Proving This Internet Thing

A blog about running a small digital services company from abroad.

Written by a guy who still works for a living, moved his family from Alexandria, Virginia to shores of Costa Rica and how the heck we get things done and still make a living.

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Shane Larrabee

Shane Larrabee
Founder, FatLab, LLC

In Search of Work/Life Balance

working in paris

Top photo: Closing a quick/urgent web support ticket for a client on July 4th while traveling in Paris

Work/Life Balance, Is it a Real Thing?

I have been forever in search of “work/life balance”. The problem with that is, as many others have pointed out, work/life balance is pretty much a bullshit concept. I recently read an article that disputed the concept by asking what it really meant. If we are to balance our personal and work lives does this not mean we are bouncing a baby on our lap while working on a laptop, are we walking the dog while on a conference call or we are spending vacations writing proposals and creating deliverables? Well that is stupid!

It’s stupid, this article stated, because it means that work/life balance seems to suggest that we can do both personal and professional things simultaneously and end up happy in the end. I get that these examples are an extreme, but it did make me think what the hell “work/life balance” even means. Despite the fact I have chasing it for my entire career.

working in colombia
Checking on server issue while at the Rock of Peñol in Colombia

The Unattainable Utopia

For me it has always been an unattainable utopia whereby I can be in the moment. When I am working, I am fully concentrated and when I am not working I am focused solely on that… being “mindful” to use an old and wise yet sugar coated pop culture term. Mindful of creating quality work and being mindful of quality time spent with family, friends or myself (not working). Well, that is a dream, isn’t it?

When I moved out of the crazy-busy Washington, DC area and headed to the shores of Costa Rica, I swore that I had the biggest piece of this puzzle sorted out.

If I wasn’t sitting in Beltway traffic, if I wasn’t at a downtown office, if I wasn’t trying to cover a three quarter million dollar mortgage, a leased car, day care and everything else… Well, I would have nothing to do but walk white sand beaches and be balanced, right? Not exactly. Guess what? Real life followed. We still have bills, we still need a car, the IRS doesn’t give a shit where you live and of course I run a small web support company with contractors, partners, vendors and clients that all need their rightful amount of attention.

As an Entrepreneur, My Life is My Work

And more importantly my work is my livelihood.

In regards to work/life balance, any entrepreneur who is responsible for winning new business, delivering products, managing people, balancing the books and just about everything else should be calling bullshit from the top of a mountain. Why? Because our lives are our work. This can be a good and bad thing but at least for me it’s not a healthy thing and I know it is not for others.

I never imagined that “work/life balance” for me was about combining activities but instead it was about remaining in a mindful state when doing one kind of activity or another. However this as simply never worked.

An afternoon out with the family is typically spent fighting thoughts of a growing to-do list, a day off is typically a stressful event whereby I wonder which client is the most upset I am not available at that very moment. Every hour not working is thought of as an hour I am not billing… You get the idea.

So when I started FatLab Web Support I had read some articles that gave me a thought. This thought was not an original one and in fact is widely known and accepted concept: Business hours.

Business Hours ≠ Boundaries

Business hours, what a concept. So simple: while we are “open” I would be in work mode and while we were “closed” I would be in “life” mode. I had read a bunch of articles about setting boundaries with your clients and they all seemed to make perfect sense. Coming from Washington, DC where everyone seems to be working 24 hours in a day, this concept sounded very inviting. It also fit my idealistic view of moving to tropics and leaving my stress behind. The question then was would my clients accept this or would I loose business because I seemed “unresponsive”.

Well here we are 4+ years later and I can say that we tried it and actually, despite the pessimistic tone of this post, I can say it worked. Upon moving here, I figured that most of the year I am two hours behind of the U.S. East Coast (where the majority of my clients are) and if I made my hours 9am to 5pm I would be up early (I’m a morning person anyway) and then off work at 3pm local time.

Like I said, this seemed to work. Granted in the web support and managed hosting business you’re basically on call 24/7 but I did get to a point where email responses were not expected, late night phone (or even afternoon) calls were not a thing. I think in the last 4 to 5 years I only had to explain only twice to a client why I would not be available for a call during the evening.

