Last week, Airtree Ventures kicked off an important conversation in the start-up community on the realities of being a founder and a parent – please check it out if you haven’t already. Host Elicia McDonald and her panellists had me nodding and laughing along, reflecting on my own experience starting a business with two young children (and dealing with baby-vomit on long-haul flights!).

But while the validation of shared experience feels great, there’s deeper wisdom to unpack. Much of their anecdotal advice is backed up by solid time management research. Better understanding that theoretical layer can highlight how it can apply to our varied work/life circumstances.

So, I’ve distilled the rich and raw conversation into three key time management concepts, to help more parent founders find solutions to their current time puzzle. For each, you’ll find points on how to action them.

These strategies not only make it possible for the panellists be decent parents while running a demanding business, but they made the founders more effective at work too. What’s more, they agreed these strategies aren’t only applicable to parents; even if kids are off your radar, the benefits of approaching your time with intention are up for grabs.

Elicia’s panellists were:

  • Kate Lambridis, Co-Founder at Human
  • Mark Tanner, Co-Founder at Qwilr
  • Simon Griffiths, Co-Founder and CEO of Who Gives a Crap
  • Siobhan Savage, Co-Founder and CEO at Reejig

Each founder, like Elicia, has two children, ranging between 18 months to 8 years old.

1. It’s personal, it’s dynamic

The anecdotes:

  • Kate: “The biggest thing I’ve learned about managing your relationship with your partner and how you parent, is that it can change, and that’s okay… I think you want to figure out ways to make sure that as adults you’re both getting your needs met as well as your children, and that you can flex over time.”
  • Simon: “We had plans of co-parenting… [but when circumstances changed] we realised that, actually, that didn’t make sense… It’s something that we’ll switch up again and make a change to in the future.”
  • Siobhan: “My kids are very involved in this conversation. We’ve told them “This is our moment, I’m working like this but it’s not forever.” … When you’re looking at the business as you go through A-stage, when you’re doing your fundraising, it’s like also taking a moment to go; The things that got me here are actually going to kill me… like I will not make it to series B… so how do we transition?”
  • Mark: “Different people have different pain thresholds and tolerances of how they work best and whatever else, but figure out whatever is your truth… just be self-aware.”

The science:

Each start-up and each family have their own combinations of needs, priorities and challenges, and they change drastically as businesses and children grow. Studies like this one show there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to work/life balance.

Since 2020, there’s been some awesome research informing the range of work arrangements that can support both business and personal needs in different circumstances. It’s easy to forget that industries like healthcare have been testing solutions to time autonomy (like self-scheduling) for years, and those learnings can inform tactics applicable to knowledge workers too.

We know entrepreneurs generally suffer more from work/life conflict than traditional employees. However, research shows applying an entrepreneurial mindset to these challenges (by thinking creatively, taking risks and acting proactively) has a protective effect on personal priorities, business performance and job satisfaction. Reviewing your arrangements regularly helps you adapt over time to tilt the balance in the right direction.

The practise:

Researchers recommend:

  • Challenge norms at home and work to find creative time solutions that reflect your unique circumstance
  • Empower personal and professional supporters to tell you when you’ve pushed too hard
  • Talk about what autonomy means to your team; getting their buy-in for non-traditional work arrangements can be the biggest enabler in realising the personal and business benefits

2. Schedule your priorities

The anecdotes:

  • Kate: “The first thing about boundaries is, you have to actually believe you’re better with them… My suggestion is, if your boundaries aren’t in your diary, they’re not boundaries.”
  • Mark: “I would strongly encourage, whether or not you have kids, or whatever stage of life you’re at, every year or so, blow up your calendar. It’s a wonderfully cathartic experience. And rebuild it, and be thoughtful and intentional about it.”
  • Simon: “This exercise of managing your calendar, we have everyone in the company do that… we find a lot of people… can start to lose control of their calendar and we say to them, “What are the things that are important to you?… You need to get those in your calendar and set your non-negotiables”.”

The science:

Kate shared her favourite advice about placing the big rocks (non-negotiable priorities) in your calendar first. It’s a spatial awareness analogy shared broadly by coaches and consultants, popularised by Stephen Covey’s 1994 book First Things First.

Time blocking/task batching are popular strategies in productivity literature, and we know that reducing interruptions helps focus (just ask your dev team!). But when it comes to batching ‘sandy’ tasks that could be urgent, like email, keep tabs on your stress levels. Research says individuals may find it more or less stressful to batch these, depending on your circumstance.

Scheduling time for your non-negotiables ultimately means saying no to other requests, leaving many of us anxious about putting others out. The good news is, research shows that we tend to over-estimate the cost of rejecting invitations, and under-estimate the benefits.

The practise:

Researchers recommend:

  • Schedule time for your most cognitively-demanding work, putting your devices in focus-mode
  • Talk to your team about availability and response-time expectations to establish a respectful time culture
  • The most effective rejections provide concrete reasons for saying no, citing uncontrollable factors

3. Balance is good for business

The anecdotes:

  • Mark: “So much of that 70-hour work week was like crap quality work, like pretty menial, low-value, non-creative, not high leverage work… I definitely think you can do a lot less of it… The constraints that family life puts around you, kind of forced me to actually engage with that deeply and made me, I think, better at my job.”
  • Kate: “That narrative of… ‘the more hours you put in the more successful your company is going to be’… I really don’t buy it… Actually, it’s not good for you and it’s also not good for your team.”
  • Siobhan: “We’re also trying to not be reckless around just throwing benefits to everyone for everything because we’re trying to think about it more. “What is the most important thing that our people need today?” is kind of the thing that we’re asking, and it seems to be time.”

The science:

Research supports Mark’s view that time constraints can clarify priorities, squeezing out lower-value activities that perhaps you didn’t need to do anyway.

Take this 2021 study observing an all-remote, agile dev team that shifted to a 4-day work week. Researchers found that the time constraint led to more efficient communications and less time in meetings. At the same time, employee motivation, work/life balance and job satisfaction increased.

Of course, time pressure isn’t always helpful. It takes some experimentation to strike the right balance between the benefits of focus and time gained with the potential costs to quality, creativity, and stress.  

But attempts at balance are well-worth it, given the solid link between work/life balance, job satisfaction and staff retention (e.g. research here, here and here).

Keep in mind that balance means for yourself as a whole, not sacrificing your personal wellbeing for the sake of your family. This study found that work-health balance is twice as likely to influence job satisfaction than work-family balance.

The practise:

Researchers recommend:

  • Talk to your team about what they value – it may be a combination of business-wide policies and individual arrangements
  • Organise onsite social events to counteract the social impact of reduced synchronous work time
  • Visibly role model balance by taking advantage of entitlements and freedoms, and communicating it to establish cultural norms.

Jenna Polson

TimeBeings helps start-ups smash their goals sustainably. Data-driven, research-backed, guaranteed.

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Book a discovery call to chat with Jenna about your vision of time well spent.