There’s no denying our workdays are getting busier. And the more we try to cram into them, the less time we seem to have for the other things that matter just as much if not more: Family. Friends. Hobbies. Learning.
Work life balance is the promise that we can do all the things we want in life. It’s not necessarily saying that work and life are in direct opposition of each other. But rather that we need to find a way to end our days and feel good about the accomplishments we’ve made.
Unfortunately, few of us feel this way.
In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users, we found the majority of people get to the end of the day and ask: “Did I get anything done?”
So, how can we do our best work and feel like we’re living a well-rounded, balanced, productive life? To find out, we gathered the best work life balance tips from some of the world’s “busiest” people—from CEOs to authors, artists, and entrepreneurs.
Follow the Snowball Principle and get the fundamentals right first
One of the most difficult parts of finding work life balance is just how many pieces we’re all trying to balance. Few people represent this struggle as succinctly as serial entrepreneur and author Michael Simmons.
After launching and growing his first business at the age of 16 (alongside Deep Work author, Cal Newport), Simmons has gone on to found multiple companies, run hundreds of events around the country, and regularly contribute to publications like Forbes, Time, and Harvard Business Review.
With so many balls constantly in the air, Michael finds balance not by focusing on doing more. But by making sure the fundamentals are always taken care of. He calls it the Snowball Principle:
“Just as a small snowball being rolled down the hill slowly picks up snow with each rotation and becomes a huge one. Or how a tiny domino can eventually knock over a huge one if you give the momentum time to compound upon itself. With both the snowball and the dominoes, the ending is inevitable.”
More specifically, the Snowball Principle is the idea that we can have it all if we’re willing to:
- Get the fundamentals right first (and make them non-negotiable)
- Have big, hairy, audacious goals, but be patient with them
- Replace all-or-nothing sprints with a marathon mentality
Nailing the fundamentals in life—health, security, relationships, personal development and growth, purpose—is the only way to feel balanced and see compound returns on the work you put in every day.
“In retrospect, I would have focused on getting these fundamentals right first, before setting huge professional goals with lower probabilities of success. I would’ve made things like getting an annual physical, a good night’s sleep, and adequate exercise non-negotiable. By non-negotiable, I mean not even entertaining excuses about urgent deadlines or it not being the right timing.”
When it feels like you’re taking on too much and other parts of your life are being negatively impacted, take a second to make sure you haven’t lost your fundamentals.
Set clear boundaries around your availability
When it comes to creating balance in your life, it’s all about understanding where your time is going. And if you don’t schedule that time for yourself, someone (or something) will take it from you.
As VP of Product Design at Facebook, designer Julie Zhou constantly has other people asking for her time. Whether it’s meetings, events, one-on-ones, or company emergencies, her time is constantly under attack.
To take control of her day and be able to find the balance she needs to stay productive (and sane!) Julie suggests setting clear boundaries. And sticking to them religiously.
“For me, that self-agreement is often ‘I’m leaving the office at 6pm, and will only do one hour of work from 9pm to 10.’”
For blogger, entrepreneur, and podcast host Ryan Robinson, the best way to set those boundaries is to schedule time for yourself first.
“Over the past few years of growing my blog, I’ve had to get increasingly more ruthless about how I manage my time in order to avoid burning out with my side businesses. The most impactful change I’ve made has been consciously flipping my mindset about how work fits into my life.”
This has meant forcing himself to sit down for 30 minutes every Sunday evening to schedule personal activities like working out for an hour each day, planning date nights once a week, and going to regular meetup events. Those go in the calendar first. Then, work gets weaved in around those more important activities to keep him energized, focused, and driven.
“As a fun little byproduct of this shift, it’s also forced me to be much more selective about the activities I choose to pursue, keeping me more in tune with the tasks that’ll drive the greatest impact for my business.”
Practice the Four Burners theory (or, understand you can’t do it all)
Work life balance is just about what you do each day. Sometimes it’s about making the hard choice of what you simply don’t have time to do right now.
