Entrepreneurs, freelancers, and small business owners often face a problem. We are our work. And because we are our work, it’s easy to lose track of when we need to stop working and pay attention to other things in our lives besides our work: our significant others, our children, our pets, even other things about ourselves that make us complete people. (Sometimes those “other things” are called “hobbies.” Remember hobbies?)
Lots of advice columns and books out there exist to tell you to work smarter, not harder. They talk about the Pareto principle. (I actually really like that one.) They talk about a four-hour work week. They talk about the one unicorn-like thing that those of us who are our own bookkeeper, personal assistant, marketing department, and all the rest rolled into one can’t imagine doing: working less.
But what a lot of these advice columns and books get wrong is what many of us hard working small business owners have finally gotten right. We love our work. For us, doing our work is living. Drawing a bright line between “work” and “life” doesn’t make any sense when you feel so fulfilled by your work that you don’t need or want to reach outside of it for a hobby to make you feel complete. (You still might want to do that though. More in a minute.)
This column is for those of us who have figured out two very important things. First, we started our own businesses, which means we get to work for ourselves. Every minute we work is our own. That’s incredible. Go us.
Second, we started our businesses because we realized that there were things that we can do that are both cool and fun and that other people will pay us for. We didn’t start our businesses to do boring things. We started our businesses to do work we love. Sure, every business has its grunt work, the work you don’t love to do, but the grunt work serves that greater purpose.
In short, we’re a lucky lot.
So to revisit the question I posed at the very top: Do people like us even need to stop working and start living? The answer is: it’s complicated. But here are three ways to make sure we are working and living well.
When you get up in the morning tomorrow, try out these two sentences to see which one fits better:
“I get to ________ today!”
“I have to _______ today.”
Fill in the blank with your work for the day. Is your work “get-to” work? Or is it “have-to” work? Now think: Are you finding yourself in a trend of get-to work or have-to work? Now and then we have days of have-to work, or half-days, or a couple of hours here and there. That’s normal. But if you find that you are in a trend of have-to work, then you might have lost sight of why you started your business in the first place. You might need to make a bigger change. You don’t need to stop working and start living, you might just need to change your work.
If your work doesn’t involve moving around physically, then you need to integrate movement into your work day. I like to walk when I work, and I built a walking desk just for that purpose. Whenever I have a conference call, I take the call outside and walk on the sidewalk while I talk. Whenever I need to come up with ideas, I use the voice-transcription function on my cell phone to take notes, and take a walk. (Plus, the walking can help you come up with ideas, by increasing blood-flow to your brain.)
In short, Descartes was wrong. Our minds are integrated with our bodies, and when our bodies are healthier our minds work better. Keep your body healthy. (Here’s where I say a healthy hobby might be a good idea.)
Slacking off gets a bad rap. We’re supposed to work on workdays and rest on our designated rest days—weekends, holidays, etc. Except Memorial Day we’re supposed to have a cook-out, same for July Fourth, and on the weekends we’re supposed to work on house projects. Honest, when are we supposed to slack off with all of this designated fun going on?
Sometimes, on a Tuesday, when Tana French releases a new novel called The Trespasser, I just want to read the book and not do anything else. I tell myself that I’m reading the book for work. (I’m a novelist, editor, and creative writing teacher, so this is a plausible excuse.) But really, I just want to slack off and read the best book that’ll come out in October. On a Tuesday. Because I can, and it’s what I want to do.
And then on Wednesday, I can get up, and go right back to work. Some people call slacking off “recharging” or “resting” or whatever. I say we should call it what it is. Slacking off is not designated fun. It’s not a hobby. It doesn’t happen during designated times. It happens when we just don’t feel like working.
And since we work like the dickens most of the time, and since we’re keeping ourselves healthy, we get to slack off now and then.
Now that is what I call living well.