For many of us, the balance between work and life has become so hopelessly out of kilter that getting a handle on it seems overwhelming and nearly impossible. But as the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen (改善) teaches, change doesn't have to happen all at once.
Literally translated to "good change," Kaizen is taken to mean "continuous improvement." Probably the most well-known application of it comes from the Toyota Production System, through which the automobile manufacturer gave assembly line workers the power to pause the conveyer belt if they thought something was wrong.
Kaizen is more than just assembly line authority. Its purpose is to reduce wasteful activities and increase the well-being of everyone involved in the process. Kaizen encourages little experiments—trial and error—instead of sticking with rigid procedures and processes.
Kaizen is about changing the way things are. If you assume that things are alright the way they are, you can't do Kaizen.
Taiichi Ohno, Inventor of the Toyota Production System
When applied on a personal level, this means you regularly strive to make (small) changes for self-improvement. There is no set of fixed, rigid rules that work for every human being. Rather, you try one method and see if it works. If it doesn't, you move on.
Between doing research on and experimenting with the approaches to life and work that would better balance the two, I found more than a dozen practices that led to results. My interest in this knowledge is selfish—it helped me build Saent, a productivity device and software that helps its users regain time by working smarter and more efficiently. Now I'm sharing what I've learned in the form of digestible tips, broken into two categories—for the individual and for the organization. I encourage you to play around with these tactics to start reinventing your life and work. I hope they spark your imagination and help you find a new and better way of doing things just as they have for me.
The Individual: What you personally do to redesign your life, regardless of your work environment
The Organization: What someone running a company do to help their employees redesign and improve their work-life balance
Regardless of your boss and work environment, here are six pragmatic tips you can use to create a better work-life balance in your own life.
1. Redesign Time: Count the Blocks, not the Hours
Most of us are fixated on time. "If I don't do my daily writing before 9 am, it will never happen." Or, "it's past 7 pm, so I should stop working now." Then when you're not able to stick to the arbitrary rules you've set for yourself, you feel bad about breaking them, or, on the flip-side, interrupt a perfect moment of flow just to adhere to your own rules.
Setting certain boundaries isn't a bad thing in itself. But time is a very rigid form of measurement, which allows little flexibility and doesn't take into account variables such as natural energy rhythms. We can set ourselves up for failure and anxiety by being too fixated on time alone.
The Power of Sprints
Working in timed blocks of highly focused work can provide more benefits than just being less distracted. The most famous model for this is the Pomodoro Technique, which means you work in "sprints" of 25 minutes, with five minute breaks in between. Once you get used to this rhythm, you've created a new unit of time measurement for how you're progressing through your day.
Instead of putting a lot of emphasis on working between certain hours, you can now focus on daily and weekly number of sprints completed. This might sound simple, and it is, but it can give you a new perspective on your day. It sets boundaries and focus, while at the same time bringing flexibility.
Some days, if you're experiencing peak productivity, you might work into the evening, others you might do very little and decide to spend an afternoon in the park. As long as you keep an eye on your total number of completed sprints, you can track your performance without being stuck to a too-rigid schedule. Besides being more focused on the task at hand during a sprint, you'll be less prone to irritation when something unexpected happens. In other words, it allows for more spontaneity, since you're not married to the hour of the clock.
2. Redesign Energy: Treasure your Prime Time
Not all parts of the day are created equal. Some of us are early birds, while others are natural born night owls. Figuring out which one you are and planning your schedule accordingly is essential for making the most out of your day and feeling good.
Say 10 a.m. until noon is your "prime" time. It would be foolish to plan entering data into a spreadsheet at that hour, since you could probably do that with eyes closed even at the worst of times. Or if you get stuff done at record speed just before midnight, make sure your significant other is aware of this and understands why you burn the midnight oil (just don't forget to have a nice and relaxed breakfast together in the morning!).
If those around you (colleagues or loved ones) don't understand when you perform at your best, you might get frustrated when they disturb you. And if you waste your best time on simple tasks, you'll feel you didn't get anything done by the end of the day.
