Is Work-Life Balance for Entrepreneurs a Myth? Four Brutal Truths

Typical work situation for a tech entrepreneur

Why balance?

First of all, contrasting “work” and “life” might sound wrong to many entrepreneurs. If you chose this path, you are probably so fascinated by your work that it seems very natural for you to spend most of your waking hours on it. But doing nothing but work can have negative consequences quite quickly. I’ve seen plenty of burn-outs in my entrepreneurial career, and I was close a couple of times myself. Burning the candle on both ends is not a good idea; the consequences could be catastrophic for both you and your company.

“Life” is not monolithic

To understand the topic more deeply, it’s first of all useful to distinguish two categories that make up the “life” part:

  1. What I would call mandatory life activities: Taking care of children or aging parents; your own medical challenges or those of people close to you; mandatory civic duties; life logistics such as moving; personal financial stuff. The “mandatory” doesn’t mean that some of this can’t be enjoyable and rewarding. It just means that you can’t get out of it even if you wanted to.
  2. Optional life activities, aka the fun stuff: Spending time with family and friends; travel; exercise; culture; dating; going out; volunteering; hobbies; etc.

Work and life come at you in waves

The second aspect to understand is that work demands in entrepreneurship are anything but constant and linear, but come in waves. And the peaks can be very high. When you’re raising a new round of funding, launching a new product, entering a new market or dealing with a major crisis, the demands can spike very suddenly and consume most of your time and energy.

Optional work — the only variable

One more thing is very important: The “work intensity” curve above refers to the work that you absolutely have to do to keep things going. Of course it’s easy to fill your entire time with work if you’re a founder — what I would call “optional work”, even though it often might not feel optional at all. There is always plenty to do to move your company ahead. Work at a startup never runs out.

Four brutal truths

There are four brutal truths about these curves:

  1. The amount of “optional work” you do is the only variable that you can really control. The rest just happens to you.
  2. The level of mandatory work in a startup is much, much higher and far less predictable than in a corporate job.
  3. Entrepreneurs experience the same amount and volatility of mandatory life activities as everybody else. Your life doesn’t care if you’re in the middle of a product launch.
  4. You never really know if the amount of “optional work” you did was enough. Could you have won that customer or convinced that investor if you had just spent another hour refining that deck on the weekend?

Different situations need different patterns

I have had the privilege of living through several of these different situations in my own career. Specifically:

  1. In my mid-twenties: Co-founder of a young, rapidly growing startup, no real other obligations. Worked long hours, frequently experimenting with new stuff.
  2. Early thirties: CEO at the same company, but going through a painful turnaround after the dot-com bubble burst. Few other obligations. Very long hours putting out fires, mandatory work nearly at 100%.
  3. Mid-thirties: Going back to a zero-stage startup situation, just two guys in a room writing code. Aging parents and some other complexities. Reasonably long hours, with plenty of flexibility and room for innovation.
  4. Early forties: CTO at a VC-financed, rapidly growing company. My wife and I just had kids; sick parents and various other life challenges. Long hours on all fronts just to keep things together, very little room for anything else.
  5. Late forties: Changed career to VC, school-aged kids, other things mostly stable. Still demanding hours, but good flexibility and time for learning and innovation.

Some concrete tips

What can entrepreneurs do to not let their lives be consumed by work, but at the same time use their time and energy as effectively as they can to build a business? Here are a few tips.

  • Accept the reality that the mandatory demands on your time come in waves and can’t really be influenced. Be realistic about what they are and plan ahead.
  • Talk to people who have been in these situations before to get a realistic view. For example, many young entrepreneurs are surprised by how time-consuming fundraising can get. And people who have kids for the first time are often shocked by how intense raising young kids is. Entrepreneurial peer groups such as the ones offered by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) are a great way to learn from others, for example.
  • Segment your tasks into four categories:
    1) Essential, mandatory work (things will go wrong if I don’t do this)
    2) Important optional work (important to do because it will move things ahead)
    3) Unimportant optional work (nice to have, but am I doing this just to look busy?)
    4)Learning and networking (not immediately urgent, but might benefit from it later)
    For most people, the last category gets cut first, and in the long run that’s a mistake. Some people on the other hand put way too much time into the last category because it’s the easiest.
    By assigning time budgets to each category consciously you can make sure to keep a balance. And obviously keep the sum low enough to leave room for optional life activities.
  • Optimize for optional life activities that are granular and can easily fit into an entrepreneur’s busy schedule. It’s great if your hobby is kayaking in the Antarctic, but that’s probably not going to work all that well with the demands of your job and rest of your life. It’s much better to optimize for fun activities that can be fit into a couple of hours or so at a time. It will make it much easier to actually do those things.
  • One of the great things about entrepreneurship is that you can shape the culture of your company. Make sure to do this consciously with regard to work-life balance. Some companies have a culture of long work hours just for the sake of it, and that can be destructive in the long run. I wrote more about this topic here.



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Andreas Goeldi

Andreas Goeldi

Technologist, entrepreneur and investor. Likes startups, gadgets, movies, good audio technology and rambling about any of those topics. Partner at