Many business owners arrive home late, tired and preoccupied. How can you find the perfect balance between your business life and your personal life?
In this episode
In this episode of Essential Business Radio, first broadcast a few years ago, we talk to Soraya Shaw of Springboard Coaching, Mark Walsh of Integration Training and Curtis James, now of Fieldwork and ask them striking the balance between business and personal.
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Julie Stanford: Striking the balance between business and personal. Many business owners arrive home late, tired, and preoccupied. How can you strike the perfect balance between your business life and your personal life?
I’m Julie Stanford. A few years ago I presented a show called, Business as Usual for RadioReverb in Brighton. What my guests and I talked about during those shows is still very relevant today. In this show, my guests and I are discussing work-life balance.
About the guests
Julie Stanford: Welcome again, to the three of you. Last week we talked about, what does it actually feel like to run a business? What’s the experience of it? Some of the things that we came up with is that it can be very stressful, it’s very difficult managing your time, and so I wanted you to come back, really to talk about your areas of expertise, which are, how do you manage all the demands on your time? So, who wants to kick off? Curtis? What are your thoughts about this whole work-life balance aspect?
Curtis James: A lot of the work we do with our clients is around getting things out of their heads, so that it’s not constantly bugging them. I think if you’re running a business and it gets to Friday afternoon and you’re still thinking about everything because you haven’t written it down, it’s not in a system that you trust, you’re going to spend the whole weekend thinking about it. That may happen anyway if you’ve got a very busy business and it’s new or whatever, you could still spend the weekend thinking about it. We try to help people to get that stuff out of their heads whether or not it’s in a notebook or on a computer system and to define what those things are as well so that they’ve got some kind of idea of where they’re heading with them. I don’t know, I think that’s one thing that helps people to kind of relax a little bit more, and hopefully shut off for the weekend.
Julie Stanford: So you find that a lot of people have this kind of constant circling of information in their minds, and that helps them just stop that, and park it?
Curtis James: For a start, when you’re actually trying to do a piece of work and you want to focus on it, if all that other stuff is floating around in your head, it’s going to be very hard for you to do a good job on that work. But then when you want to actually want to switch off from work altogether, it’s going to be almost impossible to put that stuff to bed for a bit.
Julie Stanford: Mark, what would you be saying to people that you’re training or coaching about this whole aspect of balancing the day-to-day work and … We’re calling it life, we know that work is part of life, but let’s say their personal life or the other non-work related aspect of it. How would you work with people, helping them cope with it, and get it sorted, really?
Mark Walsh: What Curtis said was great, that idea of getting it out of your head rather than getting out of your head. That’s fantastic advice. For me, what I do, I call plorking, which is a mixture of playing and working. I highly recommend that. And a lot of what I do … So, that’s a big part of it for me. And also the danger of that, for myself and for other people that run businesses is lack of boundaries. I found myself checking my email once, in bed at 7.00am, as my alarm had gone off-which is also my Blackberry. And I thought: “Oh, I’ll just check my emails before I get up.” That was no good, so now I set some boundaries around. For example, I always have breakfast before I check my emails. Just a little thing, but it makes a difference.
Julie Stanford: So you would advise people to think about where aspects of their work are creeping into really quite, I don’t know, responsible parts of their life, really. Because that’s not good, that’s not going to … Checking your email first thing in the morning, you’re just setting yourself up for problems there, honestly. So, do you advise people to think practically about it? You know, “Where is it creeping across? How can I stop that?”
Mark Walsh: Yeah, it could be that. For example, my girlfriend will slap me if I check my email while we’re having dinner. That’s something I highly recommend…
Julie Stanford: Is that aversion therapy?
Mark Walsh: …setting up as a system.
Julie Stanford: You’ve got an aversion therapy thing going on.
Soraya, what about you, with your clients in your coaching in management?
Soraya Shaw: I think for me, I work with my clients around setting down gold rules, because I work with a lot of women, sort of senior women, who have families, and they also have Blackberrys. I think setting down your golden rules about, “the Blackberry does not come home at weekends,” or your rule of, “I’m not going to open it until I’ve actually arrived at the office.” But also, golden rules about Fridays, as well, “I’m going to spend time with my kids,” or, “I’m going to spend time on me.” Because I think the whole relaxation part is so important to actually being very effective when you are working. So, I think having your golden rules is my kind of area that I really work with clients around.
