This question from a reader hit my inbox recently:
One thing I’ve noticed that you don’t often share on your blog … that I am always curious about, is what, if anything, you feel you had to sacrifice to get there. You talk a lot about hustling and working really hard … But aside from the one post about not being into TV or going out to eat or whatnot (admirable, valid things!) I’ve always wondered what else you gave up or didn’t do that you think helped get you where you are now in your business.
Maybe you had a really messy room. Maybe you had no social life. Maybe you never cooked and ordered tons of takeout while you were working. If those aren’t things you feel comfortable sharing, I totally get that, but it’s something I find myself wanting more of when I read you writing personally about your biz in your blog and ebooks.
The answer is YES! Of course I struggle. Of course I had to give some things up. I often focus on what worked for me because that tends to be the most helpful, but this reader is right: what’s difficult is valuable to talk about, too.
With that in mind, here are a handful of things I’ve struggled with in recent years:
1. Saying no
My biggest weakness is DOING TOO MUCH. At the moment, I’m working on an ebook for AlexisGrant.com, growing The Write Life, managing a client-based business and coordinating with my team, revising my travel memoir… it’s too much. Not too many hours of work per say, because I’ve put a lot of systems in place and my team and I are pretty efficient. But it’s too many balls to juggle, too many things to keep track of. As Jim Collins writes in Good to Great, “if you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.”
I know that if I chose just ONE of those projects, I accomplish a whole lot more for that particular project. Instead, I’m doing a lot of things, and none of them can truly reach their potential. I know this, yet I haven’t made the difficult choices to rectify it because I don’t want to give anything up. This is a huge struggle for me now, and I imagine it will continue to be going forward.
2. I work a lot
My business is my hobby. I do work out, I do have a social life, and my husband and I do travel on weekends and spend time outdoors, usually hiking or cycling. But I also spend many weeknights and weekend hours working on my business. I do this partly because it’s hard to turn off (more on that next), but I also do it because I love my job. I love brainstorming! And implementing new ideas! And writing about what works! Just like someone else might fill their down time with knitting or reading novels, my default is my blog and my business.
Often the reason I work in the evenings and on weekends is because I don’t work 9-to-5 hours. I spend two hours almost every weekday at the gym or on the bike trail or in the yoga studio — in the middle of the day. While it sometimes looks like I’m working a lot because I’m on my laptop until 7 or 8 or even 9 p.m., I probably spent hours in the middle of that day not working. I also choose to spend some weekdays traveling or with family, so I make up for that time by working on a weekend if I need to. All in all, I probably work 50-55 hours a week (I need to track my time again to give you an accurate count), which isn’t more than most American full-timers.
3. It’s hard to turn off
When you run your own business, there’s always more you can do to succeed. You always have a to-do list a mile long, and then a “someday list” after that. It has taken me years to get used to the fact that I’ll never be “done” at the end of my workday, that there will always be a long list of things I didn’t get to… and it still bothers me sometimes.
Because of this, and because my work is so portable, it can be difficult to turn off my brain (and my devices!) and think about something else. I turn off best when we’re out cycling or hiking, which is a big part of why I do that regularly.
Another strategy that works well for me is looking over everything at the end of my workday, and coming up with a plan for the next day. That way I feel satisfied that I haven’t dropped the ball on anything important, even if everything in my inbox and task management system isn’t complete. In addition to helping me sleep that night, it makes me more productive the next day, because I know as soon as I boot up my laptop what my priorities are.
I think this, plus a lack of structure, is the biggest reason some freelancers and entrepreneurs end up feeling stressed and burned out, and go back to working for someone else. There is nothing wrong with that, of course — some personalities simply do better in a more structured environment — but if you know from the beginning that turning off will probably be an issue, you can better develop strategies to overcome it. Too many people who are newly self-employed assume it will work itself out, rather than proactively figuring out how to incorporate down time into their life.
Email absolutely kills me. I use my inbox as a task list, so I like it to be as empty as possible at the end of the day… except it never is. I know all the best practices around email — reply in batches, only check it a few times a day, don’t check it first thing in the morning — and I’ve tried all of them at some point in my entrepreneurial career. But I still constantly battle against my inbox. This is a MAJOR issue I haven’t yet figured out.
A few things that have worked for me are using Boomerang to delay my responses (but still get emails out of my inbox); turning off new-message alerts on my smartphone so I’m not interrupted every time I receive a new email; and taking my work email off my smartphone altogether so I can only check it when I’m at my laptop.
I’ve also managed to route customer-service emails about my ebooks, as well as emails that come through my blog and company website contact form, to my team, who takes a first stab at answering everything before looping me in if necessary. And I like Andrew Youderian of eCommerceFuel’s suggestion to tackle items in your task management system (for us, that’s Flow) before looking at email.
In the long run, I need to do two things: continue to put systems in place so I get fewer emails, and learn to let go of my inbox. Prioritizing email keeps me from accomplishing things that really matter, and not letting go causes unnecessary stress. This is something I’ll continue to chip away at over time.
As a reporter, I never had to manage a team, never had to hire or fire. Until I began growing my team, I didn’t realize it was even a skill! I saw management as being able to get along with people. I’m pretty good at that, so I figured, why would I have trouble as a manager?
So wrong. I’ve had to learn how to manage, and I’m still learning. One of the best moves I made was hiring business coach Charlie Gilkey, who walked me how to become the leader I wanted to be. He helped me realize that honest feedback is better for all parties involved, even when it’s difficult to give and receive. That sounds obvious, but it took me a while to get over not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, and it’s still something I struggle with. But when you communicate expectations clearly and give honest feedback often, everyone is happier in the long run.
If you’re looking for a resource to learn how to manage, a friend raved about Poynter’s short, free ecourse on Dealing With Difficult Conversations. I haven’t taken it yet, but I plan to.
6. Cooking and cleaning
I wouldn’t have included this if the reader hadn’t specifically asked, but yes, in a perfect world, I’d cook more wholesome meals and my house would be cleaner. We get by just fine (and most of our house is pretty tidy), but I would not say I shine on the domestic front, and my business is the main reason. I do enjoy cooking, but it requires planning and grocery shopping and finishing work at 5 p.m. to spend an hour in the kitchen. When it comes down to it, while I’d like to do all that, I’d rather put that time into my business.
So yes, I do let those domestic responsibilities slip, and no, I don’t feel bad about it. We can’t do everything! My husband and I are in the midst of figuring out what systems we can put in place to help us better manage household chores, so we can spend more time doing things we enjoy, like getting outside and seeing friends and growing the business. Like many things in life, this is a work in progress.
So there you have it. A list of Things I’m Not Good At. I’m finishing this post at 9:47 p.m. on a Thursday, so #2 and #3 are in full effect. But overall, when it comes to growing my business and living my life, I am a pretty happy lady.
Happy to answer any questions in the comments! And if you have genius ideas for how to overcome any of these struggles, I’m all ears.