon, I think of people I got to know in a midsize software company. They became a tight-knit group both inside and outside the office.
This was great for office morale, but then these people started making decisions together without consulting stakeholders, and that led to a poor product update for their customers. This tight-knit group had become so internally focused on their relationships that they forgot how to connect with others.
According to a study published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, social connectedness is one of the strongest indicators of mental health. The trick is to make some of those connections with people outside your team. Finding individuals with similar interests but different backgrounds can bring a fresh perspective to your work and give you new experiences and connections to use down the line.
4. Losing intellectual curiosity
Successful entrepreneurs excel in operating without a blueprint. They're problem-solvers who learn quickly. In Europe, entrepreneurs help build curricula in a variety of fields to help fellow entrepreneurs diversify their skill sets. Founders are naturally equipped to seek and spread knowledge -- but first everything has to be in balance.
Learning both inside and outside of work is a key component of work-life balance. Devoting too much of your intellectual curiosity to just one or the other, however, can have a negative impact. I spent a few years building a specific skill set within a software organization, and while it was valuable to the organization, it was not overly valuable to my career, and it certainly didn't add much to my personal well-being.
Once I realized that there was a lot I didn't know (in my case, about application and website development), and I forced myself to attend classes and pursue projects outside of work, I started developing the skills that helped create my current company, Ora.
I still actively learn things that seem unrelated to everyday work (such as music production) but have nonetheless helped bolster both my personal feelings of fulfillment and my ability to assess creative work effectively.
Consider the parenting experience, with with which I began above: After a couple of years of sleepless nights and cleaning up messes they didn't create, all parents discover that self-care is a vital part of successful parenting. Likewise, striking a fulfilling work-life balance is one of the most important responsibilities any entrepreneur has. Protecting your mental and emotional health will help you nurture a healthy company. So, why not start doing that today?