Finding the Sweet Spot

Why do some entrepreneurs burn out while others go on to not only build thriving businesses but also enjoy fully engaged family and personal lives? This is the question that Dr. Sabrina Starling has asked – and she’s found some answers.

Starling, a business psychologist who helps entrepreneurs and business leaders build thriving businesses without burning out, is the author of The 4 Week Vacation as well as the How To Hire the Best series. I recently had Starling on Leading With Genuine Care, and she provided some insight into why and how business leaders can – and should – take time off and seek to have more balanced lives.

Connecting Instead of Hustling 

Many entrepreneurs subscribe to the “hustle culture,” believing you must sacrifice everything – your time with your family, vacations, even your health – in order to succeed.

“The traditional way of doing entrepreneurship is with the expectation you have to throw your whole self, whole being into it,” Starling says. But she challenges that view, noting that “this is about the journey, not the destination. We need to be present and connect with ourselves and our loved ones every single day.”

Because of the “hustle” mentality, entrepreneurs have higher than average rates of divorce and mental health challenges. She points out that one AA meeting was comprised completely of children of entrepreneurs, illustrating the effects such a “hustle culture” can have. Even if you are physically at games or events where your kids are, you are not really there if you’re caught up in responding to texts and emails instead of being present and engaged.

In addition, constant multitasking and the drive to respond to problems as quickly as possible – even when they are not emergencies – creates stress which in turn affects our physical and mental health. It also gets in the way of good decision-making. “We pay the dumb tax a lot as entrepreneurs,” says Starling, explaining that the “fight or flight” mode can get in the way of fully examining a problem and prevent us from inviting others to weigh in on possible solutions. “We need to quit making decisions in survival mode,” she says, and lean on others for their input.

Slimming the Business

So, how do you do it? According to Starling, the key is looking at the ways your business might be “overweight.” You need to slim it down, she says. By this, she means finding that “sweet spot,” where you are making 80% of your income from 20% of your customers.

Many entrepreneurs start out serving a variety of clients in a variety of ways, but as the business starts to grow, this creates a bottleneck around you. Instead, you need to focus on how you can implement systems to provide goods or services without your direct engagement. Ultimately, you need to get into the position where others are doing the day-to-day work and you’re focusing on how to grow, seeing the big picture, and coming up with new ideas. Because you can only do so much, as the business gets larger “you’re going to max out” and it’s time to apply a different set of skills. “What got you here will not get you there,” says Starling.

In order to get to this place, you need to do the following:

  1. Clearly define and narrow down your target clients to your “sweet spot” – the services or goods you can deliver to a specific niche.
  2. Hire “A players.” Starling explains that you attract high-quality employees by slimming down so you are not having to deal with the more difficult clients or customers – who tend to take up a lot of time but not pay a lot, and can be frustrating to work with.
  3. Create mental space so you can focus on the higher-level thinking you need to do to bring the business to the next level.

Creating systems that enable others to do the work is a key part of slimming the business and being able to step away from the day-to-day work.

Carving Out Time 

Many founders and business leaders have a difficult time giving up some of the reins to their business. They also might be afraid of looking at other issues in their lives, and business can become an excuse for not facing them. It’s a gradual process and it can be uncomfortable, Starling acknowledges.

“We have to be willing to walk through that valley of discomfort,” says Starling. But the wins are huge: a better quality of life for you, better health, and a strengthening of the connections with the people in your life. Once you’ve gotten to that point, you can start thinking about working fewer hours, and taking vacations. The four-week vacation is a goal to work toward eventually, but probably not something anyone will be able to do right away, says Starling. Once you get to that place, though, it can be life-changing: “It’s not an either/or. It’s really a both, and. We can have successful businesses and a good quality of life.”

To start, Starling recommends carving out some time in the day where you turn off your phone and make yourself available and fully present for the people in your life or simply to be by yourself. Business owners are often in “fight of flight mode,” constantly having to make decisions and solve problems, but this creates stress and can prevent you from seeing the bigger picture. She recommends blocking out time in your work days for quiet, focused work, and keeping your weekends work-free as another way to start striving toward more balance. Then, start to figure out how you can take one day off, gradually lengthening the time you can be unavailable and away from work.

When you put systems in place and plan ahead, you can eventually get to a place where you can take a longer time away without adverse effects on your business. You will also be better for it, as you’ll come back rejuvenated and refreshed, and you can often see things through new eyes. Stepping away from the day-to-day tasks of the business also gives your employees a chance to step up and take responsibility, something they will appreciate. Some business leaders might be surprised to find their employees are actually excited to “step up and show what they’re capable of,” says Starling.

And even if you can’t see the benefit of being able to step away from the day to day of the business, putting systems into place and slimming down are also necessary if you ever want to get to the point of selling or passing on the business to someone else.

Once you’ve stepped away for a while, you’ll need to figure out your role when you come back. If you find your business has been running smoothly without you, then you’ll know it’s time to step back and figure out what might be next for you and the business – or perhaps new ventures.

$10,000/Hour Activities 

So you’ve stepped back and put systems in place. You’ve hired A players who are running the business. You’ve come back from a vacation refreshed and ready. What should you do?

Starling recommends focusing on what she calls the “$10,000 an hour activities.” These are the high-value activities that will help grow your business and brand – the area you should now be focusing on. Starling first came up with this idea when she was juggling her own business with a new baby. “What’s one thing I can do that will move my business forward?” she asked herself, and she focused on that.

If you want to know more about $10,000 an hour activities, and where you might think about focusing your time and energy, you can get a free chart as well as an assessment at Starling’s company website, Tap the Potential.

The conversation with Sabrina Starling continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast, where we talk more about challenging “hustle culture,” how to ask good questions, and using $10,000 per hour actions to help your business grow.

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