Regardless of your boss and work environment, here are six pragmatic tips you can use to create a better work-life balance in your own life.
1. Redesign Time: Count the Blocks, not the Hours
Most of us are fixated on time. “If I don’t do my daily writing before 9 am, it will never happen.” Or, “it’s past 7 pm, so I should stop working now.” Then when you’re not able to stick to the arbitrary rules you’ve set for yourself, you feel bad about breaking them, or, on the flip-side, interrupt a perfect moment of flow just to adhere to your own rules.
Setting certain boundaries isn’t a bad thing in itself. But time is a very rigid form of measurement, which allows little flexibility and doesn’t take into account variables such as natural energy rhythms. We can set ourselves up for failure and anxiety by being too fixated on time alone.
THE POWER OF SPRINTS
Working in timed blocks of highly focused work can provide more benefits than just being less distracted. The most famous model for this is thePomodoro Technique, which means you work in “sprints” of 25 minutes, with five minute breaks in between. Once you get used to this rhythm, you’ve created a new unit of time measurement for how you’re progressing through your day.
Instead of putting a lot of emphasis on working between certain hours, you can now focus on daily and weekly number of sprints completed. This might sound simple, and it is, but it can give you a new perspective on your day. It sets boundaries and focus, while at the same time bringing flexibility.
Some days, if you’re experiencing peak productivity, you might work into the evening, others you might do very little and decide to spend an afternoon in the park. As long as you keep an eye on your total number of completed sprints, you can track your performance without being stuck to a too-rigid schedule. Besides being more focused on the task at hand during a sprint, you’ll be less prone to irritation when something unexpected happens. In other words, it allows for more spontaneity, since you’re not married to the hour of the clock.
2. Redesign Energy: Treasure your Prime Time
Not all parts of the day are created equal. Some of us are early birds, while others are natural born night owls. Figuring out which one you are and planning your schedule accordingly is essential for making the most out of your day and feeling good.
Say 10 a.m. until noon is your “prime” time. It would be foolish to plan entering data into a spreadsheet at that hour, since you could probably do that with eyes closed even at the worst of times. Or if you get stuff done at record speed just before midnight, make sure your significant other is aware of this and understands why you burn the midnight oil (just don’t forget to have a nice and relaxed breakfast together in the morning!).
If those around you (colleagues or loved ones) don’t understand when you perform at your best, you might get frustrated when they disturb you. And if you waste your best time on simple tasks, you’ll feel you didn’t get anything done by the end of the day.
Being aware of your inherent peak times therefore doesn’t only affect your productivity, but also your well-being and subsequently, your happiness. Moreover, it can add to your personal bottom line as you’ll get more and better work done in the same amount of time. Depending on your own priorities, this means you can either finish work earlier or take on more projects, whichever you prefer.
Related: “How to calculate your biological prime time” by A Life of Productivity.
3. Redesign Priorities: Apply Essentialism and Simplify Your Life
Whenever we read about successful individuals, it seems they have achieved an incredible amount of amazing feats. We figure the key to their success must be some superhuman routine combined with robotic self-discipline to get a hundred things done each day.
Yet if you take a closer look, you realize these people usually laser-focus on a few essential activities. They do those well, take extensive breaks in between, then move onto the next big thing, as opposed to trying to multitask and stretching themselves thin with a hundred different tasks at the same time.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”- Warren Buffett
Essentialism, a book by Greg McKeown, is the perfect handbook for reducing your commitments and concentrating all your efforts onto a few key activities. As McKeown writes: “It’s about making the trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things.”
The key trick here is to get rid of lots of stuff you’re doing. This is extremely hard, which is exactly the point: it forces you to make choices. To help you actually do this, here are two great methods:
The Essentialism project list: Create a list of everything you’re doing, then rate those items 1- 10 in terms of importance (not to be mistaken with priority). Once you’ve done this, get rid of everything which is below a nine as soon as possible. Delete, delegate or finish tasks you must accomplish as soon as you can. Then when new commitments present themselves, keep applying this method going forward; say “no” to anything you rate below a nine.
Buffett’s two-list strategy: A similar take on the same trick, is Warren Buffett’s two-list strategy. It goes something like this:
- Make a top 25 list of everything you still want to do in your life.
- From this list, pick your top five.
- The 20 items you didn’t pick will become your “avoid-at-all-cost-list.” These are the items which will distract from your top five, so they can’t be touched.
If you only want to implement one tip from this entire article, I’d recommend it to be this one: Instead of attempting to cram another project into your busy schedule, get in the habit of getting rid of stuff. This is the simplest way to improve your quality of life, by freeing up time for those things which are truly important to you (earn money, improve your health, spend time with loved ones).
