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Thoughts on Work / Life Balance

I’ve thought a lot recently about balance in life. We’ve all heard about the importance of balance in our work and personal life. That’s a great idea, but with work from home I think that idea has been pretty well exploded. At least for me, I’m not really able to cleanly separate the two. Work is intense and needs focus to do well. I work from home. I also have three kids who have been going to school at home for the past school year. The lines are constantly blurred. Thinking of work/life balance as a simple dichotomy isn’t useful for me, so I’ve spent time reading and thinking about this.

There’s a theory made popular by James Clear called the Four Burners Theory. (He originally got it from David Sedaris.) Imagine your life as four burners on a stove. The first burner is your family, the second is your friends. The third is your health and the fourth is your work. The theory states “in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.” This really resonated when I first read it. I can’t think of a time in my life when I was ever able to keep all four of these areas going at once. Three is achievable, at least for me, but if I try to do all four they all suffer.

Recently I watched a video from David A. Bednar where he said that there really isn’t such a thing as work/life balance. Whenever you focus on one area you are, by definition, not focused on the other. Rather than trying to divide your attention and being unsuccessful, instead we should think in terms of spinning plates. Picture an acrobat who spins plates. They can get quite a few different plates going at the same time, but eventually one or more of the plates will start to wobble. The key isn’t to focus on just the work plates or the non-work plates. Instead we focus on the plates that need our attention in order to keep spinning.

While discussing this with my wife the other day she said something profound that I really like. Rather than aiming for balance, we should aim for harmony. All the areas of our life are like voices in a choir. We need to make sure as they sound together they harmonize. Sounding in harmony takes work, but when you get it right it’s a beautiful thing.

Seeking a harmonious life is such a great goal. We’ll see how long this metaphor works for me, but I wanted to pass it along. Maybe it can be helpful for you as it was for me.

Things that make Work From Home better

  1. A window. This is both for fresh air and to look at. If you can swing it, arrange your work area so that the window isn’t directly behind you or directly in front of you. To the side will give you good light without washing out your screen or making you feel uncomfortable with an open window behind you.
  2. A door. Bonus points if it closes and can lock. We’ve all seen enough mid-meeting interruptions during WFH. Like the window, if you have the flexibility arrange your work area so the door isn’t behind you. This gives you a feeling of safety. (And it’s better Fengshui if you believe in that sort of thing.)
  3. An elevated screen. This applies to work from anywhere. Your neck will thank you. You can do this with a laptop by putting it on a pile of books or a stand, or with an external monitor. Bonus points for having a separate keyboard and mouse/trackpad as this really gives you more flexibility in how you arrange the screen.
  4. Music. I’m a big fan of Accuradio which has tons of stations across all the genres I’m interested in. It’s also free and ad free. No idea what their business model is, but I’m glad I found them.
  5. Books. I know I’m lucky; my work allows me the flexibility to do research during work hours and much of it can be found in great books. Leave your screen, find a comfortable spot, and dive into a book for a bit. It cleanses your mental palate like few other things.
  6. A sense of humor. WFH can be the worst sometimes, but it can also be pretty great. Glory in wacky Zoom backgrounds. Rejoice when kids/pets/roommates/strangers interrupt your work. Chuckle about that mustard stain that graced your shirt all afternoon and was seen by everyone but you. We’ve all had enough schadenfreude and languishing. Find the funny in your WFH each day.

Focus on the end goal, not the shiny extras

During college I played music professionally. It was a wonderful experience and I loved getting to know and work with some pretty crazy people.

Jazz musicians in particular can be neurotic at times. (That’s why I fit in so well, haha!) Take sax players. Some sax players never take their horn off. Wherever they go they have their horn in their hand and they are always noodling on a riff or a solo idea. Other sax players are obsessed with their gear. Mouthpieces, reeds, pads, ligatures. If you can switch it out and experiment they’ll try it.

Of these two types of sax player, which do you think were the better musicians? The gear heads were tons of fun to be around, but the obsessive players were much better folks to have on the bandstand with you. They were so good because they focused on playing, which of course is the end goal of being a musician.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Whatever it is you do in your work or your art, make sure you focus on the most important parts. Being a gear head is easy: focus on the minutiae, the shiny objects. You’ll spend money in pursuit of better gear, which can be mistaken for making progress in your work or your art.

It’s better instead to focus on the end goal of your work. Ship your art. Make that your mission. Don’t lose sight of that goal.

The Value of Rituals

One of the joys of the pandemic has been the return of baseball. (Congrats to the Dodgers on their World Series win. We’ll get ‘em next year KC!) I’ve started to think a lot about my local team and some of the fun quirks of the game. All sports have superstitions and illogical practices, but baseball is bathed in them. Rally caps anyone?

