The Work/Life Balance Project
I’m writing this post as we drive down the highway in the middle of Tennessee.
We’re headed back home from a visit to my mom’s house outside Detroit. This would seem like a normal Christmas voyage, except two things are different: “home” no longer means Colorado, and we’re currently towing a 38 foot travel trailer behind our truck.
A lot has happened since I last posted on this blog.
I’m resolving in 2018 to start blogging regularly again – at least once per week – and now seems like a good time to start. But I’m not going to start not with a recap of our winter vacation, instead, let’s rewind to last summer and the events that started a cascade of changes that led up to this moment.
Rewinding to last summer: Addie was still new and fresh, and I was still struggling balancing having a new baby with business ownership.
The Work/Life Balance Project
Four months ago, I published a blog post about my lack of a maternity leave following Addie’s birth. Around that time, I was doing a lot of thinking about work/life balance and what it means to me. What did I want my days and weeks to look like? What changes did I need to make in my life or business to make that happen?
The more I thought about the current state of my time and commitments, the more I realized that I still had a lot to figure out. I also genuinely started to wonder if work/life balance for small business owners was a real thing or if it was a myth.
Is it really possible to feel balanced in work and life as an entrepreneur running a startup or is that as mythical as a unicorn?
So I decided to start a little work/life balance project.
I know it sounds crazy – my life was unbalanced as it was, why would I take on a side project?
I took on a side project because that’s how I process things. When I don’t have things figured out, I need to research them and examine them. I need to look at all the options and talk to others before I can come to a decision.
This project was a long time coming.
It took having a baby to trigger it, but I finally took time to reflect back over the last 2 years, during which I have worked lots of nights and weekends, losing out on sleep and family time, intentionally striving to grow our business. Thinking about all that has happened since Chris and I decided to intensely focus on our business, I decided that it was time to take a closer look at the mythical, elusive creature that is work/life balance.
I want to figure out some magical formula for managing a business, spouse, and kids without feeling so exhausted that I don’t have time for any hobbies. And, this is where the work/life balance project came in: talking to others who seemed to have things figured out so I could learn from them and create my own plan for balance.
The project had two main parts:
1) Work/Life Balance Survey
The first thing I did was put together a 38 question survey on work/life balance.
Because I was looking for answers that would work for me, I decided to make this survey very industry-specific. I wasn’t just looking to survey any entrepreneurs – I wanted to determine if work/life balance was possible for WordPress business owners…people like me. So I created a survey geared toward my industry, and promoted it in Facebook groups and Slack channels frequented by people who own businesses similiar to mine.
The survey questions seek to establish a definition of work/life balance and identify any commonalities in the businesses of people who say they have a good work/life balance. I was hoping this would get me started toward figuring out what changes I needed to make in my life and career.
There are questions on the type of businesses respondents are in, how many hours they work, if they feel stressed, how they define balance, basic demographic questions, and more. So far just over 70 people have taken it. You can take a look at the questions (and participate if you want) here.
2) Work/Life Balance Interviews
The second component to my work/life balance project was interviewing other business owners in my space. At the end of the survey, there is a question that allows people to opt in to being interviewed about what work/life balance means to them.
I started interviewing people who seem to have it together, or who intrigued me because they stood out in one way or another – either because they take a lot of vacation, they actually manage to be on vacation when they’re on vacation (not checking email!), or they work a small number of hours but still supply 90-100% of their household income.
As a mom, I also took special interest in the people with kids who said they felt balanced. Because it’s all good to feel like you have a perfect work/life balance when you have no spouse or children to care for, but it’s another thing completely to feel balanced when your time is further divided by the needs of caregiving.
Besides survey takers, I also reached out to a few people I knew from the WordPress space. So far, I’ve had 30-minute conversations with some really great people, and I have learned a ton.
- I spoke to Meg, from New Zealand, who lives and works in a home she shares with her sister. They have six kids between them and they homeschool. She’s a single mom who balances all of that with developing websites for designers.
- I spoke to Boone, a WordPress core contributor and BuddyPress lead developer, who has a niche group of clients. He’s taken 30 vacation days in the last 6 months and doesn’t have a smartphone.
- Cory, CEO of iThemes, who is very intentional about his work hours, traveling, and time spent with his wife and children.
- Nichole, a freelancer, who is the main breadwinner for her family and believes in the importance of communication.
And several other amazing people, with equally interesting business stories and strategies for creating balance in the chaos of entrepreneurship.
