What does work/life balance really mean?

The end of November this year will mark 19 years since I decided not to finish university and started Lucid. 19 years! I was just 20.

I was passionate and enthusiastic about design—for web and for print—and knew that this is what I wanted to do for a living.

And it was hard! Much harder than I realized. The work didn’t just materialize and the clients didn’t just phone me up looking for a designer. I was literally walking the streets knocking on doors and approaching storekeepers and business owners asking if they needed design work.

The internet barely existed; and we certainly didn’t use it to market ourselves or network or build communities.

Work/life balance in those days consisted of me juggling my life as a freelancer with the student world I still lived in—going out, having a good time, building friendships, trying to figure out life. But, unlike my friends and flat mates who’s main focus was studying just enough to get good grades, I was trying to build a business—with no guidance and no support and no idea what I was doing.

I was extremely naive. But I loved what I did and I loved the challenge of using design to help people solve problems. I still do. Probably even more so after all these years! For that, I feel so blessed.

In those first years, my financial needs and expenses were minimal. I didn’t have a family to support and I didn’t spend a lot of money. I didn’t need a ton of work to support myself.

Maintaining a healthy(ish) balance in the early years was relatively easy. But, for me, I started a family relatively early. I was married with a child at 25—just five years into my fledgling freelance business.

It was way harder than I could have anticipated. It was scary, even. I’m not sure if this is quite the right word to describe it but I felt “alone”. I felt like an only child in business. The weight of growing a business that had to sustain and support my new family was overwhelming

I had what I thought was way too much work and not enough time. (That almost certainly wasn’t actually the case; it was more likely that I wasn’t using my work time wisely.)

In June of that year, I hired my first employee (who is still with us at Lucid today!).

From day one of building a team, while I may not have been able to articulate it in these words—or even really given it serious, conscientious thought—I have worked really hard to build a “people-first” organization. I’ve always tried to instill a strong sense of value in honesty and integrity and work/life balance.

I’ve always actively encouraged my team to go home on time and not to take work home with them.

I’ve always done my best to treat my teammates with appreciation and respect and to support them constructively and encouragingly.

But what does “working from home” actually mean?

The tough challenge is how does one determine where the lines blur between anxiety and simply caring a lot! When does thinking about work and work-related problems after work and on weekends morph from being inspired and committed to being preoccupied and not being able to switch off?

How much “worry” is a healthy part of being good at one’s job?

When my first child was one and my team was growing to two or three, I found myself returning to work after bathing and putting my daughter to bed. I would go back to the office from around 8pm to 3am 2–3 days a week. I did this for a year! I thought I had to in order to get done all the things I had on my plate

At the end of that year, I was near burnout. I suddenly said “enough.” I knew it wasn’t healthy. And I realized it wasn’t actually productive, either. I asked myself “what am I doing from 8pm to 3am three days a week that I couldn’t have done during the day if I worked differently?” Upon returning to work in the New Year, I never did that again. When I finished for the day, I would go home and work was done. Whatever I hadn’t completed could wait until the next day.

But what about my headspace?

Here I am 13 years later on a Sunday consumed by work-related tension. I’m tossing around problems and coming up with possible solutions at the speed of thought.

I woke up feeling short-tempered and tense this morning. I can feel that I am not entirely present with my family. I know I am grumpy and a fine line away from snapping at someone

I know that switching off and not thinking about work would be good for me—and likely give me more fuel to tackle next week’s problems than if I try to solve them all before Monday.

So, again, where do the lines cross?

I rarely (almost never) work at night or on weekends. But do I ever really switch off? Am I ever not working, really?

When we are nearing capacity at work, I try to help my team understand and respect the concept of the “cost” of headspace. To think beyond whether we need the revenue or can squeeze in a project and to focus on how much of their head and heart the project might take. This is so easy to underestimate—because it’s hard to measure. (Perhaps we should be planning capacity in multiple dimensions—hours in the day and mental capacity!)

Anyway, how does one switch off when we have problems that need solutions and we really really care?

How do we avoid getting lost in the weeds or lose sight of the forest through the trees in the day-to-day journey of growing a business?

How do we develop new rhythms of refocusing our energy and attention and priorities to identify small problems that have low-hanging solutions; rather than becoming consumed with looking at all problems at once and finding no solutions (or losing sight of what the problems were in the first place!)?

As founders and business owners, how do we care without caring too much? How do we keep things in perspective and keep sufficient energy to focus on other things that are also important?

How do we achieve work/life balance when we are considering headspace and heartspace as well as actual, tangible, sitting-at-your-desk work?

It’s relatively easy to draw a line and say we will go home on time as a general rule. But do we really stop working when we leave the office? Never. Not for me.

So, the question I guess I should be asking myself again 13 years after that year of working until 3am is “what am I doing with my time at work?” Am I making the best use of my time in the office? Am I guiding my team in the right ways and focusing my limited energy on the right things?

Clearly not.

If I was, I might have a few niggles in the back of my mind but I wouldn’t be consumed by work when I should be consumed by my family.

I don’t “work” nights and weekends; but this does not look like a healthy work/life balance to me.

I clearly need to redefine what it should look like.

But not now. It’s Sunday. I can think about this all tomorrow.

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