One of my favorite young pitchers would always jump over the chalk lines on his way back to the dugout when an inning ended. It wasn’t that he simply didn’t step on the chalk line, he jumped over it so there was no chance that he would step on it accidentally.

Another favorite player adjusts his batting gloves between every pitch. Not every at bat or after every swing, but after every pitch. He pulls back the velcro, tightens it, then grips his bat and gets back into his stance. Thank goodness the MLB put rules in place about batters not leaving the batter’s box during their at bat. If not each of his at bats would take 10 minutes.

Perhaps my favorite quirk of baseball is the pre-game routine. There are pitchers who play long toss across the width of the outfield. There are position players who stretch in a certain order for a certain amount of time before they take batting practice. And of course there are managers and coaches who write their lineup cards in elaborate handwriting.

These rituals might seem strange, but they plan an important function. Pre-game rituals help players mentally prepare for the game. That might seem obvious, the need to get ready before you play, but playing sports at a high level requires players to have incredible consistency and focus. No matter what happened at home, during the drive to the game, or what personal issues a player is going through, in order to be successful during the game they need a way to be mentally and physically ready. That’s why successful players can be obsessive about their pre-game rituals. It’s one of the steps that takes them out of their normal life and places them in the mindset of competing and performing.

You and I may not be professional athletes, but we all have important work to do each day. Some of that work is likely hard, or boring, or not the kind of thing we want to do today. To be successful, to perform at a high level, we need to find our own rituals that prepare us mentally and physically for our work. Rituals and habits that help us set aside the other things going on in our life and that let us make our art, wherever type of art our work calls for.

Now that many knowledge workers work from home, this is even more important than before. You can only show up in your ratty pajamas to a full day of work so many times before our work starts to feel like a bad dream.

Take time to think about your rituals. Codify them, even if only in a simple way. For me, my morning starts with a hot cup of Yerba mate, reading RSS feeds, and arranging my desk. Then I review my calendar, make notes of to do items that I’ll need for each meeting, then I block out time for deep work and note what that work will be. Once that’s done, then I’ll open my work email and chat apps and start to go through the inboxes. Those two things are some of my least favorite tasks, but they are important for my work. By starting with things I enjoy (a hot drink and reading interesting articles), moving on to things that get me excited for the day (planning for meetings and setting aside time for projects I like), I’m ready to start tackling the things I don’t really like but need to do well on.

Find your rituals. Make then an important part of your day. Consistently do them, because they will lend consistency to your work and to your art.

Foundational Work is a Long Term Investment

My work at SpiderOak revolves around customers. My team handles customer support, account management, onboarding, and some technical aspects of our websites. Working with customers means a constant influx of work. There will always be questions, some big and some small, and they will always come at times when you don’t expect them.

This makes doing foundational work hard to schedule. If a server goes down or there’s a technical issue that affects customers, it means that we’ll be working full time to communicate and assist while the problem is solved. Those are busy times, but important times too.

Once in a while, everything seems to go right. No hard drives fail, the system runs as it should, problems that crop up are small and get solved quickly. When we’re lucky enough to have times like this we turn our focus to foundational work. This is the work of documentation, evaluation, professional development, and planning. In a perfect world we’d be able to consistently schedule all of these things, but at least we know that slow times mean we’ll have time for it.

Here’s an example of why this kind of work is so important. One member of our team decided to take on a project to create an interactive troubleshooting form. Customers with problems answered a series of questions and were given suggestions of how to fix their problem based on the answers. Some people that use the form still end up contacting our team, but more than 50% end up finding an answer and don’t contact us. In the three years we’ve used this interactive form, more than 3,000 customers found self help answers through it. This saved our team hundreds of hours and saved those customers a lot of time too. It’s a pretty good return on a few weeks of part time work.

When your work hits a calm patch, enjoy the break but also consider what foundational work you can do. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Take a professional development course. Read a book. Do some of the work that’s been put off for “someday” so that you’ll be able to start to reap the rewards now.

There is Competition, But Not as Much as You Think

I had an interesting conversation with my younger brother the other day. He is a college student who has the beginnings of a nice career playing jazz music. Unfortunately the pandemic has a huge negative influence on musicians who play live music, including my brother. He’s been looking for another job to help fill the gap until his live gigs restart.

He had an interview scheduled for the afternoon, then in the morning an opportunity related to his music came up. He called to ask my opinion of what he should do. Keep the interview appointment and miss out on the music? Go do the music and not get the job? I saw a third option: call the interviewer, explain that something had come up and ask if it would be possible to reschedule. He did that and everything worked out wonderfully. He got to take advantage of the musical opportunity and still had an interview a few days later.

