I’ve had the word “balance” as one of my yearly words at least three times. It’s a word you see and hear bandied around a lot whenever you’re googling speedy self care at 4am after another late night working. (I know this isn’t just me, though reckon 4am is probably pushing it if you’re not a solo night owl like me!)
Every business owner I know, at every stage, has struggled or still struggles with balance – finding a way to do enough, be enough, make enough, and still have enough time to actually live. While it soothes me to know it’s not just me that finds this a constant uphill climb, it makes me sad that so many of us started our businesses for a better work life balance and have somehow made it worse than it ever was. Even if we’re happier!
So why is it so goddamned hard?! And more usefully, what can we do to make it better and easier?
Escapism from the 9-5
My first theory is that most people who start a business are compelled to try it because they cannot deal with the 9-5 life any more, or can’t bear the idea of doing a day job for x number of working years. Not that I have ever had a day job which was actually 9-5 – do they even exist any more? But I digress.
Whether you’ve leaped to full time, are juggling both or just taking your first steps in your time away from your day job, it’s usually something that is exciting, and challenging, grabs your imagination, and is fulfilling in a way working for someone else isn’t. Most of the people I speak to about this tell me that they could do their old job standing on their head, they’re bored and unfulfilled, but don’t want to expend precious energy learning a whole new job, only to find themselves repeating the pattern and in the same position a few months or years down the line.
I think this is also one of the situations where other people’s voices can be much louder than our own. As entrepreneurs, business owners or side hustlers, we will (hopefully) always have friends who have more traditional working setups than we do. In most cases they’re baffled but supportive of our dreams, but occasionally jealousy can rear its head and some less-than-helpful words can emerge, which play on our own insecurities and just make us work harder to prove them wrong. Sometimes people we love will also say things which feel negative, because they worry about us and they want to see us secure, and our way of doing things can seem scary and unstable to others. (and to us occasionally!)
Dealing with this is a mindset thing – your escape is valid, you don’t have to make a living the way we were taught we were supposed to, but you may have to nod and smile at people and let them have their say.
What you don’t have to do is take any advice you don’t want to. Generally I listen to all advice given to me, and then weigh up my instincts about what’s good, what’s irrelevant, who has given it to me and whether they’re in a position I want to take advice from. You can take what you need and leave the rest – but don’t burn bridges, the majority of people around you want the best for you, they just might not understand the route you’re taking to it.
In terms of finding balance, make sure you surround yourself with a variety of people, and if you are turning your Thing into a business, where it takes up a big chunk of energy, money and time even while it brings you joy, be sure to also make space and time in your life for the people who are important to you and for time to do things which are unrelated to the Thing. If you have to, schedule them in like a client meeting or something else you wouldn’t cancel and treat it the same way – you need your support team and your brain needs recharging space.
Money, money, money
My second observation, experience and theory (it’s not a theory really, is it?!) is that money drives a massive amount of our overworking and inability to leave our businesses alone for five minutes. When you’re not making any, it’s stressful, and when you’re making plenty, you worry that it won’t last forever. If you have staff, you worry about paying them, and if you don’t, you worry about whether you can do all the things well enough and in time to continue making money.
It’s enough to make you wonder why we do this when it’s written down like that! (Though we all know the answer to that already… with apologies to all the English teachers I’ve ever had for the grammar, we can’t not do it.)
There’s a pervasive hustle culture, especially in online business, that means we are conditioned to think that if we just work a bit more and a bit harder, we’ll make it. Even if we are already making it to our own definition of success. This is a sneaky one to keep an eye out for.
I’d also like to remind you, me and pretty much everyone who’s ever so much as dipped their toes into the entrepreneurial world that money is not necessarily the end goal. Yes, we need to make a living and yes, we deserve a decent lifestyle. But you get to define what that looks like for yourself – we do not have to aspire to run empires unless we want to, and if we were just in it for the money, we probably wouldn’t be doing the thing we’re most devoted to as a business.
