There is never enough time. The whole, “the days are long, but the years are short”, truism of parenting only bears out to be more and more true as the early years of infancy, toddlerhood and small people whips past you at alarming speed. As an entrepreneur there are always more ideas, challenges, puzzles to solve and things to get on top of with our businesses than there is time. No matter how many things we cross off our to-do lists, it feels like they will never be empty.
For the last while I was deeply embroiled in my businesses busiest quarter, while also organizing a conference for women entrepreneurs, trying to work on some personal projects, raising a 4 year old and trying to carve out time for life. Time is my most precious resource right now, which leads me to being somewhat obsessed with it.
Aside from constantly fetishizing people I see lingering over coffee and friends, these crunch times (and they come around cyclically) illicit the following unhelpful internal struggles for me as a parent and business leader:
In short, in addition to feeling exhausted and generally tapped out, I also feel guilt, frustration and just a soupcon of self-loathing. It’s super fun.
Just in case this hasn’t started to resonate for you yet, here are some really concrete examples from my current internal monologue.
Not doing the above things is having the following impact (in correlated order):
The other overarching impact that all this regret and frustrating has, which I was finally able to really clearly articulate when talking about the challenges of finding time when speaking with a friend recently is this: in a time when I feel like there’s no time, no mental space to maneuver, I’m crowding my brain with the energy of regret, worry and frustration, which at this point is likely taking up almost as much space as just sitting down and tackling the above would actually occupy, if I just took the first damn step.
This brings me to the ultimate point of this post, which is not in fact to dive into my own personal procrastination list, but rather to acknowledge that we all do this. It’s normal. Particularly when we’re maxed, which let’s face it is at some point in time all of us. And while I don’t think I’ve got this all sorted out yet, I’m at least getting the clarity I need to apply a simple framework that will hopefully help make a shift.
Whenever I notice that something is starting to live on the edge of my mind and occupy my thoughts as one of those things I should be doing, or shouldn’t be ignoring I’m committing to the following:
And the ironic thing is, that even if I don’t actually devote time to addressing the problem at hand, as soon as I start taking steps to solve it, that thing that was nagging at me, that I was never getting time to focus on, suddenly takes up less space and time and I can get other things done more effectively. It’s almost like a little piece of folding space and time whereby it feels like the mental burden lightens, and my energy to get through the other things in front of me increases, as soon as I acknowledge the things that I felt like I had no time to deal with. I suspect I’m going to have to keep learning this lesson for a few years yet, but I’m starting with the ones I’ve listed here, and we’ll see if some positive reinforcement doesn’t help me learn the lesson a little more quickly.
(Photo by the ever talented Anastasia Photography)
Perhaps the one single piece of parental advice that threw into stark contrast the difference between entrepreneurs/self-employed mums and those who are on some kind of maternity leave was the “nap when they nap” nugget. Now, with some distance, I can see that it was intended as a kindness and a strategy for self-preservation, but at the time to be perfectly honest it was akin to someone passing nails over a chalkboard. You see nap time was, for the better part of the first year of my daughter’s life, my childcare plan. That is, if I was with her, nap time was when I worked.
Was that the best thought out childcare plan? Decidedly not and please don’t let me leave you with the impression that it was my only childcare plan. My daughter was in childcare with a woman who was close to our family when she was about 7 months old, and prior to that we got by on a combination of nannying from my step-daughter, the flexible hours of both her dad and my worklife, and yes: nap time.
I used to marvel at what I could get done during a nap time. Like most unpredictable little humans, my daughter took a while to establish a nap routine or any kind of predictability in her nap time frames. I had returned to work when she was 3 weeks old (from home) and at the time was doing both business development — which meant cultivating new clients, proposal writing, emails and phone calls — and managing an office move, including finding a new office to move to. We have a basement office, and I would literally put her to sleep in her cradle (and later crib) and then run downstairs, fire up the computer and go. If there were a productivity Olympics I would have medaled in re-prioritizing lists, cranking through a to-do list and multi-tasking. For sure. As anyone who has been there knows, what you have when you have a napping newborn is anywhere from 20 to say 80 minutes (the upper end being about as common as a unicorn) before they wake up. So, while your regular working life, let’s all admit it, may include a quick check in on Facebook, some browsing through Twitter and maybe even scanning emails newsletters, I was all business. All the time. It was like some twisted beat the clock game show where your prize at the end was most likely to change a diaper and breast feed (again).
