It was the feeling in my throat that spooked me the most. My neck, and particularly my throat, was constantly clenched, tight, and sore despite not having a cold or anything else obvious. I visited my doctor, an ENT specialist, and a chiropractor and none of them could point to anything specific as a cause for the persistent discomfort. Intuitively, however, I knew that it was stress related.
My job at the time, while enjoyable, combined a number of stressful factors. For starters, my field was both in web and in consumer electronics technology – a couple high-paced and demanding industries. I began as the web guy – including everything from websites and virtual worlds to social media and online campaigns – but that soon also encompassed product management on a nascent CE line. I wore at least a couple hats. The company’s headcount was also small but worldwide, which meant a daily marathon of calls, iChats, and emails. I spent my mornings in Europe, my afternoons with the Americans, and my evenings discussing specs with our manufacturing headquarters in Hong Kong. Saturday was really the only quiet day of the week. And on top of that, the economy was in the toilet and the retail giants were ruthless – which makes for frantic Sales folks and miserable Management discord. All of this I somehow came to feel in a very real way in my throat.
So I resigned. It was a big decision. The team was generally great, the pay was very good, and the opportunities were numerous. But it simply wasn’t worth my health.
And sure enough the tension in my throat dissipated soon after I moved on.
That was two years ago. This post is less about burning the candle at both ends and recognizing one’s breaking point than it is about identifying positive practical habits to not only achieve a better work-life balance but to actually become more productive, efficient, and happy overall. So in the spirit of inspiring you to live and work smarter, here’s a list of 12 things I did:
Startup of Me
I knew I couldn’t just quit my job cold turkey. I needed something to jump to, and I knew it couldn’t be another traditional full-time job. So, inspired by Reid Hoffman’s The Startup of You, James Altucher’s Choose Yourself, Chris Guillbault’s The $100 Startup, and my own intrapreneurial experience, I shifted my efforts to a startup side-project I’d built with a few friends. Now, Warms ended up being a failure – something I’ve since unpacked here – but that’s not the point. It was a constructive professional outlet for me to direct my attention to and it’s startup structure gave me the freedom to tackle it outside of the standard 9-to-5 parameters. I also took on some freelance work during this time and that’s since led to my current full-time project.
I believe that most non-credentialized work is slowly (or in some industries not so slowly) moving away from 40-hour work week employment and into merit-based serieses of projects. The advantage goes to the person with an entrepreneurial mindset. So it’s of great benefit to gain that startup experience or at least nurture those side-projects that might one day blossom into something more – even as a temporary landing pad.
By now most of us have heard about “the sitting disease” and how unhealthy it is for humans to be as stationary as our culture of car-commuting, office deskwork, and couch potato-ism makes us. I recognized that even though I walked often and exercised regularly, I was also parked in front of my computer screen for large parts of each day. So picking up on a then-undercurrent of a trend, I decided to splurge on a sit-stand desk and make a determined effort to stand for at least part of my online time.
I bought a beautifully-made height-adjustable MyMac Kangaroo desk from Ohio-based ErgoDesktop. Both the keyboard surface and the monitor perch adjust independently and easily. It’s been a great purchase and I’m very glad that I gave myself the sit-stand option – partly because it does take time to work up to standing extended periods, partly because standing too long is not great for you either, and partly because the decision to sit or stand varies with mood, project type, health, and even time of day (I actually prefer sitting in the morning and standing post-lunch). Find good tips and buying suggestions at StandingAbout.com.
This is a big one. I decided to work from home rather than set up at a co-working space. I knew that there would be risks with this; the main one being the temptation to sleep in, lounge about on the couch, or raid the fridge every ten minutes. So I was very disciplined with structuring (versus scheduling) my time. Numerous articles I’ve read over the years have highlighted the benefits of chunking one’s day into blocks – or bursts or surges – of singularly focused work, with generous and restoring breaks in between. Some say the magic numbers are 52 and 17, but for me this worked best with (mostly) 90 minute work chunks and 30 minute restoration breaks – as such:
- 07:00-08:30 Exercise, writing, reading, or emails
- 08:30-09:00 Breakfast and morning prep
- 09:00-10:30 Work block
- 10:30-11:00 Mid-morning break and light snack
- 11:00-12:30 Work block
- 12:30-13:00 Lunch
- 13:00-14:30 Work block
- 14:30-15:00 Mid-afternoon nap (more on that below)
- 15:00-16:30 Work block
- 16:30-17:00 Late afternoon break and light snack
- 17:00-18:30 Work block
- 18:30-20:00 Dinner and relax
- 20:00-23:00 Flexible block for work, personal matters, activities, or social
- 23:00-24:00 No screens (more on that below too)
As you can see, I get in a very solid 7.5 hours each day – at least. And I’m confident that it is a much more productive 7.5 hours than that of someone who has to commute, chit-chat with colleagues (I mean the office gossip stuff), and deal with dozens of interruptions. As Jason Fried of 37 Signals says, work doesn’t happen at work much anymore.
I also use my breaks in ways that improve my life in other small ways. The breaks force me to move around, go outside and breathe fresh air, and clear my mind for the next task. Moving around often includes such simple things as emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, or prepping some food for dinner – all things that your partner may notice and appreciate when they get home.
One of the best unexpected returns from this chunking approach was the routine of it all. (Boring, I know but…) After a couple weeks I felt my internal clock taking over – not just with waking and sleeping but with uptime and downtime. This auto-pilot was a great aid in helping me focus on the chunked tasks (whatever they might be that day) and in better harnessing my energy throughout the day. The downside is that I feel more out of sorts when I travel and can’t maintain these patterns.