All seems good, right? We’ll it hasn’t been a perfect solution and here I am at the start of a new year still wondering how I am going to achieve some kind of work/life balance, how I am going to shake that ulcer that comes and goes and how I can just chill for 90 minutes and watch a movie. Sure I set my stop work time at 5pm Eastern (3pm local most of the year) but I learned a very important lesson… at quitting time the phones might turn off but that doesn’t mean my mind turns off. This also created a toxic situation for me, one that I am just now realizing: It made me resentful any time I had to work outside those hours (which honestly was like every day).

ziplining in costa rica
Zip lining in Costa Rica with my backpack carrying my laptop and wireless access point – just in case.

Set Working Times Made Me Resentful

I had set my business hours, yet I was thinking about the business and generally obsessing over what I should be doing, what needed to be done, what a client needed, etc. All of this is my job, so why have I been so annoyed by it… because I created business hours.

In the search for some kind of balance, I had followed some “gurus” advice about setting up boundaries only to find myself more frustrated than ever because those boundaries were constantly being violated. Why oh why did I believe that by setting boundaries with my clients I was putting up a wall and why did I think I had the whole thing gamed just because I moved to a different timezone where 5pm was really 3pm (but it wasn’t)? Well, I can’t answer those questions, though you are welcome to call me a sucker for thinking that way.

Get Rid of Business Hours, Could it Work?

I have a proposal (to myself of course): Get rid of office hours and work when you want or need to. One of the great advantages I have in life, as do many small (micro) business entrepreneurs, is that I don’t have the standard rules to live by. I don’t need to be in an office just because it is 9am, I don’t need to be at my desk until 5pm just because that is the office policy. So why not admit my mistake in acting as I did and scrap office/business hours all together. What if we got rid of business Hours? What if I worked when I needed to, when my clients needed me to and when I wanted to? What if I wasn’t afraid of answering a support ticket on Saturday because it might “train” a client to expect responses at 6am on a Saturday? Ok, hold the horses… this is a big one.

Training the Client

I have always been big on “training the client”. I learned very early on in my career that clients become disappointed when expectations are broken and so it’s smart business to set these expectations and stick to them. I learned the hard way, back in my 20’s with my very first business, when I would work all night (I can’t do that anymore). I had a client that would regularly send me website updates at 1, 2 or even 3 in the morning. I would do them. I did this for a while and then one night, I actually went to bed at midnight (the nerve, I know) and this client just happened to send in a press release to be posted some time around 2am.

I woke up at 7, got a cup of coffee and moved to my desk at 8:30. My inbox greeted me with an irate message about how I had failed because this client was testifying in front of Congress, the early morning press cycle had already started and this press release was not online. Honestly not a big deal…. But it was to them. Why on earth would this client think that a release they sent me at 2am would be posted before the early morning press cycles? Answer: because I “trained” them to expect that as the normal level of service.

Back to the Point

walk through reserva conchal
Walking through Reserva Conchal for short break

I think the trick here might be to keep sudo office hours whereby we tell clients that a regular response can be expected during office hours (9am – 5pm) however they may hear from us outside those hours. However if they have an urgent matter they need to follow our protocols for such events (which we have) and not assume someone is at their desk 24/7. I get this could be risky, I get that this very much complicates my “training the client” mission. However, it would potentially rid me of the toxic resentfulness that occurs now after following some self appointed expert’s advice about maintaining boundaries with strict business hours.

For me the move to Costa Rica marked a big turning point in my life. I really felt it was my chance at finding some kind of balance, to reduce my stress and yet still work. I still believe that it is possible and I do believe my surroundings are big part of that. Yet, you can see I still struggle with how exactly to get this done.

In 2019, I think I will drop the “business hours” mentality and try something a little different. I started today by working at 6am and taking an hour long walk through the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean at 11. I have also done some work in the evenings and my mornings seem less stressful. The key here is obviously habits.

We’ll see how this goes in 2019.

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