When work becomes too much
How to navigate the fine line between passion and obsession for work as an entrepreneur.
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For all entrepreneurs I have worked with, work is a central part of their lives. As it is for me. Some observations of when it can become too much and why.
How a simple dinner rule helped me balance my life areas, consequently bringing more richness and joy into my life.
One of the guiding principles at PIRATE is: “There are more important things than work”.
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I recently had a sparring session with a very successful founder and CEO.
He was overwhelmed, overworked and close to burning-out and urgently needed to talk.
“Why don’t you take the next three days off?” I proposed.
“I can’t, I have these four critical meetings I cannot miss”, he replied.
“Alright, what if you go to these meetings, but you cancel everything else?”
“Okay, I could do that.”
“How much time would that free up?” I asked.
“I guess it would free up about 50% of my time.”
“Excellent, what is your happy place? What do you do to recharge?”
“Work!” he replied.
When work becomes everything
Does the conversation above resonate?
To me, it strikes close to home. It’s also a constant that comes up in my work with entrepreneurs, so I know I am not alone.
For all entrepreneurs I work with, work is a central part of their lives. As it is for me. It’s almost impossible for it not to be. Entrepreneurship - especially in the founding years - requires a lot of dedication, energy, attention and time.
Here are some thoughts and observations on when it can become too much. As it has for me multiple times in the past.
For many entrepreneurs, work doesn’t only play a central role, it is often priority number one. Sometimes openly admitted. Often a silent reality with feelings of shame or guilt attached to it.
Work can be all-encompassing. A constant companion that occupies the mind for most of the waking hours. Visibly from the outside, while in meetings, at your desk, at business events, on the phone, or in the office. And somewhat hidden, while driving, while lying in bed, while playing with the kids, while buying groceries…
Work can feel like a constant, never ending tsunami of things that need to get done. That is true especially for entrepreneurs.
There is always more to do. More to achieve. More opportunities to seize.
Doing the work often feels worth it, too.
Working long hours comes with a rush and a sense of accomplishment. A feeling of satisfaction from being productive, meeting deadlines and achieving goals.
Look at me. Look at how many hours I worked. Look at the challenge I solved today.
It’s an amazing feeling that gives a sense of self-worth and being needed. A respectable addiction. One for recognition and applause.
I would even say that frequently, the intensity of working long hours brings us to a place where we have the illusion of feeling ourselves. That is because once we are used to the grind, we have become accustomed to merely functioning. We have lost the ability to be in touch with our feelings and needs.
If we are radically honest, we often find that working excessively actually just helps us to cover up our underlying feelings of isolation, guilt, and dissatisfaction.
It can extend so far as to believe that if we are not always active, we don’t have a right to exist or to be.
Paradoxically, solving the overwhelm by delegating more, doesn’t solve the problem. It intensifies it. Now the feeling of emptiness just increases because there is nothing to fill it with.
Better to continue working.
Or so it seems.
Balancing the grind
I am not a big fan of the term work-life balance. Work for me is part of life.
I have the luxury that I can choose my work. I actually like what I do. At least most of the time.
Nevertheless, I have had an unbalanced life. For years, I have worked very long hours.
A conversation with me 12 years ago would have most likely be similar to the one I described earlier.
Work was my happy place. Nearly the only one.
That changed when my son was born.
In Germany, a child usually lives with you for a period of around 18 years. The first 14 years, you can somewhat influence how often you get to see them. After that, there is a reasonable chance they’ll prefer spending time with their friends over you.
14 years go by quickly.
That’s why I took the conscious decision to spend as many dinners (and evenings) with him as I possibly could.
My rule was simple: I’ll be home at 7 pm at the latest. At least six days a week. I would miss dinner only for a very strong reason.
Now, as a single dad, who spends 50% with the kids, I am even stricter. I work from home 99% of the time.
Kids’ time for me is sacred.
Nevertheless, it is not only the amount of time spent. How the time is spent is equally important. But that’s something for another post. For now, just a tweet from a few years ago.
This is not supposed to be a virtue signalling post. My life is far from perfect. And I certainly am not.
From working with many entrepreneurs I know that balancing work, friends, family, health etc. is a constant struggle. It was for me too.
I am writing about this because I was lucky that - in retrospect - I found a simple guideline and hack that helped me become more conscious of where I spend my time.
It turned out to be extremely effective, too, as it added an unknown richness and fulfillment to my life. More than I could have possibly imagined at the time I came up with the dinner rule.
I am not a big fan of prescriptions. What worked for me, doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. If you are struggling with balancing your life areas, you can take this as inspiration and make it your own.
I took a birds-eye view and asked myself:
“What is important to me in 10 years in my main life areas (family, work, health, friends, …)?”
In the family segment, building a strong relationship with my kids and spending time with them was all the way up there.
To define that isn’t so hard. I assume that many will come up with a similar conclusion.
Implementing it in a way that actually reflects the priority isn’t so easy, though. The important too often gets drowned out by the urgent and all the busyness of our day-to-day lives.
So, how to actually make this work?
This is where my simple dinner rule helped. It was clear and straightforward:
“Be home not later than 7 pm to spend time with your kids. At least six days a week.”
That rule was easy to communicate with friends, colleagues and family. That public commitment made it even easier to follow. Social pressure FTW!
Once the boundary was set, life started to magically organize itself around it.
And while I enjoy my work - to me - it was always clear that there are more important things in life.
We even made it an explicit guiding principle for working at PIRATE.
“There are more important things than work”
This is an excerpt from our PIRATE Culture Book.
For us, PIRATE is our most precious product. We strive to build an environment that brings all people that work here fulfillment and joy, and will provide stability for them and their family. However, we know: In the end, it is just work.
Work is important, but it shouldn’t be the center of our lives. Without the physical and mental wellbeing, without you feeling energized, balanced and focused, you won’t be able to do great work. And you won’t enjoy it. Pressure, anxiety and stress will lead to burn out that won’t benefit anyone.
We know that work has a tendency to expand to fill the time available for its completion. A sense of ownership has the effect that there is almost more that could be done. Since at PIRATE, people are encouraged to take responsibility and ownership you will quickly realize that you won’t be able to do it all. This can lead to an unhealthy work environment and people feeling overwhelmed.
At PIRATE you are required to lead yourself well. Prioritization and setting boundaries have to be leading principles for your well-being. Just as much as having a todo-list keeps us structured, keeping a not-todo-list keeps us sane. Don’t view work as a sprint, but as something that should feel well and can be sustained over longer periods of time.
When you are done working, shut down your computer, turn off notifications and enjoy some time away from work. Time to clear your head. Spend time with your kids, play with your dog, do some sports, or read a book.
Let me know
I’d love to hear your opinion. What is your relationship with work? How much time and attention do you spend with work compared to other life areas? What is your happy place? Where and how do you recharge?
Let me know by replying to this mail. I read and answer every mail (sometimes it may take some time).
Be safe, be healthy, and be kind. 🙏🏽
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