At the time, the advice which was typically delivered in a sing-songy voice from the time I first started showing straight through to the days when I would desperately walk a crying (and not napping) baby around the neighbourhood in an Ergo, hoping she would drift off in time for the conference call I was supposed to be on in 15 minutes, made me rather rage-y. Mostly it made me cranky because I was really freakin’ tired and could use that nap, but also because I often felt like the entrepreneurial part of my life was not given much weight by other compared to the role I was stumbling into as a mum. Ultimately however, it was a choice I was making in order to spend more of my daughter’s waking time with her. She went to childcare much earlier than I had hoped/planned for three days a week, but if I could spend her nap times working (and after she went to bed, but we can talk about that another time), I was able to cobble together enough work time to spend those days with her. And while I can count on my fingers (of one hand) the number of times I did in fact nap while she napped, I don’t regret those lost naps nearly as much as I cherish some of the memories I have at the cost of some sleep deprivation.
It’s that time of year when resolutions/intentions for the year are still flying around fast and furious (though some of us may have already set them aside). Many of us have some kind of intention for the year that has to do with achieving more balance/less stress/better connections with people. I was asked by a client to contribute to an article about one small change for the year, and mine was about being shifting some more energy back to friendships this year. I know that in order to make that happen in an already daunting schedule, I’m going to have to spend less time on something else, or more importantly just free up a bit of mental headspace.
Last year I wrote a post on Medium about Giving Social Media A Rest. In that post I didn’t talk about taking a total break, deleting my Social Media accounts or declaring an internet fast. What I did at the time (and have tried to stay on track with, though will admit to not always succeeding) is tried to not be online all the time. Sounds perhaps equal parts simple and strange right? I’ll admit, as a web professional and a person with a smart phone, laptop and who spends most of every work day sitting in front of a rather lovely large shiny computer, finding a way to spend less time online is both a bit foreign and frankly a bit hard.
Knowing that I couldn’t commit to any whole scale changes — let’s face it, even if I packed it all in, shut down the digital firm and started making artisanal donuts, I’d like spend a good chunk of my day on Twitter — I tried to work some very small, but high impact changes into my every day life. I started to not take my phone with me when I pop out for lunch at work, to not start checking my email in the elevator on the way up to the office, and to allow myself to just sit on a park bench while my daughter plays and actively encourage myself to yes, get a little bit bored. I’ll admit it all felt a bit strange at first, and it seemed a little silly. I mean really what’s a little Facebook to kill time while you wait in line? But the benefits of this little habit change were huge. I found that by giving my mind just these little moments, that I came to think of as akin to fallow time, my anxiety levels decreased and new thoughts, ideas and solutions to challenges emerged. And not all of it was profound, some of it was just new thoughts about what to make for dinner, or friends I wanted to reach out to. Other times it was new ways of thinking about a major challenge at work, or how we might restructure our proposal/sales process. Some of them have had significant positive impacts already. Others resulted in really delicious soup for dinner. Either way, the rest was hugely beneficial.
