I was walking home on a gorgeous spring day when I decided to quit my stable, well-paid, but soul-sucking and purposeless job. I had taken a lot of steps up until that point to realize what my next venture would be (including working with a career coach and a business coach), but it was the crisp breeze that smelled of honeysuckle and the sounds of people playing in the park that made me realize it was time.
I wanted to be able to cut out the elements of my job that were wasting my time (e.g. unimportant meetings, busy work, projects with no real-world impact or benefit) and build my schedule around my life. I wanted more meaning and intention.
So I cut the cord and set out to build the life and career I’d dreamed of. . . but then something strange happened.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I wasn’t working 40 hours (or more), I wasn’t doing everything I could to be successful. That I was wasting this opportunity I had to build the career I always wanted.
Running an errand or attending a school function made me question whether I was really showing my commitment to my business.
I knew I wasn’t slacking off. I knew I was meeting my deadlines and making progress on my monthly goals. But my brain had been programmed since the age of 16 to value a 9-to-5 work culture. A job that was stressful and overscheduled meant it was important, right?
And I knew that in reality, when you take a look at the typical office around 3:30 pm, you will notice most people have left their desks to catch up around the water cooler or are surfing social media. I knew it. You know it. We all know it. But simply being in the office was what mattered.
In essence, I was being a terrible boss to myself. I needed to unlearn the 40-hour work week and focus on the metrics that really mattered.
Here’s how I managed to get off the treadmill and stop thinking like a 9-to-5 robot (while still growing my business):
Cut out the time sucks
First and foremost, be honest with yourself—ask if you’re accomplishing all of the things you need to do and look at where you’re wasting time. Are you spending a little too long between tasks scrolling through Instagram? At what point does it go from a practice in decompression to procrastination?
When you’re not deep into an important task, make sure that the other thing you’re doing is truly helping you. It is not a novel concept that mindlessly scrolling through social media never serves anyone after the first five minutes. In fact, it’s probably perpetuating any guilt you feel around time management to begin with.
Acknowledge your favorite procrastination tools and learn how to navigate them so that when you do take time for yourself, it’s time spent on something truly valuable.
Evaluate your time, not your tasks
Before wrapping up each week, take a moment to look over the things you accomplished and acknowledge not the number of tasks, but the collective time and energy it took for you to complete them. It can take 10 potential client interviews before you nail the one that’s the right fit. It can take five hours to write and design one email newsletter from scratch. It can take three hours to outline a client project, only to take another three to incorporate feedback.
You may think you only booked one client, wrote one newsletter, and have yet to reach a major client milestone, but the reality is that this stuff takes time. You don’t necessarily need to do more, more, more all the time if you are doing exactly what you need to do to keep the train on the tracks.
Get out of the house/office more
When it comes to cutting back on your work hours, practice makes perfect, and in my case, this has never been truer. You need to start getting out of the office (or home office) more to prove to yourself that you can take the personal time you want (and need!) and still reach your business goals. You know yourself, and you know the difference between procrastination and rejuvenation. If you get to the end of your week and realize that maybe you didn’t accomplish as much as you should have, next week is a fresh opportunity to recalibrate and find that balance.
Remember, you’re the boss! Client responsibilities aside, when it comes to building your business, you get to make all kinds of mistakes and no one will be the wiser. As long as you’re learning and correcting, there isn’t a real problem.
Experiment with switching up your business hours
Try seeing what life is like with a 4-day work week. Or take a half day every other Friday. Or don’t start your day until 10 a.m. on Tuesdays so you can go to that morning yoga class instead.
My sister-in-law, who lives in the UK, once told me that she and her husband will take a day off in the middle of the week, drop the kids off at daycare, and then go off for a hike or catch up on a home repair project. Hearing the difference between her mindset and mine made me realize that I desperately needed to change how I viewed Monday through Friday and find a schedule that made room for all the different parts of my life.
Acknowledge that the road to recovery is long
I will admit that my new-and-improved work-life balance is still a work in progress, and there are some weeks when I really do need to put my head down and work extra hours in order to meet client demands. But I strive to find that balance where I can, and I don’t feel guilty in doing so.
Now, instead of trying to squeeze in one last task before rushing off to grab my daughter from daycare (and getting there seconds before it closes!), I go ahead and close my laptop lid well before five o’clock. I lace up my sneakers and take a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, arriving at her classroom with enough time left for us to walk back together before the sun sets.
These moments are magical. These moments, after all, are one of several reasons I wanted to be my own boss in the first place. But some things just take more practice than others, and it’s okay to still be learning how to unlearn the 40-hour week.