Sustainable business: why the sustainability of your project starts with you

By Emily Johnston, co-founder and co-CEO from Unity Effect

These days, many of us consider ‘start-up founder’ or ‘social entrepreneur’ to be a pretty sweet job title. One that we tend to glorify in association with some kind of working-all-hours-from-home-caffeine-fuelled-sacrifice-my-social-life-for-my-world-changing-ideal lifestyle and a golden ticket into a high adrenaline world of pitches, investors, hackathons and out of nowhere overnight success stories. Of course, behind the apparent glamour of ‘work as hard as physically impossible and you will achieve your dream’, is a lot of, well, hard work.

So many entrepreneurs out there come up against this expectation that being a founder means sacrifice and working your arse off, and that this will increase your chances of success. Especially when you are your own boss and your success depends entirely on you, it can be super hard to switch off and relax. To not feel like you’re wasting time that you could be spending on increasing your chances of making your business sustainable.

"The fact of the matter is, if you burn out, your business baby will too".

Yet the fact of the matter is, if you burn out, your business baby will too. We all know the importance of sleeping enough, exercising and eating well. We’ve all felt the effect it has on our stress levels, our productivity, creativity, decision-making abilities and our general pleasant-to-be-around-ness. But knowing and doing are different. And doing and doing consistently can be worlds apart.

You might be thinking – that’s all well and good, but you have no idea what I’ve got on my plate right now. Once I deal with all this I will get my business to a point when I can find more balance. Where I can maybe even have a bit of time off. Well, that might be true. But at the same time, if you wait for that point, your plate will probably have refilled itself at the all-you-can-eat buffet of business opportunities, day to day tasks, setbacks or even exponential growth, and you will be on a one-way street to burn out. So here’s your invitation: start now.

And how should I do that, you might ask? Well, sorry to say but that one’s on you. Yet it doesn’t have to be anything big or crazy. Maybe it’s giving yourself permission to stop working earlier than normal. Maybe it’s taking half an hour out of your day to do some yoga or go for a run. Maybe it’s taking time to cook something rather than eating random things in random moments of the day, if that’s what you normally do. It could be calling a friend or taking an evening off to have a drink and talk about silly things that are completely and truly unrelated to your project. I have no idea what it is for you. So the first thing is to check in with yourself about what those things might be. What are little practices that help you recharge your battery? What are some things that you might have neglected or forgotten about that used to be important for you, in your life before living the crazy start-up dream?

"What are some things that you might have neglected or forgotten about that used to be important for you, in your life before living the crazy start-up dream?"

One thing for me is that I used to play a lot of music. It was my way of channelling the creative energy that now gets put into my business. Which is ok, because these things come and go in waves anyway. Yet sometimes just taking five minutes to play a song on the guitar can connect me to another part of myself which exists outside of work. Sometimes just this five minutes is enough to give me a fresh boost of creativity and energy. Because let’s face it, after endless hours of non-stop working we are usually just not that productive anymore.

Warning: watch out for guilt

Sometimes I notice myself feeling guilty about NOT playing guitar (substitute: whatever your relaxation, creative output activity might be). Sometimes that’s because I want to just chill the heck out and do something totally mindless. And sometimes it’s because I actually WANT to work. I mean, my business is basically like one giant, all-consuming hobby anyway, right? And isn’t that what I should be doing, spending more time on my hobbies?

Where does my business end and myself begin? Blurring the work-life balance boundaries

Something that can be really challenging as an entrepreneur is finding the boundaries between your work-life and your life-life. We like to separate these things and label ourselves as workaholics if we spend a disproportionate amount of time on one rather than the other. Sometimes when you’re working late at night and questioning if you should be, it can be really tricky to untangle – do I want to be doing this right now, or am I doing it because I feel stressed and will feel guilty if I don’t? Am I actually having a good time, but feel bad because other people judge me as a workaholic? Is this me following my passion in a healthy way, or is it me burning myself out?

"It’s just important to recognise that the health of your business baby is very much connected with your health".

I know for myself that there are times when I simply don’t want to be doing something else, yet I find it hard to give myself that permission because I also try hard to protect my boundaries and practice self-care. In those moments I try to find a compromise for myself, by doing the parts of work that I really enjoy, like writing this blog article, and leave the have-to-be done-but-no fun-tasks for later.

Probably the hardest and simplest thing in all of this is: just try to be kind to yourself. It’s ok if you’re super excited about your project and you want to work a lot. It’s also more than ok to give yourself a break. It’s just important to recognise that the health of your business baby is very much connected with your health. Making your business sustainable is not just about having a stable income, it’s also about making it sustainable for you. There’s no point depleting your finite resources and then thinking about switching to renewables to deal with the barren wasteland you’ve created. After all, the success and sustainability of your business is not just about working harder, stronger, faster. So start now, start small, but start kindly.

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