A Fine Balance: Tan Su-Lyn

by Portfolio Magazine
21 Nov 2023

With long working hours, an endless list of tasks, and families to care for, we can’t help but be in awe of these individuals who make juggling responsibilities seem so effortless. But is it really as easy as it seems to be? We find out their secrets to doing it all and how they know when enough is enough.

Briefly tell us about yourself, what you do, and what keeps you busy outside of work.
I’m the co-founder of brand strategy and communications agency, The Ate Group, which has now been operating for over 17 years. I’ve had the privilege of working on many well-loved brands like Bacha Coffee, Bynd Artisan, Jigger & Pony, TWG Tea, and Odette.

My expertise lies in the content component of the business, meaning that I work with my colleagues in the content team to build rich, meaningful, and timely narratives for our clients that eventually filter through to all brand touchpoints. Over the years, we have developed a methodology that enables us to eventually bring each brand to life with considered and genuine content. To achieve this includes focused monitoring of lifestyle sectors and trends – right down to the granular details of how consumer behavior can evolve even within the space of three to six months. I also work closely with some of our clients on a day-to-day basis as part of account servicing teams.

The little time I have beyond work is devoted to my family, I have three children aged between five and 12 years old.

As an entrepreneur, wife, and parent, I’m sure exhaustion gets to you. What are the signs that tell you, “it’s time to take a break”? What helps you get back on track?
As an entrepreneur, a mother of young children, and major-domo of a relatively large household, the reality is that there’s always something urgent that needs to get done. This, coupled with a relentless desire to always deliver excellence, means “good enough” is not never enough for me. So, I’m always asking myself what more I can do for our clients, the business, and my family.

I’ve probably only learned to act on signs that I need a break this year. It was a wake-up call when my doctor told me that I suffer from chronic stress. For example, in the past, I would have taken insomnia and broken sleep as great opportunities to squeeze additional work or household tasks into my finite 24 hours in a day. I saw reduced hours of sleep as increasing efficiency – the solution to balancing my dual priorities of work and family. I now recognise that insomnia and night-time rumination can be symptoms of a host of imbalances in my body that are also linked to stress and anxiety.

To get myself back on track, I’ve started to do a couple of things to enhance the quality of my diet and sleep. These include switching up my supplements; focusing on introducing nutrient dense foods into my meals; taking magnesium and deep sleep supplements an hour ahead of bedtime; making time for yoga and mindfulness practices that can increase melatonin levels a few times a week; and making a point to resist responding to digital alerts and non-urgent messages past a certain hour of the night. Of course, when a client faces an issue, it’s all hands on deck whatever the hour.

(Related: A Fine Balance - Olivia Lee)

After dealing with work and family matters, how do you spend the few precious hours you’re left with before calling it a day?
Frankly, most mothers don’t feel that they have any hours left in their days. I’ve rarely felt that I deserved to have any. Whether it’s at work or at home, my operational hours are 24/7. I always feel that I am behind on a number of things. Therefore, if my schedule opens up because team members at home or at work have taken tasks off my plate, my immediate reaction is to assess what else on my to-do list I can get done.

The hours I spend each day working is always at the expense of other things I’d like to direct my attention to. I struggle with feeling that I devote most of my waking hours to the business at the expense of my kids. To me, even when I choose to go to sleep, for example, those hours of rest could potentially be put into doing something for my children.

When my household, colleagues, and clients have gone to bed, I usually head into the kitchen to prepare meals that can be frozen and served to my children during the week. I don’t have the capacity to be home to cook for them at mealtimes, so this enables me to mother my kids remotely a little. It’s also the window of time I use to stock up on groceries and household supplies online (pre-pandemic I would have headed to a 24 hour supermarket), and check on my children’s schoolwork. I leave notes to remind my children about the tasks they might need to complete the following day or pen them a note of encouragement if they’re gearing up for a test. Before I go to bed, I spend a little time reading The New York Times online or the weekend edition of the Financial Times (which I never find the time to read on weekends). Sometimes, this is also when I am able to put focused time into reading up on subjects relating to our clients’ businesses.

What lessons have you learned from the past that prove to be helpful in this age of “hustle culture”? What words of advice do you have for this new generation of professionals?
I’ve always felt the need to hustle. I’ve learned that hustling can be productive, but when there’s no self-regulation, subscribing to hustle culture taken to the extreme leads to burnout. My advice: Work hard, keep an open mind, and never be too experienced to learn something new. Be unafraid of failure. Put time into figuring out what you’re great at – lean into this as you hustle. Always give credit where credit is due because when we hustle together, we achieve greater things.

(Related: Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan's new view on life and health)

As the year draws to a close, we tend to look back on what has happened, what we’ve accomplished, and what we could have done better. What are some of your important realizations as you reflect on the year that was?
It’s only in the past year – off the back of the socio-economic impact of the pandemic years and the subsequent intensity of the world reopening – that I’ve felt the full brunt of how unsustainable my perfectionist approach is when it comes to the balancing act of steering a business alongside caring for a young family.

Previously, I relied on stress to maintain productivity, as the scope of my responsibilities at work and at home grew over the years. While it seemed to work well for me, I’m beginning to understand these days that I was caught in a vicious cycle. Neglecting simple things within my control, such as mindset, nutrition, sleep, and physical activity has taken its toll on my stress levels, mood, memory, and health. In turn, over time this has compromised my ability to function at the standards I hold myself to.

In short, I’m learning to accept that it’s impossible to do it all perfectly – work, lead, and mother alongside the many other roles a person performs simultaneously – at all times. Trite as it may sound, it is crucial to set boundaries. It is not self-indulgent to take pockets of time for yourself. Neither is it weak to ask for and accept help from the people around you. In fact, I have found that you can achieve more collectively.