Julie Stanford: And you think it’s worth actually really stopping and taking stock, and then thinking about what those rules might be? I should imagine they are going to be different for different people. I listen, and thinking, “Okay, how can I apply this in my life?” What would be the first step to doing that? Let’s think about really working out what your own personal golden rules are. What would be the first thing that your client would do, you would encourage your client to do?
Balance and boundaries
Soraya Shaw: I think I’d get them to look at two things. First what I’d get them to look at, what is working well for them in their working week. Then, equally, what is not working well. For those areas that aren’t working well, we’d explore what’s happening, and how they can find a solution to it. But also, helping them to just engage with the things that they’re personally passionate about, because I think with the internet and people working at home and Blackberrys, it all starts creeping in. Before you know it, people are working seven days a week.
Julie Stanford: I know from bitter experience that that’s exactly what I’ve, I have done in the past. Yes, Mark?
Mark Walsh: I was just thinking about Blackberrys, and technology is definitely not the answer.
Julie Stanford: We ought to also say, not just Blackberry, but any other phone on which you can receive your emails.
Mark Walsh: My phone will get jealous if it hears me talking about Blackberrys.
Yes, it’s not just a technological issue. I mean, you can have a Blackberry and still, if you can’t say no, if you can’t ask for help, as discussed in the last one of these, you will be overwhelmed still. So it’s really a embodied, emotional, very personal piece, about how you manage yourself. “Are you centred?”, for example. If you’re all over the place and you haven’t got yourself together, then it doesn’t matter how good a plan you have in theory, you won’t get to carry it out because something will come up and your attention will be drawn to it. That’s the world we live in, very attention-grabbing. So your ability to be centred around what you really care about is crucial.
Julie Stanford: So you think it’s not just a matter of having the practical tools or the practical skills in place, it’s about really starting earlier than that, or, further back in the chain, it’s looking at yourself and how you manage, I suppose, your relationships with other people and with your work. Curtis, is that something that comes up in your workshops?
Curtis James: Absolutely, and I see it with nearly everyone that I work with. If someone’s checking their emails all of the time or on the computer all of the time, you have to ask, “Why are they doing that?” Normally, there’s an aspect of their life that’s not quite right. And, without going into too much emotional stuff, there was normally a personal issue there. A need to either be contacted all the time or they’re trying to get away from their personal life because something isn’t quite right. But there’s generally more questions there, around their actual home life. It’s a very easy way of getting away from your family life by being in your Blackberry all the time.
I think with your Blackberry, or whatever phone you’re using, or whatever email system you’re using, it’s about managing expectations as well. I think a lot of people in business, if people know you’ve got a Blackberry, they know they can send an email to you and it’s going to arrive with you immediately. So the expectation is that you’re going to see that immediately, and if you don’t respond immediately, you’re not doing your job properly. We need to move away from that. I tell most of the people that I’m working with that I check my emails a couple of times a day. If it’s important, send me a text or phone me, because I’m not looking at my emails every five minutes.
Julie Stanford: I realised a sort of revelation that I … Somebody said this to me, and I’ve said in a previous show, “Oh, I emailed you and you didn’t reply”, and I said, “No, I won’t. I’m not good with emails. I’m far better on the phone. If you want me, ring me. But if you want to get me urgently you’ll be a few days before you get a reply on my emails, because I get hundreds every day”. And it’s not spam, it’s hundreds of emails that I need to respond to.
Curtis James: But that really is still about managing expectations because if people aren’t aware of that, then they’re going to get annoyed. So it’s about telling the people you’re working with, “Look, I’m only going to check my emails twice a day, so don’t expect a reply to that email.”
Julie Stanford: So, it’s not we’re not letting them guess, then, we have to have actually say …
Curtis James: They can’t read your mind! They know technology is going to deliver that email to you straight away.
Julie Stanford: Yeah. Mark?