Most people would call this prioritization. But in the long-term, it’s more like life strategy. For best-selling author, consultant, habit coach, and bodybuilder, James Clear, the best way to handle this strategy is with the “Four Burners Theory”:
“Imagine that your life is represented by a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolizes one major quadrant of your life.
- The first burner represents your family.
- The second burner is your friends.
- The third burner is your health.
- The fourth burner is your work.
“The Four Burners Theory says that ‘in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.’”
What this all comes down to is understanding that life has tradeoffs. And while we all want to do it all, we simply can’t excel at everything at the same time. Instead, to do our best work (in all areas of life) we need to make choices.
What is most important to you right now? If it’s your career and health, you might have to cut back on time spent with family and friends. If it’s relationships, then maybe it’s time to pump the brakes on your career growth.
This doesn’t mean that you have to stick to the burners you choose forever. But rather that finding balance and hitting your full potential means accepting you can’t keep everything on full blast.
Build more “white space” into your daily schedule
The problem with talking about things like work life “balance” is that it assumes we’re trying to maximize the time we have and cram everything into it. But no matter if you’re spending your time aggressively working or aggressively going out with friends, you can’t be going all the time.
Research has shown that we need downtime and space to refuel our creative mind (as well as our physical body). “Time scarcity” or, the state of constantly being overscheduled, actually diminishes our imaginative powers. So by trying to optimize your day to fit everything in you’re actually not spending your time as effectively as you could.
For Jocelyn K. Glei, best-selling author and host of the Hurry Slowly podcast, that space is the most important part of finding balance in your life.
Great creative ideas don’t happen when you’re stressed and going full out. So Jocelyn says we need to build “white space” into our days:
“White space in design isn’t just black space. It’s emptiness with a purpose. It balances the rest of the design by throwing what is on the page (or screen) into relief. It helps you focus on what’s most important.
“We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs because the concept carries over: If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can’t focus properly on anything. What’s more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively.”
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and trying to find balance, don’t forget to make space to recharge. This could be as simple as sitting quietly and letting your mind wander. Going for a walk around the block. Meeting a friend for coffee. Or meditating.
Deal with work in “seasons”
If you’re looking for a metaphor for finding balance in your life, you don’t have to look any further than nature. We might see plants growing and blossoming during the summer. But that only happens because the ground was rested during the fall and winter and got the nutrients it needed throughout the year.
For illustrator and best-selling author of Show Your Work, Austin Kleon, the seasonal metaphor is a perfect reminder that it’s not always the work you’re actively doing that brings results.
Austin gives the example of Cortia Kent—a nun who moved to Boston after 30 years in LA to become an artist and spent her days watching a maple tree grow:
“For Corita, the tree came to represent creativity. In winter, she said, ‘the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep creative process, out of which will come spring and summer.’”
Where we lose work life balance is in trying to do everything at once. It’s hard to not feel like we have to constantly be moving forward. But, according to Austin, part of finding balance is knowing what season you’re in and acting accordingly.
“People occasionally wonder out loud when I’m going to write another book. ‘I don’t know,’ I say. They ask me what I’ve been up to lately. ‘Not much,’ I say. ‘Reading a bunch. Raising the boys.’ To an outsider, it sounds like I’m doing nothing. It looks like I’m doing nothing. But I feel very much like Corita: ‘new things are happening very quietly inside of me.’”
To find balance, we can’t always assume we’re in summer. Instead, try to cycle through periods of focus and relaxation with different tasks. This way all aspects of your life get the attention they need.
Work life balance isn’t a competition between what you do from 9–5 and everything else
It’s finding balance in all aspects of your life so you can end the day/week/month/year and feel good about the progress you’ve made.
But when we’re going full-steam every day or only focusing on one aspect, everything else in our life suffers.
The good news is that many people who most of us would assume are too busy to find balance actually have found it. And so can you.
Originally published at blog.rescuetime.com