Photo by: Perfecto Insecto

Let’s Get Unbalanced: Digging into Work

by Peri Pakroo
Photo by: Perfecto Insecto

“Master multitasker” has always been part of the job description for us parents. Add self-employment to the mix, and the juggling act gets even crazier. Being responsible for all the details involved in running even a small firm seems to double the number of balls in the air. And business owners also need to find quiet, focused time to work on big-picture business strategy and direction (and I’ll come back to this in just a bit). With all these competing claims on our time and attention, it’s little wonder that the challenge of keeping a semblance of balance between our work and personal lives is a perennial issue for self-employed parents.

But as great as it feels to hit that sweet spot of balance, since kids have entered my self-employed life I often find myself practically desperate to dive deep and get lost in the business — to throw balance to the wind, even for just a few days. Of course, as any mom or dad knows, kids (especially little ones) make this nigh impossible, particularly if you work from home. I look back on the days when I’d live and breathe a project for days or weeks on end and that reality seems as remote a possibility today as my pre-pregnancy waistline.

Sure, work/life balance is important in the long term (I’ve written and talked quite a bit about it as a small business author and consultant). But sometimes a business owner — particularly those who have no employees — needs to get into “the zone” to get things done. For instance, a graphic designer might need to dig in and lay out a 100-page annual report on a tight deadline. Or a CPA might need to get a raft of client tax returns done as April 15 looms. The owner of a small retail store may need to catch up with generating sales reports after a busy holiday season. But finding the time to hunker down for a big project often feels like trying to solve some impossible math equation.

The problem is, getting into the zone takes at least a couple uninterrupted hours — for me, ideally three or more (better yet, a few days in a row). But fat, juicy time chunks like these are frustratingly out of reach for parents of little ones. Bottom line: kids are zone-killers.

I’m starting to think that sometimes what I crave more than balance is the opportunity to get unbalanced once in a while and immerse myself in work, even if just for a few days. But with a nursing 6-month-old and a preschooler, it’s just not gonna happen.

For me and many self-employed parents I know, working at night is one solution. These days, I do my best work after the kids go down ’round 7-ish. I can get an easy three or four hours uninterrupted work time and still get to bed at a reasonable hour (reasonable for us night owls, at least). If I have a deadline to meet or other important project, I can really get into the zone, working till 2 or 3am. I pay for it in the morning, but a good part of the morning is nursing time anyway which frankly doesn’t require a whole lot of mental effort on my part. So, for now, it works.

However. Even when we manage to get our client projects done, catch up with the bookkeeping, and meet the deadlines — all without letting our children starve or run wild in the streets — there’s more to do when you’re self-employed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, running a business — even a small one-person firm — involves more than just getting the essentials done. An enormously important (if often overlooked) part of the role of a business owner is to steer the ship, take account of the big picture and define a strategic direction for the business.

(Now, I realize that a lot of small solo operators, freelancers and the like tune out at the words “strategic direction,” thinking that I must be talking about big companies with fancy boardrooms full of high-powered executives hashing out market studies and sales reports and all those things “other” businesses do. Not so! Defining your market and strategy, and regularly revisiting and refining those definitions, is important even for microbusinesses like freelance writers, photographers and consultants. I’ll explain why in a future post.)

Of all the tasks on a busy business owner’s plate, it’s the big-picture, strategic work that most often gets the shaft. And it’s easy to understand why. Strategic analysis and big-picture thinking are precisely the kinds of activities that are best done “in the zone.” You won’t be able to take a mental step back from your business and effectively evaluate what it’s doing and where it should be headed in the stolen moments between feeding your kids, swapping out 2T for 3T clothes in the closet, or preparing snack for the preschool class.

Plus, as you are undoubtedly aware, there are always more pressing issues in a business that end up trumping the strategic work. If you are forced to choose between meeting a client deadline or taking a half-day to wrangle with big-picture issues, the client deadline sensibly wins out.

But over time, lack of attention to the strategic side of things results in drift, lack of focus and missed opportunities. At worst, a business owner might fail to see a significant shift in the market that leaves her business out in the cold. By the time sales plummet and the owner realizes what has happened, it very well might be too late to turn things around.

To avoid this happening to you, here’s my advice: The next time you allow yourself a little work bender, dedicate it to some strategic work. Pull yourself out of the day-to-day trenches and put some careful thought into where your business is, and where you’d like it to go. Catch up on your business reading, keeping an eye out for trends and opportunities that may have escaped your notice. Maybe a big new company is moving into your town that represents a possible big customer — or a formidable competitor. Maybe there is new technology affecting your industry that isn’t yet being used by your local competition, giving you the opportunity to establish an edge over them. Whatever it is, give yourself a little time to zone out of the day-to-day minutae (I like to call it “making the donuts”) and tap into the bigger picture of your business.

Also remember that staying connected to other folks and steadily growing your network is a great way to keep tabs on what’s going on in your field. Business owners — especially solo operators — can easily get isolated if they don’t actively reach out and network. Have lunch with fellow business owners and media contacts, attend trade shows and conventions, and interact online (you already know that Mamapedia is a great resource). When you do this regularly you’ll be up to speed on the latest trends, putting you in a great position to make strategic decisions.