It sometimes feels like the world is filled with competition, and on some level that is true. There are a lot of people in the world and many of them want the same things you do. When it comes down to details, however, it’s amazing how few people there are that try hard and go the extra mile, especially when looking for a job. They spellcheck their resume, are polite and punctual, and try to show their potential value to the company. In my experience with hiring, there may be hundreds of people who apply but only a handful do the things to merit serious consideration. Those few people are your competition. By simply being a functioning adult you can eliminate the majority of your competition. By showing that you are responsible and considerate, the type of person that others would like to work with, you’re almost to the final round.

There will always be competition for anything worthwhile, but don’t let the idea of competition stop you from competing. Be the kind of person you would want to hire yourself and you’ll likely find that your competitive field gets much smaller very quickly.

Hat tip to Brett McKay at Art of Manliness for the inspiration.

“The Battle Against Them Would Be in the Shade and Not in the Sun”

One of the most difficult things for me is starting something new. I love learning new things. Researching, comparing, reading about others who have done the same thing, I enjoy all of it. What’s hard is when it’s time to stop reading and start doing.

Here are a few methods I’ve found that can help.

Reframing the situation can make something difficult look less daunting. This takes a good sense of humor many times, but can help more than you’d think.

One of my favorite stories is of the Spartan army at Thermopylae. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded this scene:

(…) the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:— being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

Yes, the battle was hopeless. Yes, they were facing certain death. But at least they could fight in the shade. You can imagine the cold laughter that followed Dienekes’s quip, but that laughter also broke up the fear in many hearts. Reframe the situation and see if things don’t look better than you thought.

The second method is to remove alternatives. Boredom can be a powerful motivator, though it’s something most of us don’t experience often enough. When we remove more pleasant activities it’s easier to get started on the hard ones.

In his autobiography, Langston Hughes tells the story of a trip from New York to Africa on a ship. The first night of the trip he threw all of his books overboard.

Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now. But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea—all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read….

You see, books had been happening to me. Now the books were cast off back there somewhere in the churn of spray and night behind the propeller. I was glad there were gone.

With no books around to read, Hughes started to write as never before. It was the true beginning of his writing career.

When it’s hard to start, that means the thing you are doing is worthwhile. Nothing good ever comes without resistance. Fight through the resistance, however you can, and as you get to work you’ll know more from the doing than you could from just studying and preparing.

The Applied Physics of Efficient Work

Sometimes we forget how powerful small actions can be. Each time the seasons change and it’s time to switch from heat to cool (or cool to heat) I’m reminded of a simple lesson in applied physics.

We moved into our house in December. The heat in our house worked fine. When summer came and we were ready to switch on the air conditioner, I couldn’t figure out why the upper floor of our house was so hot. It seemed that no matter how low I turned the thermostat, the upper floor just wouldn’t cool down.

I googled it and learned a trick that solved my problem. Hot air rises, so in the winter you should close all of the vents on the upper floor of your house and open the vents on the lower floor. This allows the lower floor to get heat, then the hot air rises and heats the upper floor. In the summer the opposite is true. Cool air falls, so the vents should be open on the upper floor and closed on the lower floor. The air cools the upper floor, then naturally falls to cool the lower floor.

There aren’t hacks for everything in life, but there are principles that can be applied across domains to make our lives easier. Just as cooling the upper floor of my house was hard when the downstairs vents were open, doing work with the wrong tools and in the wrong way makes it harder than it needs to be.

For example, when you’re writing an email it makes no sense to use a smartphone. Yes, there are some people who need to have email on their phone for work, but not most of us. Save your email for a computer with a keyboard. This has the dual benefit of making you more effective at processing your email and sending useful replies, and saves you from constantly checking email on your phone or receiving notifications.

Removing email from my phone was something that made a huge difference to to my happiness and my productivity. Even if this isn’t something that will directly apply to the work you do, you can find similar applications of this principle in the work you can do. Look for ways to affect a large improvement from a small change.

The Right Way is the Hard Way

Worthwhile pursuits are hard. Work worth doing involves struggle. This is one of the lessons I wish I had learned earlier in life.

This afternoon I saw a perfect example of this. We had a small, Friday afternoon emergency at work. A customer needed a very specific data set that I knew was in our database but that I didn’t know how to retrieve. A coworker stepped up and saved the day.

She has been studying a monster book called SQL for Mere Mortals (public library). This is not light reading. It’s the kind of book you should never read while laying on your back—if you fall asleep and it drops on your face it’ll break your nose. I know studying it has been a chore.

