Slowing down to build a more sustainable businessFeatured

I am not proud to admit that up until late 2020, I was an avid enthusiast of working well past your breaking point. If over-working were a band, then I was its greatest superfan. I had the limited-edition box set and knew every lyric. I even owned the merchandise t-shirt that said, "I miss important life events because I have no work-life balance."

Some of these reasons were unavoidable, for instance, working multiple jobs to support myself when we first started Learnabi. Others, not so much, like when I missed a friend's wedding rehearsal dinner to work an extra hour with a client. In hindsight, that extra hour didn't make much of a difference and I doubt the client could recall the detail I spent an extra hour developing that day. I do, however, regret missing the opportunity to celebrate my friends and meet their families before the wedding, and I think about it often.

The chaos of 2020 made me realize that I'd pushed myself beyond what was reasonable, and I began implementing stricter rules around answering emails and work. I tried to create a distinct separation between my work and personal life but no matter how many attempts I made to implement better work/life habits, they didn't stick around long enough to make an impact. Instead, I engaged in a never-ending cycle of pushing myself too hard, burning out, and taking a step back before jumping in at the same pace as before, which would inevitably lead me to run on fumes after a few weeks.

Nothing I did felt sustainable.

All this changed at the beginning of 2021 when I was forced to put my health first after an accident that left me with no choice but to critically re-evaluate significant aspects of my life. I stepped back from Learnabi to go on medical leave for over a year, and I was suddenly left with two options: find a way to work more sustainably or walk away from the business I'd worked so hard to build.

I began researching ways to find a more sustainable work/life balance but my approach this time was different; I didn't want to optimize my life by setting up complicated routines and rules. Instead, I wanted simple things I could do every day without setting myself up for inevitable failure if the tools felt too difficult to maintain daily.

1. I set time aside to do absolutely nothing

One of the books I came across in my research was "Do Nothing" by Celeste Headley; in her book, she outlined how work culture in the West has shifted dramatically over time, and not necessarily for the better. She proposed ways that we can improve our work-life balance by dedicating time to more leisure activities.

My weekends were primarily spent catching up on the things I didn't have time for during the week, but I now prioritize time to do things that aren't inherently "productive," taking long walks with my dog and letting her lead, for instance.

This is time that is unstructured and where I am not thinking about work or trying to get something done.

2. Taking frequent breaks during the day

In terms of changes I've implemented, I would say using the Pomodoro method to work has had the most significant impact on my day-to-day because it used data to prove that my assumptions about my daily productivity were wrong.

The Pomodoro method is a strategy for working where you work for 25 minutes followed by 5-minute breaks. I generally allocate 8 hours to working throughout the day, but I soon realized that although I designated 8 hours to work daily, I realistically (along with taking breaks and grabbing lunch) am only productive for 3 - 4 of those hours, which aligned with other research I found. This was surprising but made me realize that although I worked in front of the computer for 8 hours, I was only producing good work for a fraction of that time.

3. Good enough is good enough

This has been the most challenging to implement – I am not always great about it – but I do try. There will always be something to improve or something you could’ve done better and taking that extra hour to perfect details that only you are likely to notice is probably not the best use of time. I had to trust that my version of “good enough” was actually pretty good and I should still be proud of the effort I put in. Ultimately, that extra hour was unlikely to make a significant difference in the long run but it would certainly cause me an extra hour of unnecessary worry and stress.

For so many of us female founders, and women of color especially, we often feel the outward pressure to out-perform. The data tells us that in order to succeed, we have to become some version of “exceptional”, which is perhaps sadly and unfortunately, true. Only 0.34 % of all VC funds in 2021 went to Black female founders – an abysmal and depressing statistic. The data confirms what we already feel and know, that tech has yet to become a place that is readily willing to give us a chance, let alone a second one.

So, we internalize this messaging whether subconsciously or not, to push ourselves as close to perfection as possible – an incredibly unfair and unrealistic standard to uphold, but one that causes us more internal turmoil in the long run.

Entrepreneurship is challenging in so many ways, I’ve had many moments where I’ve asked myself “Why do I do this at all?”. The only answer I keep coming back to is that I know there is value in what I am doing and that I fundamentally believe in Learnabi.

So, while the world and the data are punishing as is for women and women of color founders, we don’t need to make it worse by being equally hard on ourselves. While I think some of this internal pressure is what propels us forward and allows us to keep going, there must be a way to do so that is rooted in compassion and kindness and that is productive rather than punishing.

For me, this means taking the time to appreciate and recognize just how far I’ve come. Because even if we still have much further to go and more things to do, we have already come such a long way and that is in itself, something to be very proud of.

I love this post so much, thank you for sharing! I went through a similar transition.One thing I've been thinking about is the ratio of unstructured vs structured time. I started out pretty extreme with an outsized number of unstructured hours, and have slowly been shifting that. Wondering what worked for you @niaravalerio
@dz That is such a good question, I definitely still struggle with the balance! Some weeks I feel I need more unstructured time than others. I have been trying to be a bit more compassionate with myself if those unstrcuted hours extend beyond what I initially expected them to, however. I take is as a sign that my mind/body needed the rest and I try to honor that without self judgement. Though, I think it's natural for us to feel the pressure of "structuring" our "unstructured" hours consistently but it doesn't always happen that way. I think the best thing to do is to listen to what your body needs and to rest *before* reaching your limit vs doing damage control once you've crossed the line. It's a work in progress for sure!