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Rethinking Work-Life Balance

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We all know that having a healthy work-life balance is critical for startup employees – and have read the cautionary tales of how dangerous it can be to have no work-life balance. It’s something we should all strive to achieve. 

It’s also a worthless concept as it’s typically presented.

Everything I’ve read on the subject isn’t helpful for entrepreneurs and startup employees because it starts with the assumption that you have an evil boss forcing you to work unreasonable hours.

Usually, that’s not the case if you’re at a startup. You may not have a boss – and most of us love our jobs. Personally, I want to do mine 24/7 and I hate that that’s impossible.

Furthermore, (and this is likely exacerbated if you’re a founder and/or CEO), I experience intense guilt when I do anything that isn’t work-related. Many people (investors, team members, etc.) have put their faith in me to build a business, and every moment I spend not building that business, I feel as though I’m letting all of those people down. A week-long vacation would send my stress levels into the stratosphere. Every minute that passes, I feel the stress of not getting enough done.

Mark Suster writes about how critical to success it is be obsessed with work, but warns of his own consequences of doing so. For years, I simply ignored the life portion of this balance because I couldn’t reconcile it with my guilt. The underlying problem with work-life balance is that whenever I spend time on the life portion of the equation, my stress level rises rapidly.

As I spoke to more and more entrepreneurs about their own struggles with work-life balance, I realized that, (as arguably happens far too often), we were trying to solve the wrong problem.

Inspired by Ben Horowitz’s writing on managing your own psychology, I tried a different framework that has worked for me. The problem is not that we don’t have a balance – the problem is that work IS our life, and we are trying to incorrectly define the “life” portion as this separate thing for which we have to make time.

Rather than seeking a traditional “work-life balance”, I simply reframed the things in my mind that are typically considered “life balance” as things that are part of my job.

I began with a simple premise: at our startup, my productivity and efficiency are critical to the success of the company. This premise did not require any measure of cognitive dissonance – it is a premise I embraced prior to the thought exercise.

The corollary to this premise is that: anything that reduces my productivity or my efficiency threatens the success of my company. Thus, anything that increases my productivity and/or efficiency is part of my job, and anything that reduces my productivity/efficiency is part of my job to not do.

Take stress management as an example. Stress is unavoidable at a startup. You’re going to experience stress. A lot of it.  And poorly managed, it will most certainly destroy your productivity and health.

Reducing stress increases your productivity and efficiency – and the way to do it is pretty much the same for everyone: get enough exercise, eat healthy, get enough rest, and get enough “down time” (whatever that may be for you). With this firmly in mind, rather than trying to convince myself that I need to make time for “life”, I just defined these stress management activities as part of my job. In fact, I’ve started putting stress management activities on my calendar.

Now when I go to the gym, I don’t experience guilt, because I view getting exercise as part of my job. Exercise reduces my stress and increases my productivity. Since those two things are part of my job, it naturally follows that exercising is part of my job.

During a busy day, I’m certainly tempted to eat cheeseburgers and fries. They taste infinitely better than any lean protein dish with a large side of vegetables. But I order the healthy option now, because it’s my job. If I have a cheeseburger and fries for lunch, my productivity is lousy for a few hours. Yes, I’ve actually thought “it’s my job to eat this spinach salad for lunch.”

Functioning on radically reduced amounts of sleep is one of the most misguided badges of honor in Silicon Valley. Yes, the occasional 18-20 hour day may be necessary. However, if you try to keep up a consistent pace of 18 hour days, in time, your efficiency drops dramatically. I view getting a good night’s rest as part of my job. If I’m exhausted from staying up too late, then my productivity dips and I have trouble focusing. Sure, I can do it every once in a while and I’m fine, but prolonged bouts of limited sleep destroy my productivity and hence it’s my job to not be consistently sleep-deprived.

Given this framework of thought, I now experience insane guilt when I skip the gym, stay up late (except in an emergency) or eat a cheeseburger. Admittedly, I haven’t eliminated guilt from my day, but it now works for my health and productivity rather than against it.

I hope this framework is useful for my fellow startup colleagues. I suggest that this coming holiday, you take a few days to relax and decompress. After all, it’s your job to do so.

Editor’s note: Blake Commagere is the founder & chief executive of MediaSpike, a native monetization platform for mobile, desktop, and AR/VR games.

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