Boundaries can be difficult to implement and easy to break. After all, when you’ve watched your business idea evolve into a real-life offering, it can be easy to become a little obsessed with nurturing and growing it. But this overflow of passion can easily become all-consuming, meaning other things in life quickly fall to the wayside.

Being busy is a reality of being a small business owner, there’s no denying that, but there are some simple tweaks you can make to your routine in order to use your time more wisely and forefront your mental health.

Learn how to put yourself first

Gina Todd knew she was pushing herself too hard the day she walked out of her workplace and the sun stung her eyes. As the owner of Escape HQ in Auckland and Hamilton, an escape room experience, she was sometimes working 12-hour days, 7 days a week which meant she’d often miss daylight hours entirely.

“We have to create a dark atmosphere for the escape rooms. There were times when I was only leaving the building occasionally. I remember the sunlight being so painful on my eyes.”

“If people are compromising their own wellbeing for the sake of their business… ‘how do you expect to keep leading, inspiring people and making good decisions?” – psychologist and life coach Maya Crawley

Prior to opening Escape HQ, Todd spent six years at home with her kids and the decade preceding that she worked as an accountant. So, while she’s no stranger to hard work, the unpredictable hours of being a small business owner were new to her and, at first, they were quite difficult to manage.

“The idea of opening my business in the first place was to try and fit it into school hours. We started with a full-time manager, and I would spend my time working on the business [scaling it]. However, we got to a point where we couldn’t afford a full-time manager, so I had to start working in the business…. the work hours just weren’t sustainable.”

Learn how to put yourself first

Small business owners often find it hard to put themselves first, says psychologist and life coach Maya Crawley.

“If people are compromising their own wellbeing for the sake of their business, I’d be asking them, ‘how do you expect to keep leading, inspiring people, making good decisions and helping your customers if you’re not looking after number one first?

“We know from psychological research that when people are feeling stressed and run down – when they’re not taking time out to recharge – that changes how they process information and make decisions. They’re more likely to make reactive decisions that may not support their long-term interest.”

Invest in hiring experienced staff

After New Zealand’s first lockdown period, Todd got a taste for what it was like to spend more time with her family and realised she wanted to do it more. So, when restrictions were lifted, she made the call to hire a full-time manager again.

When she’s done this in the past, she wasn’t able to let go of the reins because the hires hadn’t been quite right. This time she decided to hire someone with more experience. It cost her more, but what she got in return was invaluable.

“Knowing I had someone awesome on board meant I could finally relax,” Todd says.

“I could go back to working 100% on the business instead of in it.”

Final words of wisdom

Todd shares her final tips for creating work/life boundaries and working strategically:

  • Plan regular communication with your team – in person or virtually – so they know they’ll have an opportunity to ask you questions each week, rather than bombarding you with little things each day. Todd used to make herself available 24/7 and this only added to her burnout.
  • Plan for holidays in advance so you have something to look forward to.

Crawley adds that business owners should practice “good work hygiene habits”. These include:

  • Having a dedicated workspace – “Our brains take prompts and cues from our physical surroundings, so the place and objects around us can trigger us to go into ‘work mode’ versus relax.”
  • Have a separate home and work mobile.
  • Pay attention to the secondary benefits you notice as a result of a new habit, such as going to bed earlier (i.e. having more energy, feeling calmer, improved relationships, etc). “Focusing on moving towards things that you want is intrinsically more motivating than trying to avoid negative things that you don’t want.”