Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keeping a balance

This is part 4 of 6 about Mark's experiences leaving Google to set up Sneaking Duck. Read parts 1, 2 and 3 here.

I've been an entrepreneur for 3 months now, and on a recent flight I was reflecting about some of the challenges. The key thing that comes to mind is the challenge of knowing how many hours to put in, or what to stop. As many of you know, when you work for yourself there is no 'normal'. You can work when you want, and how you want. The flexibility this affords is awesome, but does raise the challenge of needing to think careful about your investment level. Also you personal incentives may be in conflict - if you put more work in, you gain in terms of business progress, but maybe loose free time. If you invest fewer hours, you gain in terms of free time but are potentially losing business traction. It's easy to get caught into the trap of just working and working with gradually eroding productivity, it's also easy to get caught in the trap of "meh, I've worked hard I can take a few days off" and delay on something important. It's really not easy to work out what is the best thing to do.

At Google, and all my previous employers, I've generally worked pretty hard, however there were a few key differnces that put some boundaries around things. There was the team agreement about what is ok - things go up and down, but we all sort of knew what was reasonable. Tasks could potentially be re-allocated with some discussion with your boss. Deadlines and expectations were quite clear, so you knew when something was done.

None of these 3 things exist by themselves in entrepreneur world. I don't think I can, or even should, seek to re-create these 3 things now, but I'm keen to get better at finding the right long-term balance. These are the things that have worked, and I try to do more:

  • Set clear work objectives for a day and week, and when I'm done, call it a day. This can lead to the guilts about how you should be working, but I think it's important to train yourself that work does have an end. If I find myself kicking back at 4pm every day, maybe I'm not putting enough on the daily list, but hopefully you see what I mean
  • Seek to keep knowing yourself better. I know that I'm most productive in the mornings. I know that I'm less good when I'm hungry. I know that I get more done in a day if I take a proper break over lunch and have a chat about something different. I'm sure there's lots more I don't know about myself, and I'm sure that everyone is different, but I'm trying to learn.
  • Get enough sleep. I can go the odd night on short hours, maybe 2, but if I do it repeatedly I find my productivity and concentation starts to suffer. Unless there is just a long list of something monotonous to get through, this a complete trap where I invest the hours, but don't get the output.
  • Exercise. I'm sometimes bad at this - I set the alarm early intending to exercise, but instead hit that snooze button a few times. Then I think I should really get on with work instead of heading out for some exercise. Yet I also know I work better when I'm feeling fit and healthy. Dilemma!
Work as an entrepreneur has no end and no limits. It's completely possible to get trapped in a cycle of guilt leading to slowly decreasing productive as you don't re-charge. But it's also amazing to have the freedom to work as suits you best - I love that I can vary when I get in, stay home if it makes more sense, leave early and make it up another time. I love the flexibility. But I'm also aware that it's a tough balance to strike.

What other tips and approaches to people have to managing this challenge?

Image credit.


  1. I like this part "Set clear work objectives for a day and week, and when I'm done, call it a day." it's great. As you say it forces you to focus on what's important, what's achievable and how today fits into the bigger plan. If you find you're tackling too much you'll naturally self adjust BUT it does help you justify the downtime. It's that which is often the clincher for entrepreneurs.

  2. One of my alltime favourite management articles is ‘The Making Of A Corporate Athlete’ and it looks at exactly the last 3 points of your post. Essentially, elite athletes make sure that every element of their life is in order – health (mental and physical), diet, motivation, spirituality, yadda yadda yadda. But elite corporates, or entrepreneurs in this case, have traditionally been expected to perform at peak levels with none of that.

    I may have mangled that, but it’s here if you want to read more -

  3. Hi Mark,
    Enjoying your posts. Thanks. One point I would query is around your suggestion of not recreating the "team agreement" as you call it.
    I think it is very important to re-create the positive parts of this. Especially with respect to prioritisng your time, maintaining high-spirits and benchmarking your progress. Some people are true "lone-wolfs" and don't need it but the majority of us rely on it more than we often admit.
    I think of running as an analogy. I'm very happy training on my own, but if that's all I do then my performance slowly slips without me even realising.
    I suspect you have actually re-created a team arrangement with your setup. This is one of the harder challenges I've faced moving from being salaried professional to a self employed entrepreneur. The first step is knowing yourself better, the second is structuring your environment to accomodate.

  4. Mark, You could always try having 3 kids, that'll really make you productive in a short period of time, and also enforces off/family time. The daily/weekly objectives are something I need to do more of. Thanks for the reminder. I guess instantly producing children is harder for you though. :-)

  5. Ben - totally agree about justifying the downtime. It is the key for long-term survival.

    Edward - added to my reading list! Thank you :-)

    Roger - You raise a great point here. I sort of shy away from the 'team agreements' as being completely corporate, and everything I'm trying to avoid. However, they do have their place and value.

    Jeni - Wow. I can't even imagine the complications and personal productivity requirement for having 3 kids - I hugely admire anyone who can do that and stay sane.

  6. Great article Ed. Having just started full time on my website I can relate to most of your points. It is easy to start feeling guilty if you're not sticking to the traditional office hours. I think this is something that most non entrepreneurs cant grasp. Its been ingrained in their system for so long that you should work 9-5 5 days a week. I think that if you are managing to get everything done on your to do list then you are being far more productive than sitting in an office and going on Facebook or hanging out in the kitchen.