And, once I stopped, I started noticing some daily habits around how plugged in I was that weren’t serving me. For example, I had a habit of checking my email during my commute from work to daycare. My thinking ran along the lines of “I’m on the bus, or I have 5 minutes now, and I can sort out a few emails to get ahead start on tomorrow.” What actually happened however, was that my head would go right back into work, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. In our family life, my partner doesn’t get home until around 7 when he finishes work, so that post-work time is time when I’m alone with my daughter, making dinner and I can’t solve any work problems in any meaningful way, or respond to queries and new ideas. Checking my email was a daily exercise in frustration. Either there was a problem I wanted to fix, but couldn’t or an idea that was sparked that I couldn’t follow through on in a meaningful way and that I’d risk losing momentum on. Stopping that little habit, had no impact on my work productivity (my staff know that if they need me for a real emergency they need to call or text me), but it allowed me to actually be with my daughter, be at home, take care of what was right in front of me and bring my anxiety levels down a notch. And, instead of greeting my partner by saying “hi, I’ve been waiting for you, I’m going downstairs to answer these emails, see ya!” and disappearing, we can actually just connect, eat dinner and enjoy our evening (or not as the day dictates, because not checking my email as often has sadly not solved all my life’s challenges).
As I mentioned above, I’m not 100% with this habit shift. And I need to remind myself to get back to it when I drift. It’s also frankly not always possible as any business owner will know. Sometimes there are things that I do need to check in on, and those times I count myself lucky that I have all the technology accessible to me to make that relatively painless. But, when it really isn’t necessary, I try to give myself a break and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
(Photo by Anastasia Photography, 2010)
In the days, weeks and months that followed the birth of my daughter, knitting saved my butt numerous times. Prior to the arrival of my daughter, I had been a big crafter/sewist/stitcher/crocheter but never a knitter. I’m not sure if it was something to do with the hormone surges, the inspiration of a few beautiful knit pieces we were given, or the fact that my neighbourhood boasts one of the best yarn shops/communities in town, that happened to be just the perfect distance for a walk with a newborn, but somehow I caught the knitting bug.
My first project was a sweater, which didn’t turn out too shabbily for the record, and I made legions of errors with it, each of which either the internet or the patient gals at our yarn shop helped me with. As I was cramming in work every time my daughter napped (and admittedly sometimes while she was momentarily distracted with something on the floor), attempting to keep on top of sleep and eating, and of course spend time with her, I found I was really mourning the loss of time to do any of the types of creative hobbies I had previously enjoyed. Starting a big sewing project, when I had little time to build momentum on it, for example, just seemed too daunting. But knitting. Knitting was something I could do for 5 minutes at a time, then put down, pick back up, repeat. It was a revelation for a person who craves accomplishing things, but found herself with little time to do so.
Now, some studies have shown that knitting actually can reduce stress, similar to including a meditative practice, yoga or deep breathing exercises in your life, and I did in fact notice benefits from stress reduction as well. But, honestly the biggest gain for me out of knitting was relearning how to be productive in smaller spaces of time. Prior to having my daughter I, like most pre-parents of a newborn, felt like I never had enough time, and course post-baby I couldn’t believe how spoiled for vast amounts of uninterrupted time I had been. With a newborn I had to get used to the idea that, at least until I found childcare, I was going to need to get work done without the luxury of consecutive spans of time. And, that in this new paradigm, the only way that work was going to get done, was to get comfortable with picking it up when I had a few minutes, even if I knew it wasn’t enough time to finish the task in front of me.
That shift to thinking about getting things in snatches of time, whenever I could get them, and in the case of knitting being able to actually see something come together as those little bits of time added up, was a big revelation and learning for my post-baby productivity. Undoubtedly the built in stress relief was a big bonus as well.
(Photo by Flickr User: Elitatt)
“For the love of all that is holy, please no work-life balance sessions.” This is one of the first pieces of input I received from a dear friend who I had asked to help me co-produce a conference series for women entrepreneurs. I laughed and promised her it would be so. We’re longtime friends so I knew that what she meant by her pleading was some combination of:
If this is a women’s business conference, please give me sessions/learnings on women’s business issues. Please.
I’m tired of being told that the thing I should be paying attention to most as a women in business is balancing my work and my life in some kind of elusive perfect harmony.
Mixed with just a soupcon of “I’m not really even sure this mythical work-life balance things exists, so stop wasting my time.”
I laughed as she made this request because I feel exactly the same way. Though I’ll admit if I saw a session that billed itself as really, truly promising to deliver on the fabled and long sought work-life balance panacea I would likely be in the front row.
