At his most intense time in the mid-2000s, Aaron Murphy was working anywhere from 70 to 80 hours a week running his real estate investment company near Seattle. “When I wasn’t physically at work, I was thinking about work,” he says. “It was like this track that was always playing in the back of my mind.”
With a schedule like that, Murphy says balanced meals and regular exercise were nearly impossible. “I was driving to and from houses that sometimes were 50 miles apart,” he adds. “I was eating at gas stations and not going to the gym at all. I wasn’t sleeping well, either.”
Murphy “pulled the plug” on his business in 2008, a year after the housing market crash pummeled the industry. But in the process, he’s come away with a few hard-earned lessons that he’s putting to use in his new business, ADM Architecture. These days, Murphy silences his cell phone between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., makes sure to schedule regular vacations, and takes 45 minute breaks to get out of the office to walk his dog.
“I learned from my last business that you can’t do three things at once and do any of them well,” he says. “When you run at that pace for an extended period of time, it’s going to take a toll on your health, relationships, and everything else in your life.”
Work smarter, not harder
No one starts a small business because they think it’s an easier way of life. Long hours, late nights, and amped-up stress levels are often the norm, especially during the startup phase. But if at some point, the hours spent on the business overtake everything else in life, a small business owner is at risk for what pros in the field like to call burnout—that frazzled state of mind when creativity, innovation, and pleasure give way to exhaustion, forgetfulness, and irritability.
The American Institute of Stress (yes, there is such an organization) lists no fewer than 50 signs and symptoms of stress that signal someone could be at risk for ruining their health—and potentially, their company. “Many small business owners get themselves into trouble because they fall prey to the thinking that working harder or longer is going to make things better,” explains Susan Martin, founder of Business Sanity, a business coaching and consulting firm. “When you’re pushing yourself like this, there’s a point of diminishing returns. It’s very hard to be creative or innovative, or to even do rote tasks, when you’re walking around like a zombie.”
Indeed, a sleep study conducted by David Dinges, the head of the Sleep and Chronobiology division at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at the attention levels of three groups of subjects who slept for either four hours, six hours, or eight hours over a two week period. Those who slept eight hours each night, not surprisingly, were the most alert and attentive. But even the folks who got six hours of shut-eye each night, were falling asleep at their computers by the sixth day.
“To function at optimal levels, a person needs enough rest to regenerate the brain,” says Dr. Michael Komie, a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “There are differences among people as to how much is enough, but generally people can’t consider sleep a luxury and expect to stay at the peak of their performance and creativity.”
Set regular business hours
It’s so easy to stay a few extra hours after everyone else goes home, or to sneak down into that home office after dinner to blast out a few emails. Don’t, says Martin. “In this 24/365 world, it’s too easy to get caught up working all the time,” she says. Set—and stick to—a regular schedule of hours. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, resist the urge to respond to emails. Having a client see one from you that was written at 2 a.m. isn’t proof of your dedication; it’s evidence that you’re not in control of your business.
Don’t skimp on sleep
And speaking of slumber—make sure to get enough. Yes, a solid eight hours every night might not be possible, but don’t look upon sleep as something fungible. The body’s ability to stay creative, come up with new ideas, and simply handle the daily stressors of life as an entrepreneur is directly tied to how much sleep you get, says Dr. Komie.
Before Jeremy Andrews, co-founder of Smart Money Entrepreneurs, started his crowdfunding company, he held a finance job that routinely demanded 18-hour days. As a result, he says, “I spent my Saturdays and Sundays just sleeping.” Not eager to replicate those days, he gives his 12 employees the flexibility to work the hours where they feel most productive. “We’re not all built for eight hours of straight work,” he says.
Build in quiet time
Uninterrupted time to work on long-range plans or issues is essential for any small business owner. Block out an hour—or whatever time you feel is appropriate—and silence phones, email, and texts. Let your staff know that you’re unavailable for this time, as well. The cycle of burnout typically begins when a business owner “spends the whole day catering to whatever request or crisis comes their way, instead of taking care of what they set out to do,” says Martin. “This eats up their work day, making it necessary to work longer hours or on their days off just to get things done.”
By booking vacations months in advance, you’re less likely to forget to take them, and it gives you time to plan for your absence. And when you do schedule the time off, says Martin, don’t just use it to paint the kitchen or landscape the yard. Go somewhere and do something different. A change of scenery engages the brain and gives you a renewed sense of energy. After all, what good is growing your business, if you never take time to enjoy the fruits of your labor?