A few years ago, I was on maternity leave after moving to a new city, and I realized that I faced a choice: a fulfilling and demanding career, or the ability to tuck in my kids every night and make it to all their school plays and parent-teacher conferences. To do all the things I wanted to do as a mom, I would almost certainly have to compromise professionally – I couldn’t find any jobs that were simultaneously challenging, rewarding, and flexible.
This is one of the reasons many parents decide to start their own business – in theory, it allows us to make our own schedule and be there for our family when they need us. You also believe you are building something of real value, which motivates you every single day. With a background in technology, that was the choice I made – I’d build a startup.
We are all guilty of overusing the trope “work-life balance” – it will come as no surprise to anyone who has any experience in the startup world in particular, to hear that there’s no such thing. There are times when the demands of your startup require almost all of your brain capacity and energy. It’s not for everyone. It’s challenging, frustrating, and one-note. It is also so exciting that I can’t imagine using my time to do anything else. But if you choose the startup path, you will learn one thing very quickly: your time is your most valuable resource. It’s a statement of fact for all of us, but things get put under the magnifying glass when you’re building a company from scratch. Startups offer flexibility, not work-life balance. Here’s two critical things I’ve learned from my years of blending parenthood with startup life:
1. Rethink “self-care”
The term “self-care” has become ubiquitous. Brands and marketers have discovered that it’s a great marketing tactic, while journalists, bloggers, and influencers publish countless articles and posts about the subject. This has been accompanied by a surging number of apps and other services designed to address users’ physical and psychological needs – a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
Our idea of self-care is often influenced by what happens to be fashionable at any given time, and this can be misleading. While yoga and avocado toast may well be part of your self-care regimen, the maintenance of your psychological health is about more than trendy products and “life hacks.”
For me, self-care means taking some time to breathe in the middle of a busy day, going for a brisk walk at lunchtime, or remembering to put my phone away an hour before bed. But the overarching principles of self-care matter more to me than the methods: if you’re an introvert, make time for yourself, if you’re an extrovert, spend time with the people who give you energy. Either way, you are the only person responsible for your own emotional well-being.
2. Practice active mindfulness with others
There is a misconception that self-care is all about coddling yourself and looking out for your own interests, playing into the millennial stereotypes portrayed by boomers, but the reality is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. By looking after ourselves, we are able to be mindful of how we treat others. Our relationships are the most vital source of well-being in our lives, and they can only be healthy if we recognize that the other people we interact with have interests, concerns and insecurities, a whole lot like we do.
This starts with what I describe as active mindfulness – be deliberate about what you say, try to understand why other people think and feel the way they do, and always be fully present when you’re interacting with another human being. Have you ever talked to someone who keeps looking around the room while you’re speaking? Or who seems to spend the entire conversation thinking about what they’ll say next instead of listening? These are destructive habits that undermine relationships and make everyone worse off, and they stem from a failure to practice active mindfulness.
We all know what it feels like to be snubbed, dismissed, or treated like our interests don’t matter, and we should put that knowledge to use. Every time you interact with someone – from your spouse to a colleague – you have to remember to show empathy and see things from their perspective.
When people talk about finding a “work-life balance,” they’re often referring to the importance of taking practical daily steps to alleviate anxiety and make their lives easier – from checking their email less often to de-stressing with an occasional meditation or coffee break. While this is important, these acts should be part of a more fundamental examination of how you spend your time and how you approach your relationships.
It isn’t enough to organize your calendar and start carving out time for yourself. As the founder of three startups, I’ve learned that the ability to be present for yourself and for others is the most critical time management tool I have.
You could spend all the time in the world with your colleagues, your friends and your family, but if you’re constantly distracted by thoughts about a client call that didn’t go well or worrying about an upcoming meeting, all you are doing is damaging yourself and your relationships. Take the short-term pain of putting your worries – and your phone – aside, and focus on the long-term benefit of strengthening the relationship you have with the person right in front of you.
If I hadn’t chosen to combine the start-up path with parenthood, I like to think I would have still discovered this intrinsic truth… but I’m not so sure. As anyone who has started a company knows: when you buckle in for a rollercoaster ride of emotions, you will worry about different things at different times: raising funds, making payroll, product market fit, gaining traction, winning that client, the list goes on and on. But once you achieve them, you realize that their value pales in comparison to the most essential element of all: your time. How you use it, where you spend it, and what you can create with it.