Most entrepreneurial role models are unhealthy: workaholics and risk addicts throwing all of their energy into their business. How does a business owner learn to prioritize self-care?
A few days ago I had the pleasure of organizing a panel discussion for the Grassroots Business Association (more on that someday soon) that featured three entrepreneurs who are not only brilliant business thinkers, but also cultivated in living healthy, well-balanced lives. The panelists were Dr. Vivian Lord, a naturopathic physician at Port Moody Integrated Health; Denise Stroude, a life and wellness coach on staff at Rhodes Wellness College; and Sarah Juliusson, the founder of Mama Renew, a company that convenes groups and retreats for mothers exploring self-care, identity and community. Each brought a uniquely valuable perspective to the conversation on what is commonly termed "work-life balance." Our discussion ranged from looking after our bodies' physical needs, to managing shifting priorities, to figuring out how to prioritize self-care amidst the frenetic pace of entrepreneurial life.
Before I share what I learned from the evening's dialogue, a brief sidebar: I hate a lot of the terms that get bandied about to describe our efforts to withstand the siren song of workaholism. "Work-life balance" implies that work and life are mutually exclusive, which is ludicrous – especially for entrepreneurs. Even "balance" carries with it a whiff of both perfection and fragility, neither of which are among my personal goals. And I agree with Danielle Laporte that balance is an ideal that's unachievable, which leads a lot of us to simply layer guilt on top of self-neglect and unhealthy habits.
I do, however, think this is a topic business owners need to explore for our own sanity – and the sanity of those around us – and at the core of it, for me, is the question of where to draw boundaries around our work commitments. I'll admit, though, that I'm stumped for a good way to describe this stuff, and I used both "balance" and "wellness" in the title of the aforementioned panel. I'd love to hear suggestions for a better term. For now, I'll use "balance" as shorthand, with the caveat that I'm well aware it's a problematic word.
OK, thanks for bearing with me on that. Let's get on with the learnings. Here's what I gleaned from my panel of experts:
1. Balance is not perfection
When we ask ourselves what's truly important to us and focus on our real priorities, we feel more in balance. When we get caught up in other people's priorities or "small stuff," we feel out of whack and overwhelmed, because our priority areas aren't being attended to. It's not about doing it all; it's about doing what we care most about.
2. There are dozens of great reasons to say no
Entrepreneurs love a great idea, and it's easy for us to get caught up in new commitments on a daily basis. But every thing we say yes to crowds our other projects and eventually threatens to push them aside. Conscious decision-making (see above re: priorities) is key to passionate productivity. If saying no is hard for you, try starting with, "Let me sleep on it" – it's not a direct no, but if you take a couple of breaths and do a gut-check before you invite a new project in, you'll find that your decisions become clearer.
3. Feeling balanced is about making choices that serve you
Many of us struggle with feeling selfish whenever we put ourselves first. But denying our own needs invariably results in a deeply unpleasant soup of guilt, resentment and all the other symptoms of neglect. (And other people tend to run screaming from that kind of stuff, if you haven't noticed.) Figure out what feeds you, focus there, and your energy levels – and ability to focus – will soar.
4. Priorities change
As much as I'd love to decide on my priorities once and be able to refer to a handy list whenever necessary, life doesn't work that way. We are, thank God, evolving creatures and our priorities shift frequently as a result. The only way to keep up is to check in with ourselves regularly and ask, "What do I want to prioritize right now?" It helps to do this at a big-picture level with annual and quarterly visioning, and on a daily basis by taking some deep breaths (cliché, I know, but they do work) and focusing on immediate priorities.
5. Listen to your body
Craving a particular food, feeling pain or numbness, or falling ill can all be signs of stress and overwork. Ask yourself, "What are my body's habits under strain?" – chances are, you know very well what you're likely to feel on a physical level when your life is off kilter. Paying attention to the warning signs your body is sending can help you avoid a full-on crisis.
6. You know this stuff already. The real question is, what will convince you to prioritize self-care?
The panelists all agreed that their clients don't suffer from a lack of knowledge about healthy habits – they struggle with putting that knowledge to use. Breaking old habits requires self-awareness, motivation and commitment. Are you up for it?