When I wrote my most-popular post so far, Fighting fit: Why you need to be in top shape to be a leader, I promised I’d write a future post about work-life balance. So, here are five things that work for me.
1. Do it and then forget it
One of my favorite sayings is many pebbles do a mountain make. One example is it’s hard to be productive, focused, and energized with a thousand small todos in your head. It’s hard enough having a few large things. Empty your head of the small stuff: do small things when you think of them, don’t file them away, and don’t have them hanging over you. This lowers my stress, gives me a warm feeling of having completed something, and makes life better.
A good example is an email. If you’ve read it, it needs a reply, and the reply is going to take a minute or so: just do it now. The cost of reading it, filing a todo in your head, finding it again, and replying is much higher. It’s an added stress, and it’s occupying valuable brain real estate that could be used wisely.
Where’d this idea come from? My favorite management book in the past five years is Getting Things Done by David Allen. From it I learnt this tip: if it takes less than two minutes to do, don’t defer it, do it now.
2. A work-free day
Pick Saturday or Sunday, and do no work at all. Don’t read your email. Don’t touch the computer. Don’t call anyone. Put work aside, do your best not to think about it. It’s not that hard — if something urgent comes up, someone will call you.
You’ll be surprised how good this makes you feel. You’ll have a great day, and you’ll be energized when you return to work on the next one.
3. Be consistent
Early in my career, I’d take it easy for most of a work milestone, and then crank up the all-night, weekend work to get things done towards the end. That worked for a while, but it’s not sustainable over a career.
I recommend consistency. Try and work the same hours, regardless of the deadlines and pressures. Put in a solid day, work hard from the start of a project, and keep on track all the time. If there’s less to do than usual, don’t work less: this is your chance to clean up email, documents, develop your career, or network. (This won’t always work — there are definitely times where you will need to work harder, but work to make those the exceptions.)
You’ll find being consistent burns you out less. It’s the right approach for the long haul.
4. Take a vacation
Your work wants you there for the long haul, and they give you your vacation so that you can relax, recharge, and come back energized. So do it.
Turn the email off — I actually remove the account from my smartphone. Turn on the “out of office” message on your email, and state you’re not reading email because you’re on vacation. Tell your boss your home phone number and your personal email address, and ask her to contact you there in an emergency.
Try and have one vacation per year that’s at least two weeks. It takes a week to wind down, and that second week is bliss. If you fragment it too much, you may not get the relaxation you’ve earnt.
5. Quality is more important than Quantity
Working long hours is a badge of courage. Strangely, using the hours wisely doesn’t have same status. It should.
I vote for using a sensible number of hours wisely instead of using a large number of hours poorly. Some of the most effective people I know work most days from 9 to 6, or 8 to 5, or 8 to 6. They think about what they want to achieve each day, stay focused on those things, and avoid meetings they don’t need to be in. They tend to also be the folks who are consistent in their approach — you’ll see them working to that timetable every day, most of the year.
Try relentlessly optimizing your day, give yourself a focus on quality. A good tip to get started is to write down the four things you want to achieve today before you start your day — and promise yourself you’ll do them before you leave.
Hope this helps you improve your work-life balance. Feedback very welcome.