What I Learned
I’m still working my way through all the data after doing an initial deep dive, then setting it aside to make some immediate changes in my life. Below is a recap of some of the things that were immediately apparent to me in August when I was a month into this project. You can “choose your own adventure” here… either read on below for the written recap, or watch the talk I gave at WordCamp Denver on Work/Life Balance here or on WordPress.tv
First, The Demographics
Before we get into what I learned, it’s important to have a picture of who took my survey. Of the 70 people who had taken my survey, more than 50% of the participants identify themselves as freelancers or independent consultants.
Another large chunk were agency owners.
They offer services and products in a variety of different areas, beyond just the traditional WordPress website builds or setups.
Many, like my business, offers full online marketing services beyond just web development – services like blog writing, social media marketing, logo design, Google Adwords management, and more.
And many of them have been in business for several years.
Approximately 50% of the survey takers have been in business for 5 years or longer.
And 43% have at least 1 employee.
More than half of my survey takers supply over 75% of their household’s income from their business.
The total percent of their household income that was supplied by their businesses was important to me, because it’s an indicator of how vital the business was to their lifestyle and meeting basic needs. It’s easier to not feel overwhelmed your business if it’s not the only thing providing money to your family.
Some other interesting participant demographics:
- 17 Countries (59% in USA)
- 43% are 25-34 years old
- 69% male
- 41% have children under the age of 18
- 20% responsible for elderly or disabled parent/relative
Obviously 70 participants does not make a super representative sample of WordPress business owners in the world – or even the United States – but I do think that this sample can provide us with the beginning of some interesting answers to what work/life looks like in our space.
A lot of us work too much.
One of the questions I asked was how many hours per week participants work, on average.
46% average more than 40 hours per week.
Obviously, we all define balance differently. In my ideal world, as a mom of three kids, I’d like to only work while they are in school – 9:00-3:00 being my ideal. 30 hours per week.
My ideal, then, is obviously not the 40-hour week that we traditionally think of as “full time.” If we were to draw a line on the chart just before the 35 hour mark, it would look like this:
64% of participants work more than 35 hours per week.
Over the past two years, this was where I fit in. Generally always working 40 hours per week, sometimes working more than 60 hours per week just to keep things afloat. Working nights and weekends and all the time.
Publishing Business Hours Would Probably Help
Interestingly, this is the same percent of business owners that said they do not have published hours for their business.
Now, don’t get me wrong – we have published business hours and I do PLENTY of night and weekend work. I also generally take a walk at noon and occasionally leave in the middle of the day to watch a dance recital. But that said, when I asked people how they defined work/life balance, there were a lot of people who said things like:
- “Free evenings, weekends.”
- “Consistent start and stop times.”
- “To be stricter about business hours.”
- “Less email after 5PM Eastern.”
And I couldn’t help but think that having published business hours, on your website, Facebook page, and Google listing – that you stick to – would make a big difference.
Working from home makes it challenging.
Something that ties into the challenges many of us have in delineating work time from home time is that so many of us work from home. 80% of my survey participants work from home, just like me.
It’s much harder to leave work at work when you live at work. It seems wonderful and convenient to be able to get up and walk a few feet “to the office” in your pajamas when you’re not a morning person, but it’s a double edged sword. I have all my email go into the same email box – personal and professional – which means I see all emails all the time, whether it’s late at night or Saturday morning.
Working from home can be amazing – especially when you have kids, but it’s something that has to be closely kept under wraps.
You want to work where you live, not live at work.
For Entrepreneurs, vacation is elusive.
Vacation, it seems, my be even more elusive than work/life balance.
Just 20% of people said that they were able to go on vacation without checking email or doing some other form of work during that vacation.
Worse, nearly 60% of participants took 5 vacation days or less in the past 6 months. There were several participants who reported taking no vacation time in the past 6 months. At the time of the survey, I was one of those people. I had not had time for maternity leave and though we had planned to take a week off in April for my brother’s wedding, we ended up working the entire week at our rental house.
How Balanced WordPress Business Owners Feel
All of this seems pretty dire, like we’re a bunch of WordPress workaholics, but when I asked people how they feel about their work life balance, it was about a 50-50 split between those who feel some degree of balance and those who don’t.
So perhaps work/life balance is not a unicorn after all. It is possible – it’s just a matter of figuring out how to achieve it.
This was where the interviews came in.
Initial Interview Takeaways
I don’t to turn this into a book and go in-depth into what everyone said, but I want to share some of the key takeaways here, then over the next few weeks I will be releasing the recorded interview videos here on my blog, so stay tuned. Here are some initial takeaways for those of you who don’t want to wait for the full interviews:
Think of balance in seasons.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from several people was to think about balance in terms of seasons. It’s not that every day or even every week is going to give us the perfect of division of time between work, family, hobbies, and stress. Sometimes it’s going to be heavier in one direction than the other and that’s OK. Don’t feel guilty if sometimes you need to spend more time on your business or more time with your family. As long as it all equals out over time, then you should feel balanced overall.
