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The Elusive Work-Life Balance

How do you find a balanced life when you’re overloaded with work?

How do you switch off work when you’re away from the office?

The answers to these very common questions are elusive. It’s never an easy thing. But once you do find this balance you’ll find enormous benefits: more enjoyment of life and better relationships and less stress and a better quality of life overall.

A reader recently asked:

“I’d love to hear advice on how people who work full-time jobs can still manage to attain a well-balanced life. Especially in roles that give you sales targets, monitor you, and can be very stressful. I know it’s best to switch off after working hours, but sometimes (as humans) it is tough.

In Hong Kong, part-time jobs don’t pay well here and are tough to find, and full-time jobs often require overtime and are very stressful (it’s the Hong Kong norm to squeeze out as much as you can from an employee). In this corporate jungle, a part-time would be a perfect job for me (say 9-3 everyday); however it’s very hard to find jobs like that – it’s just not how the job market here is in Asia.

So how does one keep their calm and be grounded and still make time & energy for family, friends, myself, hobbies, interests and let’s face it – sanity? How does one learn to ‘not keep goals’ when that is what is expected from 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. 5 days a week? It’s tough to be 2 different people at work and outside of work.”

That’s a tough one. I should note that in many countries — including the U.S. — this is a common problem even if it’s not as pronounced as in Hong Kong (for example). We all face these problems whether we’re employees or self-employed or free-lancers or own our own businesses.

I’ve created a life where balance is intentionally built-in but it hasn’t always been that way. I’ve worked in the private sector (in the news industry) where they try to squeeze every bit out of employees and we were often asked to work longer hours without compensation. I’ve worked in demanding public service jobs where working into the night and weekend hours (again without more pay) were the norm. It wasn’t easy finding balance.

But don’t despair. Change is possible. These days I have created a life where I work less but on things I love. I make time for staying active and getting outside. I make time for playing with my kids and being alone with my wife. I find time alone for reading and walking and thinking. And as I do these things work isn’t always on my mind.

I have a few key tips that should help no matter what your work situation:

1. Set a time to shut off work. Working all day and night means you are nothing but your job. Your life belongs to your employer (or if you’re the employer then your life belongs to your employees or customers). Take ownership of your life — find variety and ways to burn off stress and find enjoyment in life! Start by setting a time each day when you shut off work. Whether that’s 5 p.m. or 5:30 or 6 or 7 or 9 p.m. Some of you can set it even earlier if you start earlier — say 4 p.m. or something like that. Set that time and make it happen. After that shut-off time you will not do work or check email or think about work.

2. Find something to immerse yourself in after work. What do you love doing besides work? Do you love to read or run or play sports or hang out with friends or play with your kids or build model ships or play games? If you don’t already have a passion then pick something that sounds fun and give it a try. It doesn’t have to be expensive — it could be as simple as hiking around your neighborhood or volunteering at a charity or helping friends with household projects. Schedule it as soon after work as possible. And while you’re doing it try to completely immerse yourself. Don’t think about work — only think about the after-work activity.

3. Learn to be mindful and present. It’s not easy to just switch your mind off work but it’s a skill you can learn over time. The way to learn this isn’t to try to block work from your mind — it’s to learn to bring your mind back to whatever you’re doing after work. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing: it could be household chores or exercise or talking with someone or taking a bath or eating. Whatever it is … that’s all you want to focus on. Your mind will inevitably slip into something else. That’s OK. Bring it back gently and without reprimand. Slowly with practice you will get better at being present. Which means your work won’t always be on your mind.

4. Take breaks at work. Not everyone will have this flexibility but it’s worth doing if you can manage it. Basically if you’re working for 8 or 10 hours you don’t want to do it non-stop. You need to find balance even at work. So at least once an hour get up and walk around. Get outside if you can and take a walk. Stretch and massage your shoulders and get your blood moving. Do some squats or pushups if you want to start getting fit. Talk to someone. Drink water. Eat fruits and vegetables. Your break just needs to be 5-10 minutes but it’s important.

5. Increase your skills while at work — to prepare for leaving work. If you are very skilled at what you do then you become worth more. In fact it’s often possible to quit your job and start your own business if you’re good enough. And it doesn’t take a lot of money to work for yourself — you can start a business with practically no money. I started mine while still working full time: my job funded my startup business. Even if you don’t go into business for yourself you’ll be worth more with a high skill level. So devote your work hours to learning and perfecting your work skills.

6. Find ways to increase your income while decreasing hours. As your skills increase your value increases. Slowly pick jobs or projects that earn more money per hour. This often means changing jobs but it might be a promotion or change in roles. It could mean starting your own business or becoming a consultant. If you already have your own business or work for yourself then you should slowly be picking jobs or business projects that pay more for every hour you spend working on them. By increasing income you can decrease hours and free up more time for yourself.