Some people might chuckle derisively at this one but I’ve become a huge proponent of a mid-day nap. If you’re being honest with yourself, you just know that your body is begging for one an hour or so after lunch. And the thing is: it is immensely restorative and will give you a big second wind through the latter half of the day. A 20-minute nap (not a sleep) removes the sluggishness that most people feel they have no choice but to unproductively and inefficiently plow through. One of the real benefits of working from home.
Remember to Breathe
Speaking of silly… My naps begin with at least a few very long deep breaths. Not only does it help me zone out, it nourishes my body in a way that we all take for granted (unless of course you meditate, do yoga, or regularly hit the hiking trail). So simple but so easy to forget.
Daily Dark Chocolate
Chocolate has a grip on me; I love it. Recognizing this, I made a point to define my chocolate consumption as a positive force rather than as 10 extra pounds on my waist. What I did simply was three things: a) I switched to 70%+ dark chocolate because of its healthy benefits; b) I rationed myself to two squares per day everyday; and c) I timed these rations as a post-nap reward (temptation of chocolate > temptation to overnap). Maybe the health benefits of dark chocolate are overrated but who cares – it works for me!
While on the topic of daily snacks, I’ll add here that there does seem to be truth to the old adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. My 4:30 snack usually consists simply of an apple, and I’m convinced it helps – especially in the winter – to ward off pesky cold bugs.
Diet, of course, is a major factor in anyone’s life. Since leaving the ramen and microwave dinner days of university, I’ve generally eaten fairly well. Thanks largely to my partner’s delicious handiwork in the kitchen though I’ve enjoyed much more nutritionally balanced and home-cooked meals. More than that, however, has been a string of deliberate food choices: replacing my beloved morning cereal with Greek yogurt and nuts, reducing the amount of breads and pastas I eat, and turning away from sugary drinks (sweetened iced tea was once my staple). Everyone has their own dietary needs and preferences, so I won’t dwell too much on the specifics of mine other than to say that incrementally phasing out worse foods while discovering better ones is a worthy effort (read Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat). Again, working from home where there are groceries and no food courts is a plus.
More than just changing what I eat, I changed when I eat. Or more specifically, when I don’t eat. Gone are the late dinners (with some social exceptions, of course) and midnight snacks. I set 8pm as a soft cut-off point, and 9pm has a firm stop, for anything except water until my breakfast the next morning. This 10-to-12-hour fast isn’t a weight loss trick – although many argue that it is – but rather simply the respecting of one’s body rhythms. Late eating resets your body’s sleep processes. I’ve found that this cut-off has had the benefits of more energy, better sleep, and a real enthusiasm for waking up for breakie.
I’ve always been a bit of a runner, and would go for jogs around the park once or twice a week, but the joy was lacking. I was probably 10-15 pound overweight and, besides the discomfort of the mystery throat issue above, my knees were increasingly protesting the impact of these runs. Fortunately, I stumbled on Christopher McDougall’s excellent book Born to Run in which he describes his own disillusionment with running yet contrasts it with the growing community of running zealots everywhere (and with a Mexican tribe of super runners). His book crystallized for me the importance of form while running (“unlike swimming or skiing, nobody is ever taught how to run properly”) – in particular the benefits of landing on one’s forefoot as opposed to the more common, shoe-cushioned heel strike. I taught myself to run differently on my feet and after a few awkward weeks it became my new stride. I now can’t wait to get out for a run.
I think the key thing here, and with most of the changes listed in this post, is that I consciously set out to build new habits. Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit was a revelation. I identified things that I wanted to improve and I tackled them one at a time, often in small ways. I didn’t try to change everything all at once and I didn’t move on to the next thing until the current one was baked into my routine – or, in this case, muscle memory. Habit management is powerful.
Improve via Improv
One of the more recent things I’ve done is to join an improv school. A big fan of comedy, I especially love the oddball hilarity and wittiness of improv. But getting up on stage and performing it is quite another thing. Fortunately, improv is super fun and failure is par for the course. For me improv has simply been a fun out-of-the-house activity, a chance to meet cool people, and a non-stuffy way to practice public speaking. It’s a way to stretch my introverted comfort zone and expand my artistic skills, but I’m also seeing numerous ways in which improv principles can (and should) be applied to life and work.
No Screens ‘til Bedtime
A good night’s sleep is obviously important but many of us inadvertently threaten that rest by staying connected to our TVs, tablets, or monitors right up until hitting the sack. Not only does one’s mind need to disengage from work-thought but studies have shown that the artificial blue light emitted by these screens trick your brain into thinking it’s not nighttime. I typically knock out at around midnight, so my solution has been to put a hard stop on work stuff at 11pm. My significant other and I will often cuddle in bed together and watch the latest episode of a show on the ceiling via my Cinemin Slice pico projector (one of the CE products I worked on). Yes, it’s still watching something but it’s passive entertainment, a different type of light, and it’s in a darkened room. We’re usually ready to doze off quite easily by the closing credits.
And finally, one of the other sanity-saving and relationship-builder changes I’ve made is what my partner and I affectionately call “Disconnect Day”. Inspired by filmmaker Tiffany Shlain’s brilliant “Technology Shabbat,” we’ve made a pact to (as much as possible) avoid our phones, leave social media, avoid TV, and generally engage more with each other and the real world from around 4:30 every Friday afternoon to noon on Saturday. This conscious effort forces us to park the virtual side of our existence and read a book or go smell the flowers.
These 12 or so things are just some of the little steps I’ve taken since my brush with near-burnout to live healthier, work more efficiently, and generally strive to be a better person. None of them are especially original and there’s of course always other improvements to make (eg. learning a language, staying in touch with old friends, etc.) but, like saving money, the benefits compound with each new habit that takes root. Hopefully there’s something in this mix of ideas that inspires you too.