Find Your Balance by Working Smarter, Not Harder

Imagine for a moment that you’re a budding entrepreneur. You have an idea you’re passionate about and you’ve decided to leave your job to pursue it full-time. As you dream about your new professional life, do you stop to consider your lifestyle? Do you have a vision for how you want to enjoy your time outside of work? Or are you resigned to the fact that your new venture will take all of your time, and then some?

You’ve probably heard all the catchphrases about working for yourself. You’re never off the clock. Or people who say, "I can take vacation anytime, which means I’ve never taken one." Or, in an action that speaks louder than words, you get chirpy emails from fellow entrepreneurs at 2 am. If they’re working, shouldn’t you be? It can feel like if you’re not killing yourself by working 24/7, you’re falling behind.

Just as an exercise, think about your ideal entrepreneur lifestyle, but take work out of the equation for the moment.

What vision do you have for your lifestyle? What brings you happiness, what keeps you healthy, and what makes you feel fulfilled? Do you want to spend more time with family and friends? Do you want to have time to work out or attend a class more frequently? Do you want the ability to travel more? Do you simply want more time to relax? All of the above?

The entrepreneur lifestyle can make room for all of these opportunities, but many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of unscheduled time. We gave a lot up to give our businesses a shot, and as a result, we have to make a lot of money, be recognized for what we do, and work as hard as we possibly can every single day to make it happen. That mindset, however, lacks balance. Your vision for business completely overshadows your vision for a happy and healthy lifestyle. In a perfect world, those two visions work together,, leading to you feeling fulfilled both professionally and personally. You don’t have to give up the notion of pouring your heart and soul into your work. You just have to make room for the other things too.

So, how do you strike that balance? How do you keep yourself from getting stressed and overworked while still meeting all your expectations for yourself and your business?

My strategy: work smarter, not harder. Clocking more hours doesn’t mean you’re accomplishing more. Leverage your time and resources so you can work more efficiently and for fewer hours, and change your mindset about unscheduled time. It doesn’t mean that you’re slacking or falling behind;  it means you have the freedom to enjoy the entrepreneurial lifestyle you’ve created for yourself.

Here are my tips for achieving that balance.

Get honest about the costs of overworking yourself, and recognize the benefits of balance.

Too often, we hustle and hustle and hustle until we can’t do it anymore--literally. I’ve heard too many stories of entrepreneurs who have ended up in the hospital because of exhaustion, stress, or underlying health issues that were aggravated by lack of sleep and healthy habits. It can happen more easily than you think. Even if you don’t succumb to obvious health issues, you can’t argue that working around the clock and not sleeping or eating right is good for you. Eventually, you experience burnout. You can no longer perform at the level you expect of yourself, and you and your business are actually suffering because of the unrealistic demands you’re placing on yourself--the opposite of what you intended.

Take stock of how you feel during times when you’re overworking yourself, and compare it to how you feel when you’re well-rested and pursuing a more balanced approach to your life and work. The more you recognize that rest and relaxation can actually positively affect your business, the less likely you are to see the need to slow down as a character flaw. It can be hard to make a shift from that cultural mindset, but the positive reinforcement that comes from succeeding in your business while also feeling good will help.

Identify your golden hours and build your week around them.

I’ve written before about golden hours, which is a term photographers use to refer to the times of day right after sunrise or right before sunset. They’re also sometimes also called the “magic hours” because they’re the ideal times for photographers to work. As professionals, we all have golden hours in our days, when we’re laser-focused and productive and can cruise through tasks or projects without stopping. We also all have hours that are the opposite of golden, when we end up staring at a computer screen, feeling blank, or accomplishing not much of anything, even if we pretend to be getting a lot done. The thing is, as an entrepreneur, you aren’t tied to someone else’s schedule or idea of what a productive day looks like. You’re free to create your own day, anchoring your work to your golden hours and utilizing your less productive chunks of time to take a walk, go to the gym, meet a friend or family member for coffee or lunch, or whatever else makes your day feel balanced.

Determining which slices of the day are your most productive may come naturally (for example, if you have always been a morning person), but if you’re not sure, conduct an experiment to see when you get the most work done. Keep track of your time with an app like Toggl every day for a week. Then, do some analysis. What times of day did you work most efficiently? Are there any patterns about types of work you completed in the morning, afternoon, and evening? For example, just because the morning isn’t a good time for you to complete invoices or accounting tasks doesn’t mean it’s not a good time to read or send emails. Your schedule doesn’t have to work for anyone but you, so make it your own in any way you can.

Something constantly distracting you? Get rid of it—temporarily.

Earlier this year, when I spent a month in Tel Aviv, I fully embraced the concept of working smarter, not harder. It was easy, in fact, due to the 7-hour time difference between Tel Aviv and New York. I slept better at night knowing that, when I opened my inbox in the morning, everyone in New York was still fast asleep, and I didn’t have to rush to return any emails. Every morning, I spent an hour or two answering emails before heading out to spend time with friends or exploring the city. Then, at 2 pm in Tel Aviv (or 9 am in NYC), I got back to work for a few hours, answering more emails, taking client calls, and managing my business. Then I headed out with friends, and knowing that I could answer emails at a leisurely pace when I returned home from the evening out and the next day, I didn’t have the typical pressure hanging over me. Taking time for me, for family, and for friends made such a huge difference in my life--and my business remained successful, even though I was working fewer hours than I had ever worked before.

I realize that it’s not realistic to hop on a plane to another time zone anytime you want a shift in mindset, but there are little things you can do to remove stress or distractions. For me, email is a big distraction: I don’t like to let emails sit unanswered in my inbox during working hours. While I know a few hours doesn’t make a difference (as my time in Tel Aviv confirmed), I hate seeing the bold subject lines waiting for my response. For other people, Facebook is the thing that constantly interrupts their focus. Everyone has their distractions, and fortunately, there are high-tech and low-tech ways to get rid of them.

After you’ve identified your golden hours, think about what keeps you from maximizing their potential even more. If it’s the pinging of your inbox, download an app like Boomerang that can pause new emails from coming in until you say you’re ready. If it’s social media or favorite websites that distract you, use simple tools like Self Control to lock yourself out of specific sites for a designated period of time. You’re not saying goodbye to anything forever; you’re just removing one distracting factor for a short period of time. If you want to go low-tech, a written Post-It note reminder on your desk or computer works well too.