Mark Walsh: I’d agree with all that, but you can’t really manage time. What you can manage is your commitments and your promises. So, “Have I made a commitment to someone to respond to them within an hour?” If I haven’t, if I’ve made no such commitment, there’s no such expectation, as Curtis says, then, “Okay, maybe I’ll check my email twice a day and they’ll be cool with that”. So to have that set up as an agreement.
Julie Stanford: But the expectation, as Curtis says, because of technology, is that we’ll respond straight away. So we actively have to manage that expectation by saying, “By the way, I won’t respond straight away.”
Although I would really not normally there’s a big difference between the way men and women balance work and life. Soraya, in your experience, because you work with a number of women as well, and these are high-achieving, high-level businesswomen, is there anything there about how they’re dealing with it? Because of the so many demands on their time or is it that it’s just people?
Soraya Shaw: I think it’s just people but I do think women can feel very guilty if they’re not on top of everything and they’re not being seen to be much more driven and focused on their role and what the business needs to achieve. I think that’s very much about them then helping them to feel take away that guilt and actually helping them to put their boundaries down and have their golden rules and just make commitments to outside of their work. But I think it’s becoming more endemic across everybody, male and female. But I do think that women spend a lot of time feeling guilty about it all the time.
Julie Stanford: Curtis, yes?
Work and family
Curtis James: Speaking as a single parent, there’s certain rules that I’ve got in my life and in fact, today, I’ll be having the afternoon off to collect my son from school and I’ve done that since he started school which is seven years now. I’ve always had Tuesday afternoons off because that’s an important time for me to spend with my son. But being in business, that’s not always that simple. There are afternoons where I have to do a bit of work when he’s around but he understands that. He’s old enough now to deal with that and to know that I’m running my own business and he benefits from that.
Julie Stanford: Mark?
Mark Walsh: Love this phrase the ‘golden rule.’ I’ve often talked about sacred time, booking out time. Sunday evenings I’d do Aikido. I find that fantastic for me. Often there’s things that are important but not urgent, that are difficult, in my experience people in businesses are just very busy people to get done. It’s things like going to the gym, we know it’s healthy but it’s never an emergency. Where as a client calling you up and say “I have to have this done right away.” It’s got that urgency to it. I think it’s almost a discipline to be able to do that.
Julie Stanford: I remember, I may have touched this on a previous show … but I remember when I was running my design company and my son was about five years old, and I came in, I took the day off to be with him all day. I came in to my studio, where my staff were all there working, and they’d had a problem with a job that had to go out that day. It had to go out that day because there were people arriving at the training course and they’d had a major technical problem and I had to put it right because I was the only one with the skill to do it. My little boy sat on a chair for an hour and a half in my studio and I felt that that was the low point for me. I felt as if I must be so bad at business that I could leave my poor little boy sitting … he wasn’t actually very bothered. He sat kicking his legs on this chair but I felt terrible.
How would we deal with that because that is a practical problem? There is a problem in the business, there was no one else that could solve it, what could I have done about that?
Curtis James: But was that the norm?
Julie Stanford: No.
Curtis James: That stuff’s going to come up. There’s always going to be a time where something will kind of blow up and you’ve got to deal with it. That happens with me sometimes and Max understands that. That’s just about being in business. There’s times where you will be able to have an afternoon off. That’s another benefit of being in business. I think as long as it doesn’t become the norm, as long as you catch it because I think it’s very easy, it’s a slippery slope. You start doing that and you think he’s sitting there and he’s happy and “It’ll be all right, next week we could do that.” Then it becomes the norm and that’s when it becomes dangerous, I think.
Julie Stanford: Yes, Soraya?
Soraya Shaw: I think just twisting that around … My son got very used to being around me in business. But actually now, that he’s older and I’ve talked to him about it, he really appreciates it because … he saw a different side of me, but he also felt that he was very included in something that mummy went off to, and actually he was there being part of it. I totally agree that you can’t make this norm but I think the guilt thing … actually, you know, it’s not so bad for them.
Julie Stanford: Yes, it’s interesting. Yes, Mark?