She crafted a query that gave us exactly what we needed. The hard work she’s been putting in paid off.

In a recent interview Jerry Seinfeld said “If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

Embracing hard work and the focus needed to do hard work is unusual. Most people don’t work this way. But if we want to accomplish great things it’s the right path.

Break Tasks Down into Small Chunks

As I write this my son is playing scales on his double bass. (Tomorrow morning he has an audition for the high school orchestra, which is a big deal for an 8th grader.) Scales are one of the most important and most boring things to practice on an instrument because they give the player a chance to work on small chunks of difficult notes over and over. It’s a great analogy for how all work should be done.

The B melodic minor scale on double bass has some interesting challenges. There are notes that aren’t played frequently and hand positions where the thumb goes somewhere it normally doesn’t. Getting this scale right involves practicing difficult movements over and over until they feel natural. Once those difficult sections are familiar the rest of the scale is easy to play.

In college and when I played music professionally I didn’t really appreciate the lessons I learned from playing hours of scales. Those same principles are scattered throughout the work I do each day. Break big jobs down into smaller chunks. Identify the chunks I’m already comfortable with and set those aside. Identify the hard chunks and spend the most time on those. Put everything together at the end and run it until it feels natural.

It doesn’t matter if the work is preparing a presentation, writing sales copy, coding part of a website, or having a difficult one-on-one conversation with an employee. The principles behind playing scales work for all the work I do, and probably for the work you do to.

I just hope I won’t have B melodic minor played by an 8th grade bassist stuck in my head all night. Ah, the hazards of parenting!

Process Accelerates Creativity

Recently I was part of an off-site planning meeting. My company flew people from different parts of the country to Portland for three days. Part of the success of these types of meetings is of course the human aspect—when you get together in person you form closer bonds—but our great success this time came in the creative leaps we made. We owe this success to the process put in place before the meetings.

Two members of our group did a great job of getting everyone’s input and ideas written down. They produced a schedule that we used to guide the meetings. During the three days they adapted the schedule based on where the process took us. Most of the time the meetings were very free-form and spontaneous, or at least that’s how they felt to me. Once in a while we would be nudged back into the structure of the schedule. It worked amazingly well.

In our case, process enhanced and accelerated our results. The structure made creativity possible. Don’t ignore the importance of setting up effective processes.

Small Successes Lead to Big Victories

One of the hardest aspects of work for me is when I know I have a hard task to do. I’ve found some psychological trickery that works well on me that might be useful for you too.

I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique. There are lots of ways to implement it, but the basic premise is to work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break. After four 25 minute work periods then take a longer break.

The reason this helps me is because no matter how hard the entirety of the task is, I know I can work for 25 minutes. It’s embarrassing how often I have to tell myself that any old dummy can work for 25 minutes, or that after I do one pomodoro I’ll quit and work on something else. Starting is the hardest part. Once I get going I nearly always find that I’m surprised by the timer going off, and starting the second, third, and subsequent pomodoros is never a challenge.

There is a lot of interesting research into why a technique like this, and I consider this a form of batching, works so well. Beating resistance and getting started is so important. Getting started early is important. Perhaps the most important aspect of this for me is that I may not see a path to success for a large project, but I know I can win if the game is simply to work for 25 minutes. I’m not worried about winning the whole war, just winning this one little battle.

Hat tip to David Cain and Tim Ferriss who wrote great posts this week on subjects that reminded me of this.

Assume the Best in Others, Despite Any Evidence to the Contrary

I had a friend years ago who’s father owned an exercise equipment company. His father gave an interview that always stuck with me. His favorite line was “work hard, play hard, sleep well.” Recently we went through some technical issues at work and customers contact us to complain. That’s always uncomfortable, but more so when you are genuinely trying to be forthcoming and honest.

We know what goes on in our own mind and what our intentions are. We have a good idea about the intentions of people close to us. It’s so hard to feel satisfied that people outside our immediate circle are working in good faith. We’re conditioned to assume the worst, and for some very good reasons. But if we allow that to be our default assumption about everyone we miss out on the joy that comes from understanding others.

I’m going to assume the customer that accused me of hiding my intentions just hasn’t learned this skill yet. He is likely a delightful person who is having a bad day. His anger helps him right now, and I accept that. Eventually he’ll either come around or he’ll move on.

As for me, I will be fine either way. I know we’ve done a good job. I’ll allow his anger to give me a chance to practice skills that will serve me for years to come. This moment could be an important milestone that I will look back on with fondness in the future.

I will sleep well tonight knowing that I did my best work today.