Being aware of your inherent peak times therefore doesn't only affect your productivity, but also your well-being and subsequently, your happiness. Moreover, it can add to your personal bottom line as you'll get more and better work done in the same amount of time. Depending on your own priorities, this means you can either finish work earlier or take on more projects, whichever you prefer.
Related: "How to calculate your biological prime time" by A Life of Productivity.
3. Redesign Priorities: Apply Essentialism and Simplify Your Life
Whenever we read about successful individuals, it seems they have achieved an incredible amount of amazing feats. We figure the key to their success must be some superhuman routine combined with robotic self-discipline to get a hundred things done each day.
Yet if you take a closer look, you realize these people usually laser-focus on a few essential activities. They do those well, take extensive breaks in between, then move onto the next big thing, as opposed to trying to multitask and stretching themselves thin with a hundred different tasks at the same time.
The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.
Essentialism, a book by Greg McKeown, is the perfect handbook for reducing your commitments and concentrating all your efforts onto a few key activities. As McKeown writes: "It's about making the trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things."
The key trick here is to get rid of lots of stuff you're doing. This is extremely hard, which is exactly the point: it forces you to make choices. To help you actually do this, here are two great methods:
The Essentialism project list: Create a list of everything you're doing, then rate those items 1- 10 in terms of importance (not to be mistaken with priority). Once you've done this, get rid of everything which is below a nine as soon as possible. Delete, delegate or finish tasks you must accomplish as soon as you can. Then when new commitments present themselves, keep applying this method going forward; say "no" to anything you rate below a nine.
Buffett's two-list strategy: A similar take on the same trick, is Warren Buffett's two-list strategy. It goes something like this:
1. Make a top 25 list of everything you still want to do in your life. 2. From this list, pick your top five. 3. The 20 items you didn't pick will become your "avoid-at-all-cost-list." These are the items which will distract from your top five, so they can't be touched.
If you only want to implement one tip from this entire article, I'd recommend it to be this one: Instead of attempting to cram another project into your busy schedule, get in the habit of getting rid of stuff. This is the simplest way to improve your quality of life, by freeing up time for those things which are truly important to you (earn money, improve your health, spend time with loved ones).
4. Redesign Habits: Do the Unthinkable
If you've always done something a certain way, you might not even realize the effect it has on other areas of your life, since that's how it's always been. Maybe your drinking on weekends is affecting your work. Or the TV programs you watch are giving you a one-sided view of the world.
Whatever it is, consider for yourself which habits and rituals you take for granted. Then challenge yourself to do the opposite for an extended period of time (I'd recommend at least a month). Give up drinking, take a break from your job if you can, go travel, become a vegan, pretend you support a different political party, commit to running every day, stop following your favorite sports team, sign up for a meeting on Meetup to make some new friends… go wild!
See what it brings you. You might learn your original habit isn't as important as you thought it was. Maybe it kept you from embarking on a completely new journey. The worst that can happen is a renewed appreciation for your original activity or belief. And regardless of the result of this experiment, it will help you to hone in on what really make you happy and expose you to perspective-broadening ideas and experiences that can enable happiness.
Related: For more, have a look at this mental model of inversion on the Farnam Street blog.
5. Redesign Perspective: Go Travel
Those who sing the praise of travel are usually blinded by their own experience. They believe going to far away places is the one-stop solution to open minds and bring people together.
Although spending time in a different culture indeed gives you a fresh perspective, travel is not for everyone. Some people would rather have stability, familiar places and faces and sleep in their own bed at night. There's nothing wrong with that.
Anyone who gets the chance, however, should take at least one trip for an extended period of time (at least several weeks) at some point in their lives. You might find out you love spending time in foreign places, but at the very least, you'll get to appreciate your own home more. Especially if you travel all by yourself; it's the closest you'll ever get to observing your regular life from a third person perspective.
Away from everything you're used to, you'll realize what you truly find important in life and what not. You'll question your own assumptions by being in the middle of people who are completely different from you. By taking some time away from the people who normally surround you at home, you'll get to reassess your likes, preferences and values. You might find out they're more influenced by your environment than you would imagine.