Mark Walsh: Two questions come up for me, really … complementary questions. One is, can we completely take responsibility for what we do? I always joke that I didn’t have to do anything except take up space and love my mum. For everything else, it’s a choice. Taking responsibilities for the decisions on the priorities that I make so I choose to do this today, I’m not going to the gym. I choose not to do about my health today. The other one is, can we as business people treat ourselves compassionately? Can we as well as getting the job done and being effective? Can we also treat ourselves as human beings and parents and mothers and brothers and sons and those very human things?
Julie Stanford: I said last week that often, when I’m doing talks on business and I see … sometimes, hundreds of people sitting in front of me and I always feel great admiration for them, I really do, because I know it’s not easy and I know they’re taking time out to learn more or to just be inspired or whatever they’re there to do. I think that it is to be really admired when people do that. Yes, Curtis?
Curtis James: I may be shot down for this, especially whilst we’re going through a recession, so people are having to work harder and harder, but I do hear a lot of people say to me, when they’re running their own businesses “I don’t have any free time, I don’t have a personal life.” and I kinda want to say to them “But why are you doing it? If you really enjoy it, if you want to do something you’re enjoying, then do it. But don’t moan about it”, it kind of annoys me. I do understand at the moment we’re going to have to put the extra bit in but people are always saying that when they’re running their own business. “I just don’t have any free time.” It kind of annoys me.
Julie Stanford: Soraya?
Soraya Shaw: Interesting. There are two things that I always say to my client because I think it’s very interesting with business people that say “I’ve got not time, I’ve got no time”, I think sometimes, actually, they quite like the significance of looking busy rushing round and going “I’ve got no time, I’ve got no time”. I think there’s a huge danger when you’re working your business that everything can become urgent. Everything has to have a deadline, everything has to go out the door because people don’t stop and actually think about it. One of the tools that I use with my clients is actually for them to sit down and work out their day by what’s urgent and what’s actually important. It gives them such a shift and a real insight into you where they’re actually wasting a lot of time and where they could be delegating or outsourcing or whatever outsourcing to actually what’s important. The other thing is about getting people to take thinking time. The conscious brain can only hold so much and everything’s pushed into the subconscious. Actually taking half a day out, half an hour out to actually stop and think, people are so much more effective.
Julie Stanford: I’ve found also a really clever way of managing my customer’s expectations when I was running the agency. I think I’ve mentioned this before as well, but I felt like I’d grown up as a business owner because this seemed to be just the best thing to do. First of all, I set the expectation in my terms and conditions. Which was this is our turnaround time, this is our normal turnaround time for the work we’re going to do, so people knew what to expect. If they then came and were unreasonable in what they were expecting, I would just stand and smile, and say, “Yes, there’ll be a 100% rush charge for that.” Then, I shut up. So, I won both ways, because I didn’t say to any kind of difficult way, I just said, “Just reminding you of our terms and conditions, there is a charge for that. Do you still want to go ahead?” I was quiet shocked at how well people took that. They’d say, “Actually, yes. I’ll pay the charge” or “No, it can wait until next week.” Both answers were wonderfully liberating because I either got more time or I got more money.
It took me a long time and a painful time to get to that stage in the business. What ideas would you give people of ways of managing those expectations? It just seems to be a lot of it about that, isn’t it? What other people expect of us and what we expect of ourselves. Mark?
Mark Walsh: I love that policy of yours. Reminds me of the post office, they do it. So, why not? To add to what Soraya said as well as thinking time, I really recommend people had not thinking time. Time working with the body, time meditating, mindfulness practice I highly recommend. Even if that’s just for going a walk on the downs. Walking on the seafront in your lunch hour in Brighton. That, just, being with nature, being with your own body, that can be really rejuvenating, as well. I highly recommend that. What’s the question?
Julie Stanford: We were just pondering, really, about managing expectations. Also, customers expectation of us, because maybe we’re being a bit hard on ourselves, here thinking that a lot of those difficulty with balancing work and life, as it were, comes from us. When actually, as business owners, masses of it comes from external pressure, doesn’t it? With our customers really expecting too much of us because technology’s added to that, added to that pressure. As a designer, I was expected many years ago to take three weeks to design and produce artwork. My clients, then, ended up expecting me to be able to do it in a day. In other words, they were not building in my creative thinking time. They were just thinking of it as a technological process.