Commonalities Among Balanced Business Owners
There are several commonalities I was able to identify among business owners who said that they felt well-balanced in their work and life.
Planning & Routine
Entrepreneurs who feel like they have a good balance between their work and personal life all have spent time planning and developing a routine.
This goes back to the business hours thing: having a set schedule and routines for how and when you work, rather than flying by the seat of your pants helps a lot when it comes to feeling balanced. A lot of the people I interviewed had only specific times when they check or respond to emails, as well as regular blocks of time built into their schedules when the phone would be turned off, email closed, and they could work uninterrupted.
Likewise, routines for personal life are just as important. Setting an alarm for every day at noon to go on a walk, or making sure to always be home for dinner – devices off – helps a lot with overall feelings of balance. Don’t just schedule work – schedule time for vacation or relaxation or hobbies or they might never happen.
A Strong Team
Here’s the brutal truth: it’s a lot harder to feel balanced as a solopreneur. When you are the only “do-er” in your business and you’re responsible for all the things – from technical work that pays the bills to sales to accounting and all the behind-the-scenes work – there’s no one to fall back on when things get crazy. There’s no one there to help pick up the slack.
Small business owners who have a strong, reliable team – whether it’s a business partner or employees who are well-trained and committed to their roles are able to occasionally step away from their business. If you have a team, you can take vacation or a sick day and know that things are still rolling along with your business.
Likewise, having a strong partner at home can help during times when you need to focus more on your business. Especially if you have young children, it’s incredibly important to have a support system, be it a spouse or extended family, who are there to pick up the slack when business is more demanding.
The entrepreneurs I spoke with who felt most balanced had a strong team, both in and out of the office.
Along with having a solid routine and schedule, sticking to it is key to feeling work/life balance. Several people that I spoke with stressed the importance of not letting yourself get over extended – whether in your personal life or in your business.
It’s OK to not take everything on. It’s okay to say no.
Several people talked about the importance of not taking on every little project or client who comes your way. Working on low-value projects with clients who don’t respect your time is not worth it. Determine what you’re willing to do, what your minimum budget is, and stick to it. If a project is outside your minimum budget or if a client doesn’t respect your process or time, direct them to someone else.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to say no in your personal life. “No, I will not sew all the costumes for the school play. No, I can’t be a volunteer crossing guard in the morning before school. No, I can’t have dinner at your house Friday night.” … Saying no does not make you a bad parent, friend, or person. It’s OK to know your limits and to stick to them.
Entrepreneurs who feel well-balanced are comfortable saying no, in business and personal life, and guard their time carefully.
The last commonality I saw among business owners who have good work/life balance is perhaps the trickiest one to get over. It is much easier to have a positive work/life balance when your business has a solid revenue stream.
When you’re not making enough money, it’s a lot harder to say no or grow your team. It’s a lot harder to create a routine when you’re riding the highs and lows of income seasons. The reality is that most new businesses, and most startups require a lot of attention. If you’re chasing down new customers or trying to grow revenues, you’re likely going to have to spend a lot of your time focused on business and will have a lot less time for friends, family, or personal interests. This is the reality of business ownership and one of the reasons why it’s not for the faint of heart.
If achieving growth seems impossible or far off, and things feel completely out of balance, then the next best thing to growing revenues is cutting expenses. Entrepreneurs who feel well-balanced have positive cash flow in their business, yes, but also have realistic personal expenses. The higher your expenses the more you’ll have to work to meet those expenses.
Above all, Communication is Key
The biggest thing I heard over and over is how important communication is. Communication with clients. Communication with family members.
In order to feel like you have balance, you have to communicate with people about what you need. Unless you’re clear about when work time is with your family and when it isn’t with your clients and team members, you’ll never achieve the delineation that is necessary to feel balanced. Clear communication is key.
The Impetus for Change
I started this work/life balance project in late July, gave my WordCamp Denver talk on Saturday, August 26th, and the following Monday, Chris and I made the decision to immediately make major changes to our life in order to achieve better balance for ourselves. If you follow me on Instagram, you know the gist: we moved our homebase from Colorado to Texas and bought the giant travel trailer that had been our dream for the last couple of years. We also brought on a full-time developer and further expanded our Road Warrior Creative team.
Stay tuned, because over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing blog posts that expand upon all the changes we have made in our life and business in order to achieve a better work/life balance. Hopefully, if you’re a business owner you’ll be able to gain some insight and benefit from our experiences so that you, too, can have better work-life balance.