An Engineer’s Thoughts on Work/Life Balance
Several months ago I became so busy with work that I subconsciously compiled a script that auto-executed every time someone asked any question vaguely resembling, “How have you been?”. I didn’t have time to think of a human answer, so without hesitation, the canned response “busy” would sound from my lips.
Often times we get so busy with work we become robotic, and even worse – we forget to live. The funny thing is, by the time we realize it, rather than making some significant change, we just keep working to distract ourselves from the uncomfortable truth. As we strive to stay current with the evolution of technologies, certifications and the world around us, we quickly become overwhelmed, placing our wellbeing and sense of self at risk. We have a thousand things going on at work, two thousand things to catch up on, a hundred books to read, tests to take, projects to complete, deadlines to meet, and, oh yeah, an entirely separate life to live with family and loved ones, plus housework, hobbies and so on, all with a phone screen glued to our eyes, constantly checking email and social media. It’s quite an amazing feat to take on such a loaded life and remain happy.
The balance between work and life can prove challenging. Many of us sacrifice our own health, our relationships; we pass up opportunities to spend time with others, to go out and explore, we sacrifice our opportunities to experience life. And why – because working that extra hour is more important, replying to that email is upmost priority, forfeiting sleep and studying until 2am is necessary for success? Sometimes, but where do we draw the line? As a responsible professional, you mustn’t slack in your work. As a responsible human being, you mustn’t slack in your life experience.
I follow a few basic, yet important ideologies crucial for helping me stay on top of my life, achieving balance, enabling success, and ultimately, delivering happiness.
1. Work purposefully
2. Keep yourself honest
3. Live tenaciously
If we are going to live and be happy, we must find our place in this world. As existential beings, we strive for meaning and purpose to this life. Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? What purpose does it serve? These are tough questions to answer, and are completely subjective. We can, however, do our best to find meaning and purpose in the work we do. It is not uncommon to get so wrapped up in work or study that your perspective starts to narrow. You live and breathe “networking”, because, hey, it’s cool! But after a while, you may ask yourself, what is all of this for? What am I doing that has any benefit to the world around me? Well, I’m here to tell you, you must find meaning in the work you do. Whether you’re working in Communications, Education, Government, Healthcare, Retail, Finance, Entertainment, Transportation, so on, you are a critical component to the progress of existence. The work you do directly or indirectly influences the well being of others in one way or another, and more so than you realize. The seemingly insignificant role you serve could be making a huge impact to the world around you. Think about that, remember it, and work purposefully.
Keep yourself honest
In order to keep yourself honest, you should realistically know exactly what is on your plate, where you want to go, and how to get there. Be true to yourself. If you start falling behind, you increase stress and lose sight of your goals, often sacrificing personal time just to keep up with everything else. Four strategies I use daily to keep myself honest are:
1. Manage your time (Be a Time Lord)
2. Schedule everything!
3. Set goals responsibly
4. Take on less than you think you can handle
In order to manage your time, you need perspective. To build a realistic perspective, you need to keep track of your tasks, projects and goals, both work and personal. There are quite a few tools out there to help with this, and some strategies to adopt that can help you stay productive. Some in particular have worked well for me, as recommended below. The goal is to become a somewhat Time Lord (queue “Doctor Who” theme song).
By far the most popular strategy for time and task management is David Allen’s GTD, “Getting Things Done”. His book is a national best-seller, and his methodologies have inspired tons of time-management enthusiasts to develop application-based integrations making it easily adoptable for the masses, resulting in bloom of highly effective people. You essentially prioritize your tasks into simple categories like, “now, next, later, someday”. This creates clarity, and allows you to focus and complete what is most important. Another helpful tip is to schedule everything. I used to leave my calendar to the whims of the universe, to be utilized primarily for meetings and appointments assigned by others. Any gaps in my day would be filled with whatever I could squeeze in that seemed most important at the time. Not anymore. I now schedule things that need to get done as appointments on my calendar. This helps me dedicate time and focus on particular tasks or projects that are scheduled for that timeslot. This is crucial for large project that you need to dedicate lots of time to complete. This strategy is not only for work – I also schedule personal events that I used to put aside as “to-dos” and never actually do them. It may seem overboard to try and schedule your personal life, but I can tell you from experience, it really helps put things into perspective. Use this for your studies as well! For more information on how to get things done, check out: http://gettingthingsdone.com/
Evernote is widely used, and anyone reading this has likely at least heard of it. Personally, it serves as my main repository for all of my notes (work, personal and study), stores all of my clips from the web (who still uses bookmarks?), and indexes everything, making searching a breeze. It even indexes the text from images, meaning I can search for words that were scribbled on a whiteboard and photographed with my cell phone. Given the incredible power and flexibility with this tool, many use it as a one-stop-shop and have integrated the GTD strategy with Evernote for added functionality. This is awesome because I can see all of my tasks and projects in Evernote, I know which needs to be worked on now, next or later, I can track deadlines and goals and can obtain a realistic picture of my life-load. This is one of the most important steps for keeping yourself honest. Check out these helpful links for using Evernote with GTD:
I’ve tried quite a few other task management tools, and nothing is perfect. There is one worth mentioning that I’ve had some success with – NozBe.
NozBe is nice, includes a clean and responsive interface, and helps you focus on particular tasks at a time so you can get things done with clarity and focus. It also has a nice integration with Evernote and Dropbox, allowing you to utilize the other cloud resources available to you without doubling your content. Check it out at: http://www.nozbe.com/
For those who prefer an analog system, you should really check out Bullet Journaling. I must say – for most of my day-to-day notes, and study notes, I prefer to hand-write. Our brains are wired in a way where slowing down just a bit and hand-writing your notes can mean the difference between simply recording and effectively comprehending. For task management, there is something quite gratifying with physically checking a box or crossing out a line to signify completion. The Bullet Journal system can be fully adopted to help you stay on top of your life, get more done, and succeed with your goals. And if you use Evernote, these analog journals can be imported, indexed and searchable. More here: http://www.bulletjournal.com/
The last concept I mentioned for keeping yourself honest is to take on less than you think you can handle. Well, that’s crazy, you might say, because often you are not given an option for how much you must take on. And I argue – this is exactly why the concept is so important. You don’t know what you don’t know. Take this into consideration when someone asks you to take on a new task or project. You might think you can handle it, and you’re likely used to saying “yes”, because you’re a nice person. However, how many times have you taken a step back and realized you now have an overwhelming amount of tasks on your plate, stress is sinking in and you’re grasping for air? You have to live responsibly, and it is irresponsible to take on more than you can handle. Whatever you think you can handle, you’re likely way off. We use our time like a credit card, accruing time debt. Like credit, time is subject to interest. Don’t allow yourself to get so far in debt that you sacrifice precious time that could have been spent on something you more intimately care about.
My last piece of advice revolves not around the pursuit of happiness, rather the happiness of pursuit. This life is yours, and time is persistent, hold fast. There will always be work, always something new to learn, you will always be busy. Strive for balance, focus on what is important to you, and own it. What do you want to experience in life? Make time for it in your busy schedule. Who do you want to experience it with? Make time for them. What goals do you have, what do you want to achieve? Go after it! Live tenaciously, let go for nothing. The ultimate success of life is living it.