And if you do catch the travel bug? Well, a life of adventure on the road awaits you; Godspeed!
6. Redesign Busy: Slow Down
Our modern days have come to feel like a never-ending race against the clock ("There's Never Any Time" does an excellent job of capturing this feeling in writing). It seems being busy has become the default-mode for most people and companies. Busy is the new normal and can serve as a valid answer to almost any question ("How are you?" "Busy" - "How is business?" "Busy" - "Can you make it for a game of tennis this weekend?" "Sorry, I'm busy" and so on).
The truth of the matter is that being busy is not always good. Clearly, being chronically overstretched can lead to health problems. But even if you're just a "normal" amount of busy (you work a reasonable number of hours per week and go home on time, but those hours are crammed full with meetings and tasks), you might not be making the best of things.
If you're always keeping yourself busy with something, you never have any time to think. How can you know if your goals still make sense if you never take a moment to pause? How do you know you're working on high value tasks as opposed to unimportant ones if you never even take a breath to consider that?
It's all about the Pareto Principle of 80 / 20: 20% of activity leads to 80% of the results. If you take the time to figure out your 20%, you have a huge leg up on anyone who is always rushing through her to-do list, but never considers whether she's working on the valuable 20% or the much lesser 80%.
I couldn't think of a better way to sum it up than this Roman emperor did 1,900 years ago:
Never to be in haste, and yet never slow.
Marcus Aurelius in Meditations
You shouldn't necessarily lay on the beach for the rest of your life and do nothing. A sense of urgency is good. But if you take a bit more time for thinking and planning as opposed to constantly moving around in a big rush, you'll be doing the right things, as opposed to doing as much as possible (and potentially the wrong things).
7. Redesign Your Thinking: Calm Your Mind
One of the most important things I did on my path to a better work-life balance was to calm my own mind. What does that mean? Not being irritated about pointless items. Not constantly worrying about potential things that might happen in the future. Not questioning my own capabilities because of events that happened in the past. Not getting put off by someone else making a nasty remark.
Instead, learning to deal with what's in front of me, without attaching too much emotion to it, regardless of what it is. Ryan Holiday got me on this path with his book "The Obstacle is the Way" and sums it up like this:
Focus exclusively on what you can change. What is up to us, and what is not up to us. What is up to us?
What is not up to us? Everything else. The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people's emotions or judgements, trends, etc.
Often, we let ourselves get sidetracked by any of the items listed by Holiday. We tell ourselves we can't do something because we've never done it before. Or we tell ourselves we can't do it because we did do it before, but failed. Our minds are filled with endless paradoxes like these and they mostly hold us back or are simply a distraction.
Meditation and learning from the ancient Stoics are just some of the ways to calm your own mind. These techniques would warrant an article of their own, but the main point here is that you can improve your life, work and general happiness simply by looking inward and starting with your own mind. It can be the source of great happiness, but also of lots of unnecessary suffering.
We have covered a nice set of tips for individuals to apply to their lives, but there are a lot of powerful measures which can only work with support from people who define your workplace, which in most companies means management. Here's what a boss can do to help create a more balanced life and work combination.
1. Redesign Development: Learning and Inspiration
For people doing creative or other traditional "office" work" where your brain is the prime tool, triggering your mind to look at things with fresh perspectives is key.
Strangely enough, few companies seem to truly encourage this behavior. Sure, there are regular trainings, or even a personal learning budget if you're lucky. But show me the boss who thinks it's a great idea if you spend Tuesday afternoon reading a book, watching a documentary or devouring TED talks. They are few and far between.
Take the example of reading. Time and again, when you ask people why they enjoyed their vacation, having caught up on long overdue books usually ranks high. Books are often also triggers for dramatic (positive) life changes (they certainly are for me). Logical reasoning would therefore say it pays off to make sure your team doesn't wait until their next long break to start reading.
Launch a book club, hold reading competitions, provide a book budget, make Wednesday afternoon read-only—you could even go as far as to pay a bonus for each completed book! Whatever it takes, push the button for knowledge consumption within your team.
