Balancing Work With Life

Running a small business, being self-employed, can be all consuming. The question is — how can it be balanced against life?

Peaceful woodland space
Seeing the wood for the trees

The Great Work From Home era seems to be upon us. Since COVID-19 put many people in lock down, the routines of millions have been rearranged. For some, it is a question of where does the personal life end and the work life begin? For others, it is the reverse. Neither is ideal and people must find a way to make it work for them.

For people running small businesses, they have had similar challenges long before COVID-19 broke out. When being paid is a direct result of the amount of productive work you do, it can be tempting to work around the clock. The pressure we place on ourselves can be overwhelming and it is often far more than our customers would expect, let alone demand.

Then there is the opposite pressure — the absence of work. The void of having no work can fill the mind with anxiety. But what is work?

Work Has Many Guises

I would consider myself primarily a software developer. This means that when I’m not working on software in one form or another, it can feel like I’m not doing ‘proper’ work. The connections between the software I create and the income it generates is a direct one — code gets cut and invoices get paid. It is easy to get in this mindset, but when running a business you have to shake this off.

Writing this piece is work for me at this moment, but no one will be invoiced for it and I won’t get paid for it. So why is it ‘work’? I can claim there is something altruistic about this process, by helping to increase the shared wisdom of the wider community and so forth. While there is an element of truth in this, it is also self-promotion and marketing on a budget (of zero!).

Last week, the other work was creating a new website for my company. Yesterday, I was doing company paper work. This is usually stuff that gets put off until I’m between projects. It is a nice change of pace, letting the mind dwell on something other than Java, AWS, Docker or whatever else I get to play with.

What will I be doing tomorrow? Well, while I’m waiting on feedback on some applications I have completed, I’ll probably be working on my network… or less grandly, reading and posting on LinkedIn and looking for interesting connections to make.

We have amazing tools for reaching out to people these days and we need to consider all this as ‘work’. Try to focus on the long term benefits of this and it will help to reduce the anxiety of the void!

Work That Isn’t Work

When you take your day job hat off, consider that you can still be productive in other ways. Can some of these help to reduce your cost of living and also help your well-being?

Dog standing next to AutoDoc car parts box
Dog standing next to AutoDoc car parts box
Alfie guarding my new car parts

When I’m working full time, on-site, I find myself outsourcing stuff that I could easily do myself. The car needs washing? Go to a car washer. Need wood for the fire? Buy wood from the shops. Need some work done around the house? Call a tradesman. Something wrong with the car? Take it to a mechanic. However, when you’re managing your own work/life balance, this doesn’t need to be the case.

Okay, maybe this much is obvious. When we are busy, we need a hand to get everything done. When we have time, it can be very rewarding to do some of these things ourselves. We may even learn a new skill and enjoy challenging ourselves in a different way.

For example, I’ve always been interested in cars. The relationship has been a bit love/hate at times though — I love driving them, but I hate it when they go wrong and I have to take it to a mechanic. So, I’ve taken to addressing this by becoming a bit of an amateur mechanic myself. I’m not going to be doing engine swaps any time soon, but it is amazing how resourceful you can be. Armed with YouTube and online shops for components you need, the learning curve isn’t as steep as you may expect.

Given we live out in the country, I’ve also started to do more in the garden. As we have a couple of acres, with some of it as woodland, I’d resigned myself to getting a gardener in to help out. It feels cringingly middle class to write that, but I blame a combination of working long hours/commutes, mixed with limited sunny days in Northern Ireland! I’ve started to address that by tooling up and doing this stuff myself.

The woodland which was getting overgrown and filled with weeds is now being brought to heal with a chainsaw. The lawn is now looking better than ever, as it’s getting mowed at the frequency it deserves. Better still, the wood from the woodland is being prepared for burning to heat the house — the house I also use as an office. So, the time spent outside of work, is both saving me money on gardeners as well as providing fuel to keep warm!

Getting outside, doing something physical has helped me relax and given me a sense of achievement. I look out of the window and I can see the results of my labour in a way that I don’t get from writing software. My body also feels like it has done something more taxing than propping my brain up. It feels healthy!

Being Resourceful Is Less Taxing

When we run a business, we are familiar with expensing business related expenditure. We take it for granted that we don’t pay tax on these things. However, when we pay for things personally, we have to pay the tax on the income, then the tax on the product or service we are buying. Considering this could be corporation tax, dividend tax, income tax, national insurance to pay yourself, then VAT, income tax, national insurance, etc, to pay for the service or product, there is a lot of tax being paid. The actual cost being covered is high.

How much tax do I pay when I mow the lawn? None. How about when I’m chopping wood? Same. Washing the car? Yup, nothing. Ok, we have to buy tools and parts and endure paying the tax charged on them, but the tax on the service costs we are providing is zero.

Woodland scene with chopped wood stacked
Woodland scene with chopped wood stacked
I’m a lumberjack and I’m ok…

The more you earn, the more you save, by doing stuff yourself. At least this is true in the UK, where personal taxes are charged at a higher rate when you earn more. If you let your company pay you less and do more yourself, you will lower you tax threshold. This leaves more money for the future, for lean times or for your retirement.

Spending less time fighting the tax burden and more time being resourceful can be rewarding in many ways. Running a business gives you these options, so why not embrace them? It can add balance to your life and open your body and mind up to different challenges. Relish this!

Founder and consultant at Codiate, with over 20 years of experience as a developer.

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