Nope, it’s not easy to find the time to do this. But think about how you otherwise manage to get the essentials done, like filing your taxes or finishing client projects on time. The main change you might have to make is simply seeing the strategic, big-picture work as just as important as making the donuts. If you start thinking of strategic work as an essential ongoing task, you’ll be well on your way to figuring out a way to escape the daily distractions, get into the zone, and steer your business to success.

Peri Pakroo is a business and communications consultant, specializing in legal and start-up issues for businesses and nonprofits. She has started, participated in, and consulted with start-up businesses for 20 years. She is the author of The Women’s Small Business Start-Up Kit (Nolo) and top-selling business books. Peri is also a new Mom.

Editor’s Note Share your thoughts in the Comments and you may be a lucky winner of Peri’s book, The Women’s Small Business Start-Up Kit!

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I relate with a lot of this. Last week, I had one of the busiest work weeks that I have had since returning to work after baby, and it felt good - good enough that I felt guilty about it, because it meant I spent less time with my son. Still, getting back into my work element was very satisfying.

You have just described my life. I own a graphic design firm and struggle with balance all the time. I loved your article and agree that paying attention to the overall business strategy is a must. It does seem impossible to get beyond the day to day tasks, and I appreciate the reminder to take a look at the big picture. I get so caught up in the daily deadlines; due dates for projects, invoices to organize, lunches to make, homework after school, etc...

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Such a relief to read this! I'm a choreographer who used to spend days on end focused on my work. All-nighters, 12 hrs in the studio, and eating out were part of getting the work one. I'm at a loss for how to get things done these days--Without time to get in the zone...this has been helpful!

I agree with this post totally, as a self employed business owner myself and having nursing 10 month old as well as 3 other kids, 2 who do school @ home. I have foudn that I must really find the time, even late at night to do my long tem planning, a must and yes this creates a temporarily out of balance set up for a little while, but it is needed.

Excellent post Peri! You hit the mark on all points.

I am a "night worker" because it is virtually impossible for me to get anything done with non-stop interruptions during the day (mom of 4). The late nights can be draining, which can impact our ability to be creative and to remember strategy etc. I find that if I limit the number of late nights I work, I am able to re-energize and stay focused.

Thank you! You've just described my life to a T! I am a freelance graphic designer and a Mom of a 5 and 2 year old. I struggle with balance constantly and find myself cranky WAY too often. I feel as if I am either not being a good Mom or not a good designer/business woman. I guess when my girls are in school, I will get to work "normal" hours. Of course then I will be sad that they are growing up.

Love getting unbalanced & then balanced, can't have one without the other. I feel so much pride in working hard, like Amie said, usually at night, but when I finally lay down at 2am I am smiling with excitement or anticipation of how my hard work will blossom!

I have to write my goals, big picture strategy etc..., every few weeks & leave them on a piece of paper on my desk or I get immersed in the details for too long!

I lived the life you describe. It meant I did not write the books that made me famous until my youngest was 7 years old. Then I also realized that out sourcing what could be was critical. I got a bookkeeper and that helped enormously in releasing my time.
A few years before that I turned to private school or public school whichever was better for each child at the time. Home schooling was simply overload.
I taught the kids how to make their own breakfast, cooking and all around the age of six...

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Great a small business owner and a mom (of a teen...that has its own challenges) I find it difficult to maintain balance. My daughter is at school for 7 hours a day, and that definitely helps. I try to schedule all my client meeting between the 'drop off' and 'pick up' times. I schedule calls about 1/quarter with my one contract employee to do strategic planning (how do we get more customers? and where do we want to take the business? discussions)...

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This is a wonderful and necessary post. Thank you for sharing.

Go Peri!

I share what others have with my eyes glazed over half reading your article and trying to stay awake. My latest book takes the heat off us too, so we can enjoy our choice to walk a mile with our children. I find that as each new stage kicks in we learn new ways of working alongside each other. It's funny how quickly I forget what yesterday was like. Now that's she's 5 and he's 28, I wouldn't trade my home office for the best view on Wall Street!

What a great's nice to know I'm not the only one working late nights! I've told my husband I'm so jealous of him (only sometimes) when I remember what it was like to let myself get wrapped up in a work project (before kids). To be in the zone as you put it, and to feel that incredible sense of accomplishment. I still get those spurts periodically, and as my children are getting older, those spurts are coming more frequently...

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I'm self-employed too. Mother of one baby. I too have to work at night to get things done. Sometimes I get to work during the day as well. But I consider myself lucky in that my husband is stay-at-home and can care for our son (unless he is sick or busy with something else too).

From the start, I knew some things would just have to take a back seat. I chose my priorities, and those are my family, myself and work. I pick one or two chores to do on any day. The rest I'll get to when I get to it...

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Wow - I needed to read this. I am in a place where I have got to spend some time thinking strategically and looking at the big picture. It is time to expand - but where, when and how need to be considered. With a 16 year old and a 10 year old who also have their own activities and need large amounts of driving and attendance, it is hard to stop the world long enough to think this through.

This is a fantastic post, thank you.

As a consultant of 17 years, and a mother for 2.5, I have one more thing to consider if you are in this situation. That is, get an office off site of your house. The expense is well worth the peace of mind. I find myself more 'at work' when I'm in my office and thus 'at home' when I'm not, and it doesn't pose any additional logistic problems really beyond what any regularly employed person would have to go through...

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