Not into reading? There are tons of other activities which spark inspiration. Allow your team to visit a museum midday. Catch a movie. Watch educational online talks. Play video games. Whatever it is, enforce it and set the example. Most people will feel guilty for doing something not work-related during the day. As a boss, you can show you really care about making your people smarter by placing high value on it.
2. Redesign Management: 100% Autonomy
Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity per resident increases by 15 percent. But when companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down.
Tony Hsieh, Zappos
Buffer, Medium, Zappos, HolacracyOne, Semco Partners, Whole Foods, Morning Star and Gore-Tex. What these companies have in common is that they all operate under the principles of what the book "Reinventing Organizations" by Frederic Laloux calls Teal.
Teal organizations have found the key to operate effectively with a system based on peer relationships, without the need for either traditional hierarchy or consensus. Everyone has the power to take action and no single one person (including the CEO) can stop an initiative.
While explaining how this works in detail is beyond the scope of this article, one core element is making decisions based on objections as opposed to approvals.
Instead of having to water down and endlessly discuss a proposal until agreement is reached, peers can only put in well-defined objections to a proposal. "When using Holacracy, a specific system for Teal organizational self-management, these objections need to pass the question: "Do you see any reasons why this will cause harm or move us backwards?" If the answer is no, the proposal moves ahead.
This is just one example of how speed and flexibility are unleashed within a company. In essence, operating based on Teal is like running a lean operating system for your organization. Holacracy is probably the most famous "OS" for running Teal, but you can also create your own variation based on its principles.
The point is to free everyone from the bureaucracy, relieve the top of the organization from the burden of constant decision making and truly empower everyone to steer the ship. The resulting organization will be one that is ready to meet the demands the constantly-changing world that is the 21st century by being nimble, diverse and free of bottlenecks. People feel happier the more autonomy they have, and you're not going to get much more autonomy than in a Teal organization.
3. Redesign Information: Knowledge Sharing
Every modern company will tell you they value knowledge sharing, because it makes sense. People can develop themselves, key information is not stuck with one person and having as many employees as possible on top of what is going on in the market ensures you stay ahead of the competition.
In reality, however, very little is done in this area at most companies. There might be an outdated intranet or wiki, complemented by a shared cloud storage folder that resembles a plate of spaghetti. Or, worse, people storing knowledge on their local drives and in their heads only.
Besides a training program manager, few companies (especially small to medium-sized ones) put someone in charge of knowledge sharing. And if nobody owns it, it's typically not going to happen, especially since it's not critical to the short-term survival of the company.
Yet, beyond the importance of knowledge sharing in staying competitive, this is a huge missed opportunity for enriching the lives of your team members. Empowering people to share their knowledge not only benefits those around them, but also deepens their own knowledge of a topic. Mashable organizes "Lunch and Learn" sessions, where team members can share their knowledge on a certain topic with peers. Zapier does something similar during Thursday team chats.
This needs to go further than a few weekly presentations. Providing easier access to knowledge across an organization is critical and at least one person within your company should own this. This is why at our startup Saent we're in the process of hiring a librarian, to create, curate and maintain our own knowledge pool, to which everyone can contribute. Like a traditional librarian, ours will be the first stop when you're engaging in research on a certain topic to help you on your way, but also archive what you find so it's there for others.
4. Redesign Measurement: Vanity Company Metrics
Whatever it is you measure, you can trust it will become the object of focus. Take online media as an example: if page views is the name of the game, attention-grabbing or even misleading headlines are abound. If number of posts written, long-form articles will become few and far between.
This is true in any type of organization. Just look at public companies: the stock price is the ultimate metric, which is driven by quarterly earnings. You can bet the executive team will do whatever lies within their power (which can be a lot) to drive up those figures every quarter. This often means decisions that lead to short-term gains but long-term problems.
But it's not all bad. It means that if you put the right target metrics in place, you can drive positive behavior. Jawbone UP does it for your health by focusing on daily steps and at Saent, our product does it for productivity by rewarding focused minutes. Benefit corporations (B-corps) have come into existence to move companies away from a focus purely on profits to a positive impact on society and the environment instead.