Multiple income streams are a thing, and I have always believed that your creative Thing does not have to provide all your income on its own. Or at all. I stand by this belief – as long as you get to do the Thing(s) which light you up and make you happy, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.
There are so many ways to design your life around what your soul needs, and working eight million hours for what works out at less than minimum wage is not the way to do it, I promise.
If you love doing something, you don’t have to be good at it and it doesn’t have to become your business. You can make money elsewhere (legally, please) and devote your free time to what you love.
You can also go full tilt and turn what you love into your business, and spend more time than you ever thought possible on your Thing. This is also a wonderful solution, but remember that business is made up of other things – accounts, clients, websites & tech, systems, admin – and make sure you’re at least prepared for those things before you leap.
And there are about five million different ways to design your income and life between those two extremes. You can chop and change as often as you like during your life and business journey – there is no shame in a “proper” job and no superiority in being solely your own boss, no matter what the rest of the internet tries to tell you. It’s your life so you get to define what works for you. Please don’t ever feel limited by having to make money from your Thing in order to be able to do it.
But you love it
When your life, work and business are all intertwined, and half your friends and all your online friends are also self employed, and you love what you’re doing and you have no idea how to switch off and even when you try to have time away your brain is still going nineteen to the dozen with ideas, how are you supposed to untangle all of that and stop for a bit?
I get it – I love everything I do, and tend to get very excited about starting new things, but I’m terrible at setting boundaries around starting and finishing, I have lurking people-pleasing tendencies, and as a result I frequently end up massively overwhelmed and burnt out. It’s not ideal, because at that stage, you just get endlessly more frustrated that you can’t do everything and it’s a hideous vicious circle.
But it turns out that:
a) you can’t do everything all at once (when am I getting that tattooed in foot high letters somewhere?), and
b) we do actually function better even at the things we adore when we have some time away from them.
If you’re finding you’re getting a bit snappy or irritable around your business, it might be a good time to check whether you are, in fact, ever getting time away from it in your own head. Routine is something that helps me with this, although I have ever more elaborate ways of reminding myself about routine, because it does not come naturally to me.
Routine can help make sure you have some structure and balance to your days, which very contrarily helps your unstructured time to be exactly what you need it to be. Whether it’s a dance class once a week or an hour of reading and journalling before you start the day, or strict times for answering emails & messages, having some structure is a great tool for ensuring you have all the things which nourish and nurture you in your life, and you’re not just working and occasionally slotting in food and sleep.
You’re allowed to love, and do, things which aren’t connected with your business, creative practice or soul work. You never know what those other things might inspire!
Creative practice vs creative work
This is a concept that I have recognised in my soul for a long time, but only saw put into words while I was on retreat earlier this year. Beth Pickens, in Make Your Art No Matter What, talks about the difference between your creative practice – the thing(s) you do because they feed your soul and are part of your self expression and it is unthinkable not to do them, but without any pressure to sell or make money from them, and creative work, which is using those same skills but for earning money.
It’s such a revelatory concept and yet such a simple one – and perfectly sums up how I feel about my art photography and my client work, both brand photography and the fantasy/mermaid work. While I love all three things equally, the client work allows me to create for others, to a brief and to use my skills to help others, and in turn that means my art doesn’t have to have commercial value.
This meant I reached a point for the first time in 2022 where the art I create is not for anyone but me – prints and cards are for sale, but I have no major attachment as to whether they sell or not, or whether people like them – which is incredibly liberating because it means I can just create whatever is in my imagination without fear. (And of course when people do love and buy my work, it means the world! But not having pressure around it being commercially viable is huge.)
Alongside that, I have noticed I get very stroppy and sad and find it hard to be my usual self when I am not regularly creating just for me. It’s definitely better when I have lots of photography clients booked in, but a hard lesson I’ve learned is that if I let my other things get in the way of time with my camera, and if I let my to do list get in the way of my own creative practice, everything suffers, and my mental health is first on the list to crack.