So why, if I’m tired of tretises on work-life balance, write about it? Well because being tired of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t plague my thoughts or many conversations I have about juggling entrepreneurship, family and a sense of self. Lately I find myself doing less self-flaggelation about my inability to reach that perfect state of balance and more mindful reframing of what I think the real issue is.
My shift has been gradual, but it was really solidified when I had the honour of interviewing Janie Hoffman, CEO of Mamma Chia on stage at a keynote event. Janie has built Mamma Chia into a million dollar organic beverage company in just a few short years. Prior to her career as an entrepreneur tour de force, she made her living as a meditation leader, making her uniquely qualified to speak to both the drive that business success requires and the value that mindfulness and balance can bring. When asked about work-life balance she said she says the only way she can reconcile balance with entrepreneurial drive is to see it as a longer game. I’m paraphrasing wildly, but her example was something along the lines of “sometimes I’ll get almost no sleep for 3 weeks, eat little more than avocado on toast (and chia of course) and push myself really hard to make a deadline that just is not going to shift so that I can have more immediate balance in my life. Then, when I’m done, my body and mind are exhausted and I know I need to dial it back and engage in some serious self-care if I’m not going to burn out. I know what my limit is, and I don’t exceed it. But in the middle of those three weeks does it look like balance? No way, but over the long run does it? It has to.” Her example gave permission to those who want (or need) to strive for an ambitious achievement in their careers (whatever that may be) to throw things out of equilibrium for a while, and also reminds us that we need to then tip the scales back if we’re going to come through the other side as effective leaders.
Maybe it was the timing (my daughter was about 2 at that point) or maybe it was the avocado toast example, but Janie got me thinking about balance the way that I learned to think about toddler eating habits, again as a longer game. For anyone who’s little person doesn’t eat perfectly balanced meals at any sitting, the initial experience can be worrying. It’s easy to find yourself concerned that nothing but applesauce, rice crackers and yogurt for three days straight do not a nutritious diet make. As in many things, I was really lucky to have several close friends who had kids older than mine, and I remember one friend in particular easing my fears that somehow my daughter was going to suffer malnutrition. One day at the library when I expressed my concerns she said, “Oh ya he’d eaten nothing but yogurt and cucumbers for a week, then yesterday he ate a bowl of broccoli the size of his head, two scrambled eggs, a plate of yam fries, two bowls of cereal and an apple. You have to go by what they eat over the long term, don’t worry so much about one day or worse, just one meal.” And just like that, as I realized my measurement framework had been unreasonable, my concerns lightened.
Just as my perspective on toddler eating shifted, I’ve been trying to shift my perspective on balance when it comes to running our businesses (or pushing our careers). Namely, I’ve been trying to shift how I measure it. It’s not likely or realistically going to look like the perfect balanced day. It probably didn’t when you were an entrepreneur without kids, and it definitely won’t once you have them. The tricky thing about throwing kids into the mix is that you have to do a bit more work and plan ahead to get to the self-care part of things. And trickier still, you can’t measure it against what someone else needs. I know women who can get by with far less sleep than me and continue to act like rational people. I also have friends who need a different mix of time alone and time socializing to restore their mojo. You need to sort out what balance looks like for you, understand that once you have kids it will likely look a little different than it used to, and then start thinking about what your unit of measurement to maintain your optimal balance is.
Once you stop beating yourself up for not managing to fit yoga, 8 hours of productive time, meaningful time with your kids, food, sleep, transport and possibly even some time to really connect with your partner, into a mere 24 hours, you’ll feel a heck of a lot lighter. Whether your unit of measurement becomes a week — each balance week includes some park time with the kid, a date night with your partner, one tai chi class, 45 hours of work, and requisite sleeping and eating — or it gets measured out over a longer period like a month, or more organically, you need to determine what that balance looks like for you. And when the balance is going off the rails (as it regularly will), don’t beat yourself up for “failing to find balance” and instead do what you can as quickly as possible to reclaim equilibrium.
(Above photo by Anastasia Photography – www.anastasiaphotography.ca)