Work hard and rest harder: Realistic business advice from a tired business owner

I knew that when I was writing proposals on my wedding day, I was probably working too hard.

I set up my business two years ago and it took me that amount of time to take my first, glorious day off during the week. By day off, I don’t mean the day off-ish-es that I had grown accustomed to over the past two years.  Those were the ‘I’ll just quickly send this email then do a call this afternoon’ day off. Or an ‘I’ll fly to a different timezone and get up at 5:30 to do some calls then maybe take the afternoon to feel guilty’ day off. I’m talking about the kind of day off where you’re not even thinking about work, where it’s no longer your responsibility. You’ve put your out of office and suncream on, and it’s your time to relax and do nothing. Or not even do nothing, but think nothing and worry nothing. Where did that go?!

If you run a business, this probably sounds familiar. The psychological difficulty that comes from really taking a break; the fear and guilt that looms over like a cloud in case you miss something important, or a client needs you, or you look away for five minutes and it all falls apart.

The weight of responsibility is a burden that can sometimes, sometimes, outweigh the freedom and flexibility that being your own boss affords. Bosses are legally obliged to encourage you to take a break and switch off from the responsibilities that your employment entails, though my boss is me, and she runs this ship like a turn of the century mill owner.

I have just started to learn how to switch off and not check my phone or fear a phone call every time I take a day for myself. Though I’ve navigated how to do this alone, because the majority of business advice available encourages the opposite. To push and push and hustle and hustle and work and work whilst everyone else is asleep. Let’s call business influences like this, oh, Vary Gaynerchuck, for a point of reference.

Whilst for some this may be motivating or empowering, it is also unrealistic for most and creates a sense within the business community that we, as business owners, are somehow exempt from the biological and psychological requirements that mean we can function effectively without intravenous caffeine.

On the, admittedly few, times I’ve attended start up events, the focus is typically on how to stay productive, how to get your morning routine down so you can get up at dawn and how to stay motivated to consistently deliver a high level of output. This is all useful advice, though in isolation, doesn’t allow us to be kind to ourselves. We do need to talk about all of these things as business owners, but in tandem to this, we also need to be talking about rest.

So, I will dedicate the next 800 words to sharing what I have learnt on how to work hard and rest harder, because, well, we’re all assholes when we’re tired.

A small break is better than no break at all

For me the thought of taking a week off is too daunting. Victorian mill owner Kirsty just won’t have it. One day I will, but I am not there yet. So I started by taking the afternoon off, then a day. Small breaks to completely switch off are still valuable and will allow you to adjust and learn that it’s OK, everything won’t burn in to flames the moment you disconnect from WiFi. Like anything else in business, rest is something we need to learn, and starting small and enjoying small chunks of rest at a time is how we get back to functioning humans (hopefully).

Spend downtime doing things you actually want to

Weekends and evenings often get quickly filled with social obligations. Unless you really, really want to do something, say no. Honestly, nobody displays greater resolve and resourcefulness than me getting out of weekend plans. When you’re pushing yourself very hard, you’ll probably find you just want to spend days and evenings switching your brain off in isolation. You’ll get FOMO, you’ll annoy a few acquaintances, but those important will understand. This book really helps to determine how we should focus on time on doing things we really want to.

Meditate

Yes, it’s a cliche and no, it doesn’t necessarily involve wearing a tunic, but it does help. Just ten minutes out of your day can be hugely reinvigorating when you’re starting to burn out. The Headspace app is a good start. I prefer to use Guided meditations on YouTube because you can pick them depending on your mood.

Try working weekends to take a weekday off

I like working on Sundays. There’s less pressure, less phonecalls, no meetings. I can get up later, have a coffee and focus for a few hours. If you’re really struggling with workload but feel you need a break, get work done during the weekend and take the Monday off. You’ll still get your work done, though in a less pressurised situation and you’ll get used to not being always on during the week. (I think this is pretty much the only reason I remained relatively sane during year one).

Keep perspective

It’s easy to let your business define you and to take business failures incredibly personally. Anecdotally, running an agency of exlusively independents who are all business owners in their own right, those with children typically tend to be a little better at switching off from work. I think because there’s something much greater to focus on. If you don’t have children or other significant responsibilities, find something meaningful to you outside of your business that will allow you to keep perspective. This will prevent you becoming defined by your business performance.

Create a safety net

The most obvious, but the hardest. Create a safety net of people who can run things and pick things up in your absence. I struggled with this for a long time, not necessarily because I am bad at delegating, but because one of the biggest challenges of being a business owner is to prevent you being the exclusive face of your business. If you can do this, you have a business that scales and a week long break with your name on it.

Don’t worry what your competitors are doing

Focusing on the competition can be a damaging distraction. Run your business in the way that works for you and allows you to be the best version of yourself.  We’re all human, we all get overwhelmed, we all need rest. There is no merit in working yourself to the point of being useless to those around you (I speak from experience here).  And, honestly, that’s probably not working 16 hour days a week. 

If you have any more tips that help you switch off without that familiar guilt, please let me know, for now, I am going to have a nap.

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