7. Learn that you are not defined by work. You can be happy without your job. Your value isn’t completely tied to your work. For example: I’m a writer but it’s not the only thing I am. I’m also a father and husband and know that those are my most important roles — not my role as a writer. I am more than that as well: I run and read and learn and help others and am constantly experimenting with life. I can do things other than my job and be fulfilled. So can you. And once you discover this you’ll free yourself to find a life outside of work. Then balance is simply a matter of logistics — you just need to make it happen by taking small steps.

Small steps is always the answer. You don’t need to be perfect at shutting off work or being present or pouring yourself into something after work. You just need to start doing it and in doing so you’ve already started down the road to balance.

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Month Without a Smartphone

In February, I went (almost) completely without my iPhone. I thought it would be hard, and it was at first, but it turned out to be one of the best changes I’ve made in my Year of Living Without.

I highly recommend periods of no cellphone: for disconnectedness, quietness, and full attention to people you’re with and your thoughts and your surroundings.

It wasn’t easy at first. Having a smartphone everywhere you go (which I purposely didn’t have until last summer) creates mental habits — checking things constantly, sending messages, looking things up immediately when a thought pops into your mind, doing something. I suffered withdrawal for a few days, when I would want to reach for my phone constantly every time I was out of the house, and sometimes even in the house.

I was missing out on emails from colleagues and Snapchats from my kids. I couldn’t book something immediately, make a reservation, look up a need-to-know-now fact. I couldn’t read on the train. I couldn’t tell what time it was — this was a big one, as I don’t have a watch and use my phone to tell time, and I realized I’m always worried I’m late!

I watched these urges, and found them interesting. The best thing to do with urges is to be curious. So on trains, on walks, in a tea shop, I’d just watch my urges with curiosity. How did I get like this?

But then I accepted my new reality, after about 4-5 days. I just knew that I wasn’t going to be checking things, reading, looking things up, doing tasks, when I was out of the house. I knew that this was going to be disconnected, quiet, mindful time. This was my reality, and it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I grew to like it.

My world didn’t fall apart because I wasn’t productive every second of the day, and wasn’t on top of every message instantly. I actually survived not immediately knowing exactly where Crimea was or who won the Oscars last year. Shocking, I know.

I meditated as I walked outside, and sat on a train, or waited in line. I was actually aware of the present moment, much more often than usual.

When our lives are always connected, being disconnected can be a relief. This was my experience in February. For the first few days of March, I continued the habit. Yesterday, for what seemed like a good reason, I brought my phone on an errand … and all of a sudden my old habits came back.

I think I’ll leave my phone at home most of the time now.

What’s next? This month I’m doing no alcohol. What that means is no glass of red wine with Eva every night. I thought it wouldn’t be too hard, because I did more than a month without alcohol last year. But the first few days have shown me a few surprisingly strong urges to have a few sips of wine. I’m OK with the urges — I see them as a part of myself I’m learning about, with curiosity.

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Caring About Your Work

Less than a decade ago, it seemed to become a trend to create “passive” income and outsource everything and go live on a beach while the money piled up in your bank account.

The idea seemed to be that doing less work is good, and automation is the way to go.

I too became lured by that dream for a little while, so I don’t judge anyone who goes down that path.

But I’m here to say that there’s another way: doing things yourself, and really caring about the work you do.

This is the way of the old craftsman who spends days, even weeks, working on a single piece because he wants to create something useful, beautiful, and meaningful. Not mass produced, not factory made, not mindlessly manufactured and consumed. Something to enrich your life.

This is the way of the writer who pours her soul into a novel, not to crank out a best-seller every year but to change the way someone sees the world.

This is the way of anyone who works at a company not just to clock in and get a paycheck, but to make a contribution, to do work he’s proud of, to create something powerful in the world.

This is the work of any artist or creator, any entrepreneur, any coach or athlete, any parent or auto mechanic … who puts more effort than is required into the work, because from that effort is created meaning.

Why waste your time creating something you don’t care about, aren’t invested in? Life is too short. Perhaps it would be better to spend the little life you have on something that matters to you, that will matter to those you are creating for.

My Care-filled Work

I’m not perfect in this regard — I’ve produced substandard work, I’ve phoned it in, and I aimed at growth rather than quality in different times in my life. But lately, I’ve been trying the approach of caring, and it makes a huge difference.

I decided to spend a year creating a book, not just cranking out the words but working with a group of people to see if the book resonated, made a difference to them. I rewrote it several times. I published it the old fashioned way, with my own company, paying well above the normal cost so that it would be of high quality.

When freelancers did a poor job with the ebook versions, I tossed out their work and did it myself, hand coding every little tag and metafile in the ebook, so that it would be a good experience for my readers.

When the cover of the print book was flimsy, I had them replaced (at double the cost) with higher quality covers, so that it would be a good experience for my readers.

While I could grow my Sea Change membership program to many more members than I have now, I have eschewed growth for trying to make the program better, working with the community to see where they’re frustrated and committing myself to constantly improving the experience.

I do all of this work the hard way, by hand and collaborating with others who will work hard, because I care. And the simple act of caring has transformed the experience for me, and I hope for the people who receive the work as well.