Blocking time for my creative practice and holding it sacred even when there is an endless to do list and crazy deadlines and not enough hours in the day is the best way I know of keeping my sanity and being able to do all the things on the to do list better, after my creative time. And means I can show up for my beloved clients much more brightly and fully – so everyone wins.
I owe developing this ability to several amazing humans – you know who you are and I’m very grateful!
For clarity, this could be five or ten minutes, a few times a week – I am not necessarily suggesting finding endless swathes of time amidst the madness that is modern life. In fact, I picked up Beth’s book in the first place because being on retreat and having six unfettered days just to make art and write freaked me the fuck out – I had no idea what to do with it and panicked to begin with.
Last on my list of observations and theories about balance is that we are a stubborn bunch of humans. On the whole, this is a good thing – we don’t let small things like politics, budgets, societal expectations, pessimism or naysayers get in the way of what we’re determined to do, and we quite often perform miracles with deadlines, expectations and creativity.
But that same streak of stubbornness can also mean that we refuse to recognise when we’re exhausted and burning out and absolutely reject the idea of stopping – I am the first person to put my hand up because I’m a repeat offender for this!
Towards the end of last year, someone said to me that whenever I least feel I am able to take time off, that’s the time I most need to and will benefit most from stepping back and resting. Obviously, the first time they brought this up I nodded politely, turned the air blue under my breath, and muttered away about how they just didn’t get it and didn’t understand, and how could I possibly stop now when I had SO MUCH to do and SO LITTLE time and and and…
Familiar? For your sake I hope not but I know I’m not alone in this. Turns out your body can out-stubborn you, and if you go long enough without resting, it will make you stop. Balance means making time for your wellness, or you’ll be forced to make time for your illness – and having done both fairly recently, I can confirm that it’s much nicer to take time off when you’re feeling good than when you’re bedbound and angry as well as unwell.
It’s hard, but it’s possible
Finding and maintaining balance is hard enough with a normal job and the various stuff that goes with modern life, whatever your life choices. Add a creative practice and/or a business into the mix and you have a recipe for potentially never taking time off ever again.
I don’t think there will ever be one right or easy solution, and for all of us, especially when we love our work and want to give our best to our clients & customers, there will inevitably be times when we have to push through and not rest and not stop for a while.
But along with the suggestions in each section of this post, to get a better balance I also strongly recommend starting to build and weave in these three things to your life, work, creativity and business:
- Reminders – a list, mood board or other visual representation of the things which help you to recentre, relax, unwind and switch off. Mine is a Filofax dashboard called “Spells for feeling well” so that when I am feeling stressed, coming to the end of a busy period or approaching burn out, I don’t have to think, I can just look at it and choose an activity.
- Scheduling – or more accurately, reviewing your scheduling. If you’re like me, every minute is stuffed with things, you have a list as long as your arm and if you have an appointment or booking in a day, you can’t settle to doing anything else in case you get into flow and miss it.
So look at your calendar and see what you can turn down or cancel to make space, figure out how much space you need to plan in in future, and start scheduling in your own rest time and treat it with reverence.
One more handy tip on the scheduling front – I really struggle with the one-appointment-a-day thing when it’s meetings and chats rather than actual shoots. I have fixed this recently by having a day or two every month, picking a venue, and getting everyone to come and meet me there. Built in boundaries (because I have none when talking to new people), and no chance of missing my next meeting.
- People – build your support network. Find people who can both cheer you on and give you perspective, and people who understand the journey you’re on (whether or not they want to do it themselves). It doesn’t have to be huge – it could be one person on a similar path, one person who supports you but does something different and can give a different perspective, and maybe one person who you never talk about this stuff with so is an automatic switch off and relax zone.
It could also be an entire group of peers online, a meetup group in the next town, a networking group on or offline, your main friendship group, or a group of friends you’ve reconnected with. You don’t have to find them all overnight, but they will help when it’s all panic stations and also with finding and keeping balance.
What about you? Have you found the key to balance? I’d love to hear if you have!