One of the hardest things to do as an entrepreneur is find balance. Take a break. Take a nap. A lot of times it can feel like the opportunity cost is too high -- that you are giving up future opportunities by taking time to rest. Self care for small business owners is rarely discussed.
Within the last generation, advances in technology have given us a global economy, social media platforms, and the World Wide Web. The demand for immediate responses, overnight shipping and having the resources of a larger corporation while operating an “artisanal, locally supportive” brand is just plain unsustainable.
The physicality of operating a food establishment, even one as delicious as a s’more cafe, can take a toll. Plus, the mental strain?! It’s a heavy burden. I am not saying that the outcome is not rewarding, but there is a need to talk honestly and openly of the struggles most business owners face. This is especially true of women business owners, and even more impactful for women of color.
Over the last few years, I have experienced a lot -- exhaustion, Bell’s Palsy, consistent financial insecurity, and a period where my fiance and I separated over stress and lack of communication. Going through all of these things forced me to prioritize my body, my personal relationships, and my mental health. Now, I have much better boundaries at work, which has led me to become more productive. I have also felt more creative during my workday, and have set some positive work culture expectations for the rest of the XO team.
Below are my top Self Care tips for small business owners. These tips are things I have found to be the most helpful in reducing stress and creating a better work-life balance for me (and hopefully you too):
1) The Importance of Rest
I know you’re rolling your eyes here. I remember days when I would end up sleeping on a small couch near our commercial kitchen, between hours of making marshmallows and packaging them. I remember working so many hours when we first opened the XO Marshmallow Cafe, and convincing myself that the exhaustion I felt was all par for the course. I think part of the reason my behavior was so normalized, was that I was conditioned to the nonstop rigor of my undergrad education, and later in law school, being told that the workload was brutal and that being tired was part of the process. This thinking is dangerous.
In September of 2019, the right side of my face got extremely inflamed, and then paralyzed. A quick trip to urgent care informed me that I had Bell’s Palsy, an idiopathic illness that causes temporary facial paralysis and weakness. The pathway between my facial muscles and my 7th cranial nerve had been damaged, and the only way to repair it was to allow my body to heal itself over time. The recovery process required that I worked less, limited screen time, and slept as much as possible. I was lucky enough to have a business partner who stepped in to take care of the to-do list and encouraged me to heal at my own pace. I was also lucky to have my personal partner who traveled with me, put up with my crankiness, and was there to gently remind me it was OK to rest.
Rest can mean a lot of different things. In terms of self care, I think consistently getting however many hours of sleep a night your body needs, is important. I am also a big fan of naptime, though I recognize that naps are not for everyone. Rest also means setting a boundary with yourself and others on what your work day or week looks like. I don’t think I had really taken a day off until I got Bell’s, which meant that mentally, there were weeks I was waning, struggling through and not giving myself a break to tackle things at home. Rest means taking a day off; That mental break from work gives your body and mind a chance to recharge, and lets others know that you are not actually available every minute of the day. These boundaries can refuel creative drive, which in turn leads to a more productive and happy work (and home!) environment.
If you truly feel like you “can’t step away because everything will fall apart,” then perhaps you haven’t hired the right people to step up should they need to, or perhaps you have difficulty entrusting your business tasks to others. These are all normal feelings, by the way, but it’s good to be aware of why you are pushing against the notion of taking a break because in the long run, you won’t be able to work ON your business if you’re too busy working IN your business. Taking a small vacation (or perhaps a staycation in your own city) can be incredibly rewarding and necessary for yourself, your family, and your business.
2) Stop, Hydrate and Listen
Self Care Tip #2 - hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Being on the go, it’s easy to forget your water bottle. But, women need somewhere around 12 cups (2.7 liters) of water a day. In drinking more water regularly, I have realized that times where I’d normally reach for a snack or a cup of coffee, I was really just thirsty! Now I am much less inclined to mindlessly eat a package of Oreos (don’t judge me) over refilling my water bottle.
Hydration is also a form of self care when you are intentional about it. For example, having a cup of coffee every morning before starting your day is a great way to wake up, meditate, and set some goals for yourself. Tea is one of my favorite beverages, mostly because I always feel a bit fancy prepping and sipping a cuppa. After a long day, I will toss a lavender marshmallow in my cup of Earl Grey tea, instead of using cream or sugar, and the aromatic lavender flavor sweetens the air, allowing me to enjoy the moment even more. Plus, tea counts as part of that daily water goal, so it’s a win-win for me!
3) Let’s Get Physical
Everyone at work knows I am not the biggest fan of...exercise. My fiance runs marathons and I get upset if we don’t park as absolutely close to the front door of the grocery store as possible. Yeah, I’m one of those. But for me, the reason I had been so resistant towards regularly exercising, came down to cost. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, and I lacked the motivation to get up and run at 6AM each day. One Friday afternoon, a friend asked if I wanted to go for a walk, with the promise of ice cream at the end of our journey. Quickly, this weekly walking became a routine, and I was pleasantly distracted by the great conversation and occasional treat.
Instead of putting a lot of pressure on yourself to get a membership, or push yourself to any extremes, I’d encourage you to focus on what physical activities you can incorporate into your week. Activity can be anything that gets your body moving! For me, walking my dogs has become a great motivator to get outside. I also recognize now there are some days that are more physically taxing for me, and that my activities at work are enough, so I focus on stretching or doing a 30 minute yoga session at home to relax. Now, I am actually taking a few strength training classes and find so much encouragement and community within the class, it more than makes up for the fact that I am getting up a bit early to squeeze in the time. Plus, you know what they say “exercise gives you endorphins...”
4) Talk to Someone
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve clocked venting to a friend about some obstacle or another over the last five years. I can share that there were times I self-isolated, and didn’t even talk to my partner about what I was struggling with, or when I was feeling overwhelmed, or needed additional support. There was a period where both of our schedules and our lack of communication created such a rift, we decided to take some time apart. Our next conversation took place in couples counseling, where we both expressed our frustrations and fears. From there, we were able to connect more openly and honestly about the good, the bad, and the in-between.
Getting feedback on our behavior is important -- and surrounding yourself with people who can understand that without judgement, is key. Perhaps it’s a licensed therapist (we are big proponents of mental health!), or maybe you have found a business mentor to chat through some of your entrepreneurial growing pains. I have also found that keeping up with friends brings me a sense of balance, and I try to regularly call, text, or visit my besties outside of work.
I think the biggest take-away from this tip is to recognize when you are overwhelmed, and to reach out and ask for help when you need it; I know that sometimes it can feel like no one will understand, but I have been consistently surprised to connect with other business owners and find that they are or have gone through exactly what I’m going through now! Reaching out for professional support is also incredibly courageous, and we support that decision 100 percent.
5) Set a Small Goal Every Day (affirmation, put $10 in your bank account, set a morning routine)
If you're like me and have decision-making fatigue, it can be hard to decide on where to start with practicing self care. My biggest piece of advice is to start with one small step. Over your first cup of coffee, list out one thing you can do for yourself. Some of my go-to's are:
- Find an affirmation that resonates with you, repeat it several times today
- Set a "bedtime" alarm
- Put $10 in your savings account
- Go on a 30 minute walk
- Make a dinner reservation for yourself and a friend
- Treat yo'self to a pedicure
- Set up a glamping trip with some girlfriends this month
Phew! I know that was a lot. How are you feeling? Personally, I wish there was a guide like this when I first started making marshmallows. I still set daily and weekly goals to keep myself on track with my health and relationships, and I hope these tips help move YOU from feeling overwhelmed to living a more mindful and fulfilling life.