I will be the first to admit it; I haven’t always had a good work/life balance. For some time I worked as a Strategy Consultant for a global management consulting firm. For me, it was hell on earth. An eternal battle just to get a decent night’s sleep, let alone spend time with the people I love.
My time there came to a close when I reached a point where I couldn’t sleep at all. We were working in Kuwait City at the time, quartered at the fancy hotel, and I remember walking the hallways during the nights, trying to fight feelings of anxiety and a growing desperation. After 3 nights like this, I called back home and quit the job everyone had told me I ought to be proud of.
A bit later, in 2006, I started my own company together with 3 friends. Today, we have 200 employees in our offices in London, Berlin and Copenhagen. We have invested in around 150 start-ups across the world, and set up co-working spaces with hundreds of entrepreneurs. All the while taking 6 weeks of vacation each year, travelling the world with my family and friends, and working an average of 45 hours a week.
I have discovered that it’s actually not that hard to have a great work/life balance, if only you apply a few simple tips with consistency:
1) Choose a mission that motivates you
It doesn’t matter if you are self-employed or working for others, the important thing is that you put your efforts into something that is meaningful to you. Why? Because it releases a lot of energy. You will never get a good work/life balance if you are demotivated, frustrated with your job, or feeling what you do is a waste of time. When you finally arrive at home, you will be drained of energy. When you do a job you truly care about, it will give you energy, and you will be happier with your life in general.
2) Stand up for yourself
We often fall in the trap of trying to please everyone around us. It’s counterproductive, because it’s only going to make us unhappy, thereby compromising our ability to be of value to others. Figure out what you need to be your best self. In my case, I need to work out 4-5 times a week, regularly practice meditation, and sometimes a nap in the middle of the day. As you can probably imagine often people try to pull me away from those self-nurturing activities (example: my daughter wants to play with me, rather than go with me to the gym) but I have taught myself to stand up for my needs, and not be ashamed of them.
3) Optimise your time in flow
I used to optimise the amount of hours I was working, believing that the more hours I spent on the job, the more successful I would become. Then I was fortunate enough to have some good role models that taught otherwise; when we are in a state of flow, we can be up to 10 times as efficient as when we are semi-distractedly slaving away. What is flow? Flow is the state where you are fully immersed in the task at hand, not thinking about anything else. Time and place cease to exist. It’s a wonderful state, and when it’s over you are surprised how much you actually managed to get done!
Today, I design my day so that there is the best possible chance to get a lot of flow-time. Quite often that involves a walk in the park in the middle of the day, or some other kind of refreshing break. In my view, it’s irresponsible not to take that break when you need it. Likewise, I often isolate myself for a few hours to protect my flow state – for instance by working some mornings from home.
4) Make a today list
N.R. Murthy, the founder of Infosys, shared his secret for work/life balance with me; he makes a today list. Simple as it sounds, I too have realised the powerful potential of this small tool. Most of us are used to making long to-do lists—lists including everything that needs to be done, both in the near and distant future. Such a list is fine for the purpose of liberating your mind from having to remember it all, but it’s a really bad idea to spend too much time together with that list. It will only create stress and make you feel overwhelmed. Plus you can easily lose sight of the few things that are massively important.
Like Murthy, make it a habit to jot down a list of 2-3 things every morning that you want to get done TODAY. Only include the activities that are critically important, that will bring you towards your most important goals. Get them done before lunch, and remember to feel good about it.
5) Never write or respond to emotional emails
This is really a big time-waster in most modern workplaces; long and emotional email correspondences. If someone sends you an emotional email, never press “reply” and fire away. Instead, call up the person or meet over a cup of coffee. Talk about the matter in person. Emails are a terrible communication tool when there are emotions involved. What could be sorted out with just 10 minutes face-to-face conversation suddenly explodes because of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and you witness yourself spending half your day sorting out energy-draining conflicts that are completely unnecessary. If you are spending hours of your life dealing with tasks like this, you might need to ask yourself: am I winning without losing?
6) Just go home
I had a boss once that gave me a piece of advice that helped me out a lot. He said something along the lines of: “You will be coming back tomorrow, so you don’t end your day by reviewing all your unanswered emails, cleaning up your desk and going through your to-do list. Instead, just get up and walk out the door.”
My boss was very good at not obsessing about anything, not believing that everything would fall apart if he missed an email, or left the office an hour earlier than normal. He danced to his own beat, and he was incredibly happy and cheerful, which went a long way to creating a healthy and productive atmosphere in the company.
Don’t make a big fuss out of leaving the office. Just do like you would if you were merely going to the restroom. Stand up and walk out the door. You’ll be back in no time anyway.
Martin Bjergegaard is a serial entrepreneur, co-founder of sustainable Scandinavian non-fiction publisher Pine Tribe, and author of the award winning management and work-life balance book Winning Without Losing.