How to be productive when working from home and finding the elusive work-life balance
I wonder if work-life balance is a myth. Whilst putting together the draft for this blog, I had great ideas about how to improve productivity when working from home. For most of us, we put in work at the office during the day, get home, make a meal and either continue working or finally relax. Taking work home with you is a conscious choice, you’ve told yourself that you’re going to forgo the luxury of a relaxed night at home to continue working. Where is the balance in that?
I used to think that work and home life were clearly distinguishable when working from an office as opposed to working from home. Having done both, I’m not so sure that there is a clear-cut difference between the two environments. When I cofounded Washesha, we had to bootstrap so that entailed working from home, we couldn’t get an office/warehouse from the get-go. When you work at an office, you wake up in the morning, get ready and arrive at work at a specific time. Then you knock off at a set time as well. Working from home, time is a blur, you wake up, start working even before bathing and having breakfast. You might find that you only get a chance to bathe in the late afternoon. Since you’re already at home, knock off times get quite murky too. You find yourself having started work at 05:00 am and only stopping at 9:00 pm or later.
My partner and I were overwhelmed by the lack of structure we suddenly found ourselves in after working for well over a decade in corporate. It was blissful in the beginning, we could wake up whenever we felt like it, take our time to make breakfast, enjoy the whole process of being entrepreneurs and having escaped the “corporate trap”. Well, we had to get back to reality really fast. We started operations and life came at us sideways in a way we could not have foreseen.
My partner has a child and we never could have predicted how working from home would affect them. Seeing the father at home meant that he was available to give the child attention and play with them. This is how it worked when the father worked at the office. In the morning he goes to work and, in the evening, when he comes back, it’s playtime until bedtime. Now he was working from home and the child was struggling with the concept that although he is home, he isn’t always available to give her attention. We struggled with helping them understand that her father was home but working.
The other complication was the staff that we hired. It was difficult to instil a strict sense of professionalism since we were working in a less formal setting of a residential area/warehouse. The employees would be sleeping on the porch between deliveries, not having a care in the world of how sacrilegious sleeping on the job is. At least that is what was instilled in us in corporate. We tried to instil the same value system in our start-up with little success. I took you on this long-winded journey for you to understand where I come from when I pose the question: Can you be productive working from home and is there such a thing as work-life balance?
To try and attain some semblance of balance, we started waking up in the morning, getting ready for work, and setting reasonable knock-off times, like when we worked in corporate. The intention was there but the execution was near impossible. In addition to being directors at the company, we also had to be drivers, merchandisers, marketers, and business developers. We had so many roles to play, 24 hours in a day weren’t enough for us to get everything done. The result was that when we were done with our workday, we’d find ourselves having strategic meetings about the day’s events, where we went wrong, how we can improve, and what our next steps for the business were. I lived and breathed my company. I could hardly even find time to attend family functions or meet with friends. I was such a wreck. I was caught up in a vicious cycle of being stressed but not having time to relax. My partner had to take time out to spend with his child so, in a way, he could at least get away from the whole circus for a bit.
The simple truth is that without help, there is no work-life balance as an entrepreneur or a professional. You can’t play 10 different roles in a day and expect to still have time for relaxation afterward. The disheartening thing about this is that the more stressed you are, the less productive and innovative you become. For every late hour of work you put in, there are diminishing returns. A study of 600 000 people published in the medical journal, Lancet, found that individuals that worked for more than 55 hours per week or more were 33% more at risk to suffer a stroke and 13% more at risk to encounter coronary heart disease. Clearly, balance is essential for one to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
There are quite a few articles dedicated to how entrepreneurs can achieve a work-life balance. I will mention some tips that are pertinent enough and seem simple and actionable (links to the full articles are provided).
- Schedule everything. This includes work-related meetings, gym time, and family time. In this way, you’ll treat every item on your meeting calendar as an essential event and work harder to achieve the task. Yes, even date night and time with friends must be scheduled.
- Find a rhythm that satisfies your work life and your personal life. Work-life balance doesn’t mean that you spend equal time at work and home, it’s about fulfilment. For instance, we need to stop trying to compartmentalize work and home life. My partner had to take his child with him on some deliveries and during or after trips, they would find fun activities to do. This just stresses the fact that your work and home lives will mix. His child also got to see some aspects of his business too and gained more understanding of what her dad did. He actively included her in some of the fun aspects of running the business.
- Reduce the amount of time you spend doing low-value activities. This could be anything from reducing time spent on social media and personal calls. You could try and outsource some activities by hiring other people to assist with your errands. As an example, rather than going out to do grocery shopping, use grocery delivery services like Washesha.
- Find healthy ways to cope with stress. This could be as simple as practicing deep breathing. “Put one hand on your stomach and another on your chest. Begin to breathe in deeply from the abdomen to fill your lungs with your air. As you slowly inhale and exhale, focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen.” This will help calm you down and divert your mind from the stress. Other things you could do are taking a walk, taking part in physical activities as suggested in the previous blog, or gardening amongst others.
- Have a support structure that provides a safe space for you to vent, bounce ideas, or just sharing interesting stories you encounter as an entrepreneur. Having a support structure is essential and this is what got me through some of my darkest times as an entrepreneur.
Maintaining a healthy balance will be even more important during this COVID-19 pandemic that has assailed us. A lot of us are working from home now, for some, this is a first. It takes a lot of getting used to, especially when there are children involved. If you are fortunate enough to have a study, then make sure to convey to your children that the study is a work zone and when you are in there, there should be minimal disturbances. Using a designated area as your workspace might help with getting you into work mode and when you leave the workspace, try and be in relaxation mode. Working from home can also lead to making you feel trapped, cabin fever will set in. I’ll stress again the importance of exercise and relaxing activities such as hiking and taking leisurely walks to counteract cabin fever.
Learn to put yourself and your well-being first as an entrepreneur. Burn out will not help you to generate more revenues or grow your business. Being relaxed and less stressed is what will get ideas flowing and increase productivity. Please share what your “hacks” are to achieve a semblance of work-life balance.