Instead of focusing on the number of hours your employees work, why not focus on number of vacation days taken? Or the number of books read each quarter? The average rating given by customers as opposed to increases in revenue? There are infinite ways to redefine which metrics to measure and how they can drive positive, as opposed to negative behavior within a company. Finding the right numbers to chase can improve the lives of your colleagues and the fortunes of your company.
5. Redesign Conversations: Communication Flows
It's easy to take for granted how we communicate with each other. Usually this evolves naturally and then follows a pattern of ingrained habits. Often the pace is set by the CEO and other leaders in the company; if they do everything by email, the rest of the organization ends up spending a lot of time in their inboxes, as well. And meeting times tend to accommodate those higher up on the ladder, not those doing the "real" work.
Instead, the right way to go about communication is to pro-actively think about and design how and when to communicate about what. Remember "redesigning energy" in the individual tips? That's a great basis to start from when thinking about an optimal communication design for your team.
How can you ensure developers and designers are not forced to be dragged into meetings at peak times? When is it a good idea to send an email and when does a Slack message suffice? Should you be able to disturb a colleague at any moment or are their Do Not Disturb periods? Is it wise to send an email at midnight if you usually expect a quick reply? Should your team even be allowed to receive email during off hours at all?
If any thought goes into these things at all, it's usually implicit and without any clear overview of guidelines or rules. This still leaves lots of room for misunderstandings and tensions which remain below the surface.
Creating a set of rules and guidelines, for example, in the form of a communication flowchart can be a great way to make certain that how to communicate within the team is clear to everyone and ensures peak performance is harnessed as much as possible.
6. Redesign Off Time: Refueling and Disconnecting
If the leadership is always connected, firing off messages to coworkers at the oddest of hours (night, weekends), sets an implicit expectation to be always available.
Plenty of research shows never disconnecting is bad for productivity, quality of work and health in general. But even if company leadership sets the right example, over-ambitious people might find it hard to let go of their work and disconnect on a regular basis.
Instead of imposing when people should be on the job, such as 9-5, smart employers might be better off helping their team members take breaks.
Automatically shut off company email on evenings and weekends
Install software that encourages people to take breaks
Make it mandatory to disconnect from email at least one day per week and entirely during vacation
It might sound crazy to have to mandate breaks, but there are many good reasons for doing so. Offering unlimited vacation days sounds nice on paper, too, but in practice employees usually end up taking less time off. The reason? Since there's no clear standard, the new unwritten norm can easily be set by founders and other ambitious folks who hardly stop working. This leads to people taking less time off than when there was a clearly defined, finite amount of annual leave in place.
Remember, as we saw in the first part of the article, a lot of great ideas occur during time off. Something just suddenly clicks, you read an inspiring passage in a book or a scene in a movie reminds you of something you wanted to do. Taking time off to refuel is essential when you're working with your brain all day.
Productivity Isn't Achieved Alone
Creating a healthy work-life balance is about more than just making sure you go home at 5 p.m. It requires a deep analysis of your needs, what makes you happy and which values are important in your life, followed by a pragmatic and practical review of your habits, daily routine and thoughts.
But you can't do it alone. As work is at least a necessary, and hopefully fulfilling part of your life, finding a company that holds to the same values as yourself is one of the most important steps you can take towards a better work-life balance. And if you manage or own a company, you can make an even greater impact by "programming" a better work-life balance into the foundations of your organization.
Keep in mind, though, that it's hard to fix something that is already broken. You might have to consider starting completely from scratch if your work-life balance is totally off; a few superficial patches will only cure the symptoms, not the root cause.
I hope the above ideas and tips have given you some inspiration as to where you could start improving on your work-life balance. By no means do I profess to hold the ultimate answers to some of these existential questions, nor do I think the above list of tips is exhaustive. I'd love to hear your thoughts, ideas, feedback and strategies for further improving all our work-life balances in the comments below!