One of the biggest perks of working for yourself is freedom. You can manage your own schedule, escape the grind, and be your own boss. And yet, with no one looking over your shoulder, it’s easy to get stuck working 24/7 and burning out — especially if you’re passionate about your business idea.
That’s why it’s so important for small business owners to be smart about how they build their schedules. You want to make time to grow your business and enjoy the perks of self-employment — like being with family, going on trips, and going outside for a walk because it’s so dang nice out.
To see how the pros do it, we talked to four small business owners who structure their days for maximum freedom. Here’s what they said:
Take Fridays off
Skip a whole weekday? Blasphemy! But that’s what one friend and advisor recommended to Recording Revolution founder Graham Cochrane seven years ago. Taking Fridays off allowed Cochrane, whose business teaches people how to make high-quality music with affordable equipment, to rehearse with his church band on Saturday, perform on Sunday, and still have an entire day to devote to his family.
Regardless, he tried it and never looked back.
“It’s awkward or hard at first, but then you just get used to it,” he said. “And all of a sudden you realize … ‘Wow, do I really need 40, 60, or 80 hours a week to get this done?’ A lot of times it’s not the case.”
Designate a standard (and sacred) workspace
These false boundaries don’t just have to be temporal. They can also be physical. Solomon Chancellor — owner of an eponymous leather goods business — would know, since he’s studying for his law degree at NYU and running his company out of a studio apartment in New York City. So he’s adamant about using his space as efficiently as possible.
He also keeps his product inventory in a warehouse so it doesn’t clog up his apartment. Otherwise, those boxes would just be a constant physical reminder of the work he could be doing. These false boundaries give him peace of mind from his work and allow him to balance his studies with running his business.
Prioritize “deep work”
One of the easiest ways to create free time is to cut the crap out of your schedule. We’re not talking about fun things like watching YouTube videos or meeting a friend for coffee — sometimes you need a good distraction — but “crap” meaning the stuff that seems like work but isn’t actually productive.
“Examine everything you do and ask yourself which of your tasks do you have to do … I mean which tasks do you have to do to keep your business afloat,” said Bryce Conway, creator of 10X Travel, a company that helps people make financially smart travel plans. “I’m guessing you will find that few things are truly must do’s, and most things are simply distractions.”
As for the stuff that isn’t deep work, try combining those tasks with another activity. Maybe you can answer emails or catch up on industry news at the gym. Chancellor, for example, listens to business audiobooks while traveling throughout the city. This helps him build his strategy without eating away at the time he needs to make sales and ship products.
Create a routine
When you run a business, the list of things you could be doing never ends. That’s why you need to proactively build free time into your schedule — and then stick to those strictures.
Like clockwork, Cochrane works Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. at the earliest to 5:00 p.m. at the latest. He almost never works Friday through Sunday. He could work “anytime he wants” but has imposed these rather traditional hours on himself instead.
“I still struggle. It’s not perfect,” he said. “But I learned early on that I’m just going to have to create false boundaries and parameters around my work and then fit everything into that. Otherwise, it will take over.”
It’s not that there isn’t work to do. It’s that he chooses not to do work at certain times so he can enjoy other aspects of his life. In fact, Cochrane places work at fourth on his list of what is most important, with family, marriage, and faith at the top. And he built his schedule to reflect those values.
It may seem counter intuitive to build a “normal” schedule when starting your own business. But a bit of structure can actually help you draw clear lines of work and non-work time.
Protect your mornings at all costs
Mornings are precious to many business owners — whether they’re used for family time, personal reflection, or refining new ideas. It’s then that creative energy is high, and the day hasn’t yet been eaten by unforeseen events.
Take Molly Pickler, owner of Highly Devoted, a cannabis-friendly matchmaking and consulting company. She starts each day with mindfulness meditation.
10X Travel’s Conway also uses his mornings to set the tone for the day. Since he travels often, very few days looks the same, but his morning routine remains consistent.
“I start each day with a leisurely morning and a nice breakfast,” he said. “I find that jumping straight on my laptop and answering emails is a real productivity killer.”
Meanwhile, Chancellor finds that he’s most productive in the morning. In fact, he says he gets double the amount of work done early in the day as opposed to late at night.
“Setting your schedule to go to bed an hour earlier and wake up at 5:00 a.m. … really helps with your mind because the world is kind of quiet. You can also plan during that time period how to approach each day before everyone else has got going.”
Always save some energy for tomorrow
Sometimes, you need to listen to that voice in your head that says, “Put the laptop down. Close the Internet browser. Call it a day.”
“It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that you have to answer every email and social media post,” Conway said. “But I have found that going slow and steady is a much better move for both my productivity and my happiness.”
Cochrane takes a similar approach.
“Email is the worst for me because I’m the kind of person that wants to do everything and please everybody,” he said. “Knowing that that’s my personality, I actually go the opposite direction. I’m hardly ever in my email.”
In fact, he tries to check his email twice a week for 30 minutes. His assistant answers and filters the rest. But, of course, there are trade-offs.
“Things do fall through the cracks,” he said. “But it’s something I’m okay with to keep my sanity and respect the family time.”
This ties back to the importance of creating those mental boundaries. Since there’s no one telling you when to throw in the towel, you need to be strict with yourself if you want to build freedom into your schedule.
“I personally don’t believe that work should be your life,” Cochrane said. “Work is a part of my life. It’s an important part … but I definitely don’t want to be working all the time. I want to make sure that my work exists to serve my life and not the other way around.”