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How To Run a Small Business Without Running Yourself Into the Ground

Patti Rowlson with daughter Kelsey.

A study of the U.S. workforce, released by internationally recognized FreshBooks at the end of 2018, projects that by 2020 some 27 million Americans could leave traditional work in favor of full-time self-employment, joining the 15 million already there.

The study found that, in the minds of American workers, the drive to climb the corporate ladder has been replaced with the desire to control their own careers, to have flexible schedules, and to choose the type of work they want to do. Those desires certainly can be achievable in the life of an entrepreneur.

FreshBooks reported that all of these newly independent, self-employed workers expect to have less stress, to improve their work-life balance, and to be in better health.

Wait. What?

Reading those expectations gave me pause, because I’m not so sure many self-employed people would concur. Actually, a few I spoke with about this chuckled when I asked if entrepreneurship brought them less stress, more work-life balance, and better health than traditional employment.

Maintaining health and wellness while being self-employed takes effort!

Self-employed myself, consulting alongside local business leaders and entrepreneurs since 2009, I’ve seen that those three expectations can be quite difficult for entrepreneurs. The reality is that it can be stressful to generate enough work to pay the bills. Not to mention managing people, staying on top of taxes, making sure business-development and growth plans stay on track, keeping up with marketing—all challenging parts of entrepreneurship.

Self-employed individuals also can have trouble disconnecting from work. They work long hours and sometimes put their own health and wellness on the back burner. Been there, done that myself! For many, successful self-employment takes a continuous effort to manage work-life balance, stress levels, and our own health, because business matters often take priority over any or all of those ideals.

So, how can self-employed people run a business without running themselves into the ground? One answer is to make time to step outside, away from work. That’s my story in a personal journey and lifestyle changes made throughout 2018.

Hmmm. How can spending time outside help entrepreneurs manage stress and improve their health and wellness? It has to do with something called brain-life balance.

Entrepreneurs need ‘brain-life’ balance

In a Psychology Today article (posted online Jan. 19, 2016) psychotherapist Jade Barclay shared findings she uncovered in writing her MBA thesis, namely: “We don’t need work-life balance, particularly entrepreneurs. We love our work. Work is life. We need brain-life balance. We need the way we’re managing our time, and the way we manage our communication with ourselves and others, to actually be friendly to our brain and our body.”

I believe her insight. The self-employed people I know (myself included!) love their work. It fuels them and provides a high level of job satisfaction. I also know that self-employed people push themselves too hard and that they’re their own worst critics, which can lead to added stress and even burnout. Barclay explains in the article that stepping away from our work environment—just a little each day—is very important. That goes a long way toward reducing stress and preventing entrepreneurial burnout.

A challenge begins

I experienced and felt the benefits of connecting with nature when I began to re-balance my own health and wellness in January of 2018. I began a 365-day personal challenge that included time outside every day—rain or shine, wind, or freezing temps. The goal was intentionally moving in the fresh air for at least one mile each day, either walking or interval jogging. My mantra: I can endure one mile, even in the worst conditions. No excuses.

The 365-day challenge was healthy for me in a number of ways. It started off as just a reason to step away from work to reset my brain and shake off any tension that had built up during the day. That worked! A mere 20 minutes on the trail helped me feel refreshed and refocused. That felt great, so I kept going every day for an entire year.

I didn’t miss one day.

I participated in charity walk/run events. I completed a 10K. I went on six-mile hikes. I met business peers for a walk instead of coffee. PR Consulting—my company—hosted meetups that included networking time on the trail. I spent a ton of quality time with friends and family on the trail.

Pretty much everyone I know can walk a mile, too, and they were willing to support me in my challenge. I learned that I could inspire others to spend time in nature, and they enjoyed it, too. I also had a lot of solo time on the trail, which gave me space for thinking and planning. Sometimes I’d listen to leadership podcasts. Sometimes I’d listen to really loud music, so I didn’t have to think about anything at all. I called those my cheap therapy days. Ha!

Two lessons learned on the trail

As the weeks and months rolled by, I learned that I had grit and determination, and that I knew how to set goals and to compete with myself, instead of comparing what I was doing with others. This challenge, and the time I spent in nature, taught me that I didn’t give up on things that were hard and outside of my comfort zone.

Guess what? Those qualities are also important for self-employed people.

I also realized along the way that keeping myself healthy and well is a good business practice. I know that many people depend on my work, and I don’t want to let them down by being sick. That insight motivated me.

Better brain-life balance achieved!

Over the course of the year, through daily efforts, I realized that a shift had occurred. I had planned my days around trail time, instead of the other way around. I could feel that I was on a path (literally) to improved wellness and a better brain-life balance. It seems that the experts who recommend connecting with nature as a way for entrepreneurs to reduce stress and improve wellness are right.

That 365-day wellness challenge changed me in ways I didn’t dream of when I took those initial steps in January 2018.  I didn’t realize at the time that I was working my way toward better brain-life balance. I’d thought I just needed a bit more exercise and to get away from work a little more.

With my feet on the trail, placing myself in nature each day, I’ve changed. I now go to yoga classes two to three times a week for grounding and for a chance to really disconnect from technology. I learned about mindfulness and I practice being present in each moment.  I set personal-growth intentions. And I eat healthier.

On January 1 of this new year, I began a new 365-day challenge.

One thing we entrepreneurs learn quickly is that we’re never done learning, never done growing. Every day brings more challenges to our old ways of thinking and more opportunities to challenge ourselves. Better brain-life balance in the past year has led to changes I hadn’t expected, and I’m genuinely excited to discover how my relationships with work and life continue to grow in 2019.

Onward I go.

Patti Rowlson launched PR Consulting in 2009. Her small business helps Whatcom County companies, large and small, manage their marketing efforts, including communications, branding, public relations, copywriting, website tech support, and recruitment advertising. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Whatcom Business Alliance. https://pattirowlson.com/

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