Susan Southerland is an entrepreneur with family responsibilities that include four children. So balance is an ever-present concern for the Orlando, Fla.-based event planner. Her ideal work-life ratio may be one you want to think about: 60 to 40. She would like, as often as possible, to devote 60 per cent of her time to work and 40 per cent to personal matters.
Not that she is always at that sweet spot. At times, she falls to 80-20, and has to recalibrate dramatically. When she was caring for a brother dying of leukemia, on the other hand, she was 1 to 99, consumed with his needs, and leaving work to her team of eight full-time staff. But 60-40 is the goal.
“I don’t think I have ever hit 50-50,” she says in an interview, referring to the equal weighting that is suggested by the term work-life balance. “And 80-20 happens often. I have to keep reminding myself to get back to 60-40.”
There’s nothing magical about it. She relies on some tools – a Crock-Pot to prepare the meals she cherishes with her family, and the Wunderlist to-do list on her mobile phone that helps her set the day’s priorities. She likes Wunderlist because when you finish a task, a line strikes through it but the task remains there, a reminder of the day’s achievements. The list helps her to relax, because she knows everything she must do is marked down in an organized fashion.
She has separate lists for work and family, usually switching to the family list at about 4:30 p.m., when her twin 12-year-old boys get home, and she has to start thinking about their needs and those of her 18-year-old daughter, 15-month-old daughter, husband, 81-year-old mother, and sister-in-law who often eats with them since her husband's death.
Another tool is Sanebox, which manages her e-mail. “There are times when I have looked at my in-box and hyperventilated and felt paralyzed,” she confesses. But Sanebox will send e-mail to folders according to her priorities, learning over time. So as well as the Inbox, for her most urgent items, other e-mails get siphoned to a Later box and e-mail from staff go into their own special folder.
She also is careful about how she divides her time, recommending to other entrepreneurs on her blog that they only book appointments outside the office a few days of the week, so they don’t scatter their attention every day. And when booking, she advises using location as a criterion, arranging appointments so travel is minimized.
When in the office, don’t blindly reach for the phone every time it rings, because that will disrupt your attention. Let voice-mail take over when you are focused on important work. And recognize that some of the vendors and clients you deal with have become buddies, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend time during every conversation on that deeper relationship. Sometimes it’s fine to say you’re busy, and you’ll catch up on the chit-chat later.
Eating dinner with the family is a priority for her, perhaps because that’s how she was raised. At 5:30 p.m., her mother would produce a lovely multicourse dinner, complete with dessert. She can’t match that, but tries to ensure they eat together, at a time that shifts each day with the family’s varying schedules. “I have become close to my Crock-Pot,” she says.
Eating out as a family, she feels, is better than not eating together because she couldn’t cook that day. But it is expensive, and the food not as healthy as homemade, so she tries to limit those occasions. “Even sandwich nights are good, although that’s difficult for me to accept given the dinners my mother cooked,” she says.
She recently spoke to a fellow entrepreneur who never takes any vacation – rarely even a day off. “That’s the quickest route to burnout,” she says. “If you don’t take time to be by yourself, doing something you enjoy, you’ll be too exhausted to be effective.” Of course, that time for fun can also be with family – not necessarily solo time. But it has to be enjoyable. “Not doing the laundry – unless you enjoy doing the laundry,” she says.
In May last year, when her youngest daughter Macy was born, she was preparing to take some parental leave. But shortly afterward, her brother was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. She was at his bedside for three months, watching him endure unsuccessful treatments, near-death experiences and a great deal of pain and suffering. She could do that because she had carefully built a competent team who could handle things in her absence – something she feels entrepreneurs often don’t spend sufficient time considering.
That period was a reminder of the fragility of life, and the age-old adage that, on your death bed, you won’t remember the extra time at work. She had an informal policy regarding employees taking time off to enjoy vacations, go to school plays, and care for family members, but has since made it formal. And she makes sure that at a certain point every day, she shuts the door to her home office and her laptop – done for that day, whether it was a 60-40 day or not.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter