When Crystal Paine launched MoneySavingMom.com in 2007, she thought it would be a small offshoot of the blog she had been keeping. Then the economy crashed, and millions of people wanted to know how she fed her family for $35 a week. She soon found herself running a company that was growing so fast her hosting service went down every afternoon. She couldn't stay on top of advertising queries. "I pulled all nighters," she says. "Your body forgets how to relax and sleep."
At first, she thought she could soldier through—things would be better after the next big project—but "that’s never how it is with a startup," she says. "It took me months to realize it’s never going to get better. I needed to step back and make better choices if I wanted this thing to run for the long haul."
She wrote about her journey back to sanity in a new book, Say Goodbye to Survival Mode. While the book is primarily aimed at the moms of young kids who comprise the majority of her 1.5 million monthly readers, Paine’s advice is also relevant to entrepreneurs working crazy hours at all kinds of startups. Here are her tips for clawing out from total chaos.
Paine said no to almost all opportunities for about six months. Yes, that was hard; she worried that "If I don’t say yes to all these opportunities, I’m going to miss out on something big." But there is only so much time in a day, and the more likely possibility is that you’ll miss something really important because you’ve said yes to something that doesn’t matter. Saying no was "very freeing," she says. "I needed to get to a place where I had some clarity, and to get some clarity, I had to have breathing room."
If you’re swamped, long term, you’ll need to hire a good number of additional people (MoneySavingMom is now a team of 13). But when you’re in overwhelm mode, scaling up seems like one more huge project. Here’s something you can do: get a virtual assistant for a few hours a week to deal with your most overdue projects. There’s no long term commitment, and no big expense. Hiring a virtual assistant was "so hard for me," Paine confesses because—hello—she’s the money saving mom. But she calls it "the best thing I ever did. This person is freeing me up from all those little details so I can focus on what I do best." As your additional administrative help starts to free up more space, you can think about other specific team members you’ll need to bring on for your rising workload.
Sometimes entrepreneurs think they’ll sleep or exercise after they get their work done. This is faulty thinking: "You’re never going to get your work done," Paine says. "Accept that it’s never going to be done. There’s always something more you could be doing." So figure out what aspects of self-care make life feel livable. Maybe it’s sleeping seven hours a night. Maybe it’s eating dinner with your family three times per week. Exercising for 30 minutes four times a week isn’t a bad idea either. Block in times for these things to happen, because if you don’t, they won’t happen. And you’ll feel out of control. "If you’re in it for the long haul, you’ve got to be taking care of yourself," she says.
"I completely unplug on Sundays," Paine says. Here are a few reasons to consider giving yourself a weekly day of rest. First, it’s motivational. "If it’s a hard week, a busy week, I think ‘I know Sunday’s coming!’" Paine says. Second, people get all sorts of great ideas when they step back from their work. Mental breathing space is profoundly creative. And third? Your family may be willing to put up with a lot if they know that at least one day a week you will focus on them, rather than work, and that you will not interrupt a conversation to take a phone call. That can buy back the goodwill that entrepreneurs often burn.
As you start shoveling stuff off your plate, you can start saying yes, strategically, to good opportunities. Ideally, you’ll be reaching out to people about the ideas you think are best for your business, rather than just responding to what comes across the transom. Potentially this will result in you asking someone you said no to in step one if she wants to work together, but you know what? If she liked you before, she’ll probably still like you—and this time, you’ll have your act together.