I once read an essay called “What There is to See at the Zoo,” by Marianne Moore. In it, she makes the interesting suggestion that animals are as centered as they are because they work when they work, rest when they rest, and play when they play. In other words, they’re totally committed to whatever they’re doing at the moment; and whatever they’re doing at the moment is usually something that contributes enormously to feelings of balance and well-being in sentient creatures.
Granted, the furry and feathered subjects of Ms. Moore’s essay aren’t worried about mortgages, marriages, careers, or the possibility of an afterlife. But they certainly have stresses and concerns, and I believe that business owners can learn a lot from their single-minded focus on one fundamental at a time.
I believe that business owners can learn a lot from their single-minded focus on one fundamental at a time.
After all, when was the last time you really allowed yourself to play? I don’t mean relax, or amuse yourself, or take a break—I mean play, in the full-on sense of a dog running around with a Frisbee at a summer park. And when was the last time you really allowed yourself to rest? I don’t mean slump in bed staring dull-eyed at your Facebook feed—I mean rest, in the full-on sense of a cat curled up in a sunlit window.
Being an entrepreneur, you probably have no problem remembering the last time you really allowed yourself to work. One of our customers at Nav compares running a small business to having a sword hanging constantly over your head. One false move, one lazy act, one day of not paying attention to detail and striving to be the best, and wham—the show’s over.
One of our customers at Nav compares running a small business to having a sword hanging constantly over your head. One false move, one lazy act, one day of not paying attention to detail and striving to be the best, and wham—the show’s over.
I’m certainly not the greatest example of a consistently balanced approach to life. I’m an incurable workaholic, and have been since the beginning of my career. In my mid-twenties, for example, I spent the equivalent of six months in calendar nights traveling nationally as I built up my second successful business. My daughter visited over forty states before she turned two. I put on a hundred pounds from stress alone. (Well, calorie intake had something to do with it, too, but you get my point.)
On the other hand, I truly love what I do for a living. Conversing with thousands and thousands of business owners during my nearly two decades of entrepreneurship has convinced me that I’m not alone in this sentiment. But the older I get, the more I realize that my passion can serve to undermine my efforts as well as sustain them. I’ve learned that giving too much rein to my passion can wear me down and negatively affect the way I treat other human beings, whether they’re family members or employees. Subsequently, I’ve tried to follow a few simple principles which I’ll share with you in hopes that you’ll benefit like I have.
1. Set a routine, and stick with it
This might seem like Business 101, but its implications go much further than what you do for a job. You need to set a routine with work, rest, and play specifically in mind. It might feel funny at first, scheduling rest and play. This is probably because business-minded people actually find it easier to ignore these things than deal with them. But however awkward or unintuitive it may appear at first, if you just stick with it, you’ll notice improvements in the way you feel sooner rather than later. You’ll probably have to experiment and try different routines before you settle into one that fits—especially if you’re in that hectic but happy stage known as building a fledgling business. But once you settle on one, stick with it.
2. Don’t privilege one thing over another
This is mainly a mental process, and it’ll take plenty of practice before you master it. After all, most adults divide their weekdays between work and sleep, and try to fit a little play in on weekends and occasional vacations. But spending more time working than playing doesn’t imply privilege in the way I’m using the word here. I’m talking about believing that play is less important, simply because you spend less time doing it. But this makes about as much sense as scoffing at food and water for the same reason. So take your dog to the park. Go on a hike. Play video games with your kids, play softball with your friends. Whatever activity makes you feel a little bit like a puppy or a kid yourself, do it routinely and as if your life depends on it.
3. When resting, either sleep or focus on one relaxing thing and one only
This one’s pretty uncomplicated. Get your seven hours of sleep every night. But if you have trouble sleeping, or just want to enjoy some winding down time before bed, avoid your phone at all costs. Hopping from website to text message to email to website etc. etc. etc. is a sure recipe for an overstimulated brain at the exact moment it should be powering down. Read a book instead. Play solitaire with actual, physical cards. Meditate. Listen to music. When you finally turn the light off for the night, leave it off.
While the principles listed above aren’t going to set any records for originality, they are tried and tested, and they are effective. We’ve all heard variations of them countless times; the question is, how many times have we really tried to live them? Again, I’m not claiming to be a faultless, shining display of the work, rest, play approach. I’ll never be a cat, and neither will you. I do know that the harder I try to follow it, the happier I am. And I have no beef whatsoever with privileging happiness.
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