Prioritizing Work – Part Deux

Oke from Life is What You Make of It (one of my favorite blog designs, by the way) left a really interesting comment on my last post about prioritizing work:

I got a question for you. I am having a problem with this myself and do a shitty job on getting back on track. How do you prioritize your work/hobby/activities on the side when none of the tasks deal with making money?

I’ve been thinking about that for a while, and decided it warranted it’s own post.  In many cases, prioritizing the work isn’t the hardest part.  It’s figuring out how to prioritize your time in general.  

First off, I struggle with this.  Always have, probably always will.  I also know that each of my partners struggles with it to varying extents.  I’m pretty sure every business owner does too.

Most people have work or school, and their family/social life.  Two things that they have to balance.  Entrepreneurs generally start working on a business while they’re in school or work.  Suddenly you’re trying to do your job, have enough motivation to get a startup off the ground, AND trying to balance in family, friends, and hobbies.  Something has to give.

I like picking up new hobbies in addition to the ones I already have.  I enjoy going to the gym.  I like kicking back and reading a non-business book.  I like having drinks with my friends.  I want to spend time with my girlfriend and my family, and her friends and family.  And I like a whole lot of other things too.  It can be overwhelming.

The “correct” work/life balance is only something you can achieve.  It’ll take constant work.  If neglected, you’ll probably work too much.  At the end of the day, if you aren’t happy because you spend too much time working (or not enough time working), you have to be the one to make the adjustments.  Set short-term boundaries and goals that force you into action now (today, tomorrow, or this weekend at the latest).   Procrastination is my enemy, and it has to be yours too.

In my case, I *think* I’ve struck a pretty good balance, in part because of how hard I try and in part by lucky timing.   When I left my job, I worked all day everyday to get my/our sites off the ground.  I felt like I had to.  I did the bare minimum socially to still keep the relationships I had and to keep my sanity.  That meant skipping family parties unless they were the really big holidays.  It meant only meeting up with my friends once per month when they were going out every weekend.  It meant showing up for a drink and then kicking out early so I could get back to work.  The whole time I thought “this will change someday soon and I’ll be able to give them more time”.

Thankfully, it did.  This time lasted for about two years for me.  For the majority of it I lived in my parents basement and I was single.  I literally had no responsibility and could focus solely on the business.  As long as I made enough to cover my small monthly expenses (cell phone, health insurance, etc) I could keep my dream alive.  There’s no way I could have handled the apartment I live in now or the relationship I’m in back then.  Thankfully things just sort of timed themselves with our success and my subsequent down-shifting into a more balanced life.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I’m of the opinion that every business owner has to have some time period like this where you phase out the rest of your life to some extent and really focus on getting established.  Starting a company is just too hard not to have your full undivided attention.  Some people in your life will understand.  Others won’t.  You need to just block those people out – every bit of energy expended on changing their mind or trying to get them to understand could be spent building a business relationship with someone who really does care and can help your business.

For me, leaving my short-but-successful career and starting a business was the first real thing I ever did in life that “went against the grain”, and in turn I was a bit shocked at how people react when you don’t do what they think you should do.   Everyone handles this type of criticism differently.  It bothered me.  I tried to take the criticism and use it as motivation, turning the negative emotion into a positive.   On the days I couldn’t pull myself out of bed, I’d think of how crappy I’d feel if I had to go get a job and admit to my failure as an entrepreneur, and it motivated me to keep going.  I did my best to separate my feelings for what people said from my feelings from them in general.  Motivation is good – hatred isn’t.   I have a “library” in my head of comments people have made to me over the years that drive me to work harder.  It’s important to understand that this will never stop – I can think of two instances in the past week where people made condescending remarks about our business and our legitimacy.  Mark Cuban says it still happens to him, that people call him “lucky”!  It comes with the territory:

Fortunately, things turned out well for me with MicroSolutions. I sold it after 7 years and made enough money to take time off and have a whole lot of fun.  Back then I can remember vividly people telling me how lucky I was to sell my business at the right time.

Then when I took that money and started trading technology stocks that were in the areas that MIcroSolutions focused on. I remember vividly being told how lucky I was to have expertise in such a hot area, as technology stocks started to trade up.

Of course, no one wanted to comment on how lucky I was to spend time reading software manuals, or Cisco Router manuals, or sitting in my house testing and comparing new technologies, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Bottom line:  either you have selective ignorance and use it to your advantage, or it eventually crushes you.  I don’t think there’s an in between.  This is when having partners or an entrepreneurial mentor really comes in handy.  They will always understand.

And when I finally did down-shift a little bit I had to force myself to not work all day long.  It was hard.  I started making myself have one non-business goal per day.  I created the (somewhat excessive) program I outlined in my productive output post.  It was what I needed to back off.  I knew I was “addicted” to overworking and I needed to stop.

I think the important thing to keep in mind during this entire struggle is what you ultimately want from your entrepreneurial quest.  I knew I didn’t want to work the hours I did a few years ago for much longer, and I jumped at the first opportunity to achieve more balance.  Once we get a few employees, I’ll jump again at the opportunity to travel a bit around the country and work more remotely.  Because that’s what I want to do.  As long as there’s progress towards what you want, you can justify the sacrifice.  If that’s not the case, then maybe you should consider doing something else that provides you the opportunity to pursue the lifestyle that you want.

5 comments on Prioritizing Work – Part Deux

  1. Leigh says:

    This post really spoke to me. I have a really hard time handling my friends’ and family members’ reactions when I tell them I am self-employed. Sample reactions:

    Me: I started my own company in July. I write advertising and marketing copy for companies, as well as electronic books.

    My Pastor: “Well, at least you’re working.” (Said in the same tone as if I just showed him a picture of a dismembered corpse!)

    My friend from high school, at a summer cookout: “How’s unemployment? I mean, self-employment?”

    My mother actually suggested to me last week that I apply for food stamps since I am “not working.”

    I know I should ignore these things and just work harder to prove people wrong, but sometimes these comments really get me down and I get stuck in a rut work-wise. I have two friends who encourage me, but they also don’t really understand what it is I do, so it’s still hard.

    I’ve been trying to work through my issues with prioritizing things by making to-do lists, setting small goals instead of huge ones, etc. It is helping so far.

  2. Chris says:

    Stumbled across your blog and its very well written. Would like to share ideas, blog posts etc. Good content that is also real is hard to come by on the web. My email is above if you are interested.

  3. Adam McFarland says:

    @ Leigh – keep your head up. I definitely know exactly how you feel and I’ve obviously been there myself. It gets easier over time 🙂

    @ Chris – glad to have you aboard. Just dropped you an email.

  4. OKe says:

    Thanks again for the insightful post. I am gleaming right now that you wrote a post about my question, however, you did have it on your mind to write.

    Your quotes: “In many cases, prioritizing the work isn’t the hardest part. It’s figuring out how to prioritize your time in general. ”

    “Set short-term boundaries and goals that force you into action now (today, tomorrow, or this weekend at the latest). Procrastination is my enemy, and it has to be yours too.”

    These 2 quotes hit hard to me. I have been going through the motions for the past couple of weeks due to the move and now the dog at the new apartment. What I need to do is spend a couple of hours 1 day this week to iron out my goals and then figure out a way to accomplish them. I thank you so much for this personal information that should help me get things in order.

    P.S. Thanks for the link love!

  5. Adam McFarland says:

    Good luck Oke! As always, drop me an email if there’s anything I can do to help or if you just want to bounce an idea off of me.

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