Curtis James: I think everyone struggles with working out how long it’s going to take to do something. You look at your calendar and the week ahead and you think “I’ll put all that stuff in there.” You’re always going to be moving stuff over. Everyone that I work with struggles with that and I do as well. It’s difficult to block time out and to know how long it’s going to take to write that document. Really, it’s about managing expectations of yourself but also with your clients. We want to please people and we want to retain our clients. So you kind of want to deliver stuff but if you’re delivering stuff too quickly you might be doing a not so good job. You kind of want to manage that expectation to make sure they’re aware you’re putting the effort in and delivering something really well but it might take a bit longer.
Julie Stanford: Soraya?
Soraya Shaw: I totally agree on managing expectations. I think being very clear in your terms and conditions on how you work. I actually think this is going to be a problem that’s not going to go away and actually how people manage it in coming into next year, I think is going to be very important because everyone is feeling pressured, everyone is feeling “Time is of the essence, otherwise, I’m going to miss out.” I think one of the ways, perhaps, we can help our clients, is actually by really interrogating what their needs are upfront, not just our expectations, and help them to get a very clear picture of what it is they need, and what their timings are, and is that actually realistic. It’s quiet interesting when you start doing that people go “Actually, you’re right, I could just wait for that.” Helping them to think is a good thing.
Julie Stanford: Mark.
Mark Walsh: For me, something that’s crucial to get clear is, “Is this my story? Or is this actually reality? Is this the facts?” Often, I work in stress workshops with very stressed people and what would become apparent is they’ll have a story that “I have to do this and it has to be done right away. My client expects an email back straight away.” Just gently question that and say “Is that really that case? Is that an agreement you have? Is that a commitment?” Often, it’s not. Often, it’s in their head. When they check out with the people they work with, it’s something slightly different. The other one is what I call conditions of satisfaction.
Every time anyone ask you to do something, which as business people, that’s what we do. We fulfill requests, so, anytime people ask me something, I say “What are the conditions of satisfactions here? What would be a fantastic result? Okay, you want it in this time, you want it to this standard, and you want it done in that way, great.” Now I know, I can say yes or no to that. Being really clear about what the conditions of satisfaction are up-front can save a lot of pain and trouble for everyone later on.
Julie Stanford: It reminds me of that sense of wanting to … often, many of us are perfectionist. I know in my own work, I would often work late into the night and the weekends to produce a perfectly designed job for my client. It was only when my partner pointed out that that was not the client’s idea of perfect, and really, I could’ve come home earlier and given them the job that the client would’ve been really happy with. It dawned on me that he was right. I was there fulfilling my expectation of the work rather than the client’s expectation. I would suspect that a lot of business owners get caught up in that, especially if they build a business round their own technical skill or passion. Because if it’s your passion or it’s the skill that you’re very good at, you’re going to want to do it to the best of your ability. Do you find that other people struggle with that idea of when to stop and hand this off to the client?
Mark Walsh: Definitely. I’m just going to say a little bit about something my brother does. He’s a musician and he is just a classic example of a creative person that would spend a year fine tuning a piece of music before he says “Right, I’m going to commit that to vinyl or to a CD.” It’s going to go out there, it’s going to be duplicated into thousands of copies. At some point he has to decide to let go of that. I think it’s very difficult, especially for creative people to let go of work.
Julie Stanford: Soraya?
Soraya Shaw: I think I’m just sitting here laughing, actually. Because I think it’s … I don’t know about the guys around the table but I know my … I get locked into my … designing a workshop. I’m looking at theories and how to do things. I love reading, so I read and read and read. Make lots of notes, design into my head, put … and that’s my trap because I’m trying to make it absolutely perfect but it’s also because I really enjoy it.
Julie Stanford: When we were talking earlier about this kind of going home in the evening. Very often, I would stay at my work doing the work of my business. Although everyone was going out to the pub, it wasn’t really something I particularly wanted to do. I might like it if it was going to the cinema or something else, there was something else that attracted my attention. But for me, I preferred, my design work. Like I prefer publishing. I love designing books so that people can actually really learn from them. For me, as a person, that was more pleasurable, and I know … people saying I was a workaholic for a long time. But actually, it wasn’t all workaholism, it was me loving what I do.