4. Redesign Habits: Do the Unthinkable
If you’ve always done something a certain way, you might not even realize the effect it has on other areas of your life, since that’s how it’s always been. Maybe your drinking on weekends is affecting your work. Or the TV programs you watch are giving you a one-sided view of the world.
Whatever it is, consider for yourself which habits and rituals you take for granted. Then challenge yourself to do the opposite for an extended period of time (I’d recommend at least a month). Give up drinking, take a break from your job if you can, go travel, become a vegan, pretend you support a different political party, commit to running every day, stop following your favorite sports team, sign up for a meeting on Meetup to make some new friends… go wild!
See what it brings you. You might learn your original habit isn’t as important as you thought it was. Maybe it kept you from embarking on a completely new journey. The worst that can happen is a renewed appreciation for your original activity or belief. And regardless of the result of this experiment, it will help you to hone in on what really make you happy and expose you to perspective-broadening ideas and experiences that can enable happiness.
Related: For more, have a look at this mental model of inversion on the Farnam Street blog.
5. Redesign Perspective: Go Travel
Those who sing the praise of travel are usually blinded by their own experience. They believe going to far away places is the one-stop solution to open minds and bring people together.
Although spending time in a different culture indeed gives you a fresh perspective, travel is not for everyone. Some people would rather have stability, familiar places and faces and sleep in their own bed at night. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Anyone who gets the chance, however, should take at least one trip for an extended period of time (at least several weeks) at some point in their lives. You might find out you love spending time in foreign places, but at the very least, you’ll get to appreciate your own home more. Especially if you travel all by yourself; it’s the closest you’ll ever get to observing your regular life from a third person perspective.
Away from everything you’re used to, you’ll realize what you truly find important in life and what not. You’ll question your own assumptions by being in the middle of people who are completely different from you. By taking some time away from the people who normally surround you at home, you’ll get to reassess your likes, preferences and values. You might find out they’re more influenced by your environment than you would imagine.
And if you do catch the travel bug? Well, a life of adventure on the road awaits you; Godspeed!
6. Redesign Busy: Slow Down
Our modern days have come to feel like a never-ending race against the clock (“There’s Never Any Time” does an excellent job of capturing this feeling in writing). It seems being busy has become the default-mode for most people and companies. Busy is the new normal and can serve as a valid answer to almost any question (“How are you?” “Busy” – “How is business?” “Busy” – “Can you make it for a game of tennis this weekend?” “Sorry, I’m busy” and so on).
The truth of the matter is that being busy is not always good. Clearly, being chronically overstretched can lead to health problems. But even if you’re just a “normal” amount of busy (you work a reasonable number of hours per week and go home on time, but those hours are crammed full with meetings and tasks), you might not be making the best of things.
If you’re always keeping yourself busy with something, you never have any time to think. How can you know if your goals still make sense if you never take a moment to pause? How do you know you’re working on high value tasks as opposed to unimportant ones if you never even take a breath to consider that?
It’s all about the Pareto Principle of 80 / 20: 20% of activity leads to 80% of the results. If you take the time to figure out your 20%, you have a huge leg up on anyone who is always rushing through her to-do list, but never considers whether she’s working on the valuable 20% or the much lesser 80%.
I couldn’t think of a better way to sum it up than this Roman emperor did 1,900 years ago:
“Never to be in haste, and yet never slow.”- Marcus Aurelius in Meditations
You shouldn’t necessarily lay on the beach for the rest of your life and do nothing. A sense of urgency is good. But if you take a bit more time for thinking and planning as opposed to constantly moving around in a big rush, you’ll be doing the right things, as opposed to doing as much as possible (and potentially the wrong things).
7. Redesign Your Thinking: Calm Your Mind
One of the most important things I did on my path to a better work-life balance was to calm my own mind. What does that mean? Not being irritated about pointless items. Not constantly worrying about potential things that might happen in the future. Not questioning my own capabilities because of events that happened in the past. Not getting put off by someone else making a nasty remark.
Instead, learning to deal with what’s in front of me, without attaching too much emotion to it, regardless of what it is. Ryan Holiday got me on this path with his book “The Obstacle is the Way” and sums it up like this:
Focus exclusively on what you can change. What is up to us, and what is not up to us. What is up to us?
What is not up to us? Everything else. The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people’s emotions or judgements, trends, etc.
Often, we let ourselves get sidetracked by any of the items listed by Holiday. We tell ourselves we can’t do something because we’ve never done it before. Or we tell ourselves we can’t do it because we did do it before, but failed. Our minds are filled with endless paradoxes like these and they mostly hold us back or are simply a distraction.
Meditation and learning from the ancient Stoics are just some of the ways to calm your own mind. These techniques would warrant an article of their own, but the main point here is that you can improve your life, work and general happiness simply by looking inward and starting with your own mind. It can be the source of great happiness, but also of lots of unnecessary suffering.