Curtis James: I think that’s fine if it is something that you really love doing. But I think, also, there are people that are workaholics and they’re avoiding the other aspects of their life and they’re using their work to do that. I think there’s different sides to that. I think, for me, I still work at an office, that’s in my home, and one of the things I have to do to finish my day … I have to leave the house. So every other day I’ll go for a run at the end of the day. That, for me, feels like I’ve walked home and come back and I’ve gone home after being at work and it’s quiet a nice kind of change and it makes me feel like I’ve finished my day.
Julie Stanford: There is a particular challenge there for people working from home, isn’t there?
Mark Walsh: Yes. It’s pretty challenging to get healthy boundaries there. I always put some work trousers on and a shirt. It sounds silly, even if I’m not seeing a client, maybe I’m just talking to them on the phone. But that really helps me and at the end of the day I take my trousers off.
Julie Stanford: Replace them with some others?
Mark Walsh: Absolutely, yes. I always joke I’m self-exploited because I love what I do. I love training and I do it and it’s very easy to do it all the time and having that sacred space where I know … “Sunday night I’m going to be Aikido, Tuesday I’m going to be dancing. I’ve made a promise to my girlfriend that we’re having dinner on Wednesday night.” For me, keeping promises is really important. I make promises and then keep them … around things that aren’t work.
Julie Stanford: Stephen Covey, he spoke of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When he talks about … I think it’s Stephen Covey, the big rocks … where you put in the really important things into your calendar and then you put the smaller rocks around it which is … you know … So, you put the important things like your friends and your family and the things you love to do that really make you feel better about yourself and make you live life more joyously, I suppose in some ways …
Curtis James: One of the things that we try to put some focus on in our workshops is actually dealing with the personal aspects of people’s lives. Just because you’re at your work desk doesn’t mean to say that that stuff that’s going on at home has been left there.
Julie Stanford: No.
Curtis James: So that can affect your work as well and have a negative effect on it. We also help people get that stuff out of their heads to and into their system. At least somewhere and not in their head. I think that’s a really important thing for them to do and it always surprises people at first. “I’ve come here for a work thing, why are you asking me what’s going on in my personal life?” The brain doesn’t differentiate.
Mark Walsh: Have good boundaries and realise there’s no such thing as well.
Julie Stanford: Soraya?
Soraya Shaw: I think it’s a very good point and I think when people go to work, you’re not dehumanising them, they’re human beings. We all have our own emotions and feelings and good days and bad days. It’s a holistic thing, it’s a 360 thing. For me, I don’t take my trousers off when I finish. But I do have little rituals of closing the laptop, shutting the door, getting out of the room, and I think that’s … as much as you can trying to make it 9:00–5:30.
Julie Stanford: Let’s think then, we’ve come to the end of the round table. It always comes by so quickly. Before you go, if you could leave us with a really great idea of ways of helping us achieve that optimum balance between work and the rest of our lives. What would that be? If you could just … one thought. Yes, Mark?
Mark Walsh: Get a really good system and be a human being within that.
Julie Stanford: That importance again of people with thinking of yourself as human first and business owner second.
Mark Walsh: Integrated.
Julie Stanford: Integrated, that’s the word. Oh yes, your business. The light’s just gone on. Curtis, what about you?
Curtis James: I totally agree with Mark on the system thing. But I think, don’t lose track of the things you really love doing and make you a good human being. I think it’s really important that you stay true to those things and try to honour them and keep to them and don’t keep breaking agreements with yourself.
Julie Stanford: Soraya, what about you?
Soraya Shaw: I agree with the guys, totally. I’d also add that making commitments to your family and your friends outside of work means that you can’t let people down.
Julie Stanford: It’s always fantastic to hear people who know what they’re talking about give their thoughts and experience to the listener. Can I say thank you?
This show was originally recorded for Business as Usual on RadioReverb. I’m Julie Stanford, thank you for listening to Essential Business Radio.