gravatar image

3 Simple Things that improved my Work-Life Balance

These days productivity and work life balance are two parts of the holy grail of modern life for a lot of people. We have an abundance of projects, things to work on, things that interest us and distractions to keep us from doing all the things we want to do. And so often the solution to this is basically “work more hours” or “have more intelligent notification systems” because more so often looks like better. And I fell into that trap. I worked insane hours (mostly because it was fun and I wanted to learn so much more), jumped on every project and task that seemed remotely interesting to me and had notifications from everything I had ever installed on my phone. I have been that guy who comes home at 1am after hanging out with friends and had this amazing idea how to fix something that couldn’t wait until Monday or even just the next day. So I would hack on things until 3 or 4 am. This didn’t happen often, but it definitely did happen occasionally. And it worked ok for some time. But eventually it all caught up to me and I felt overwhelmed with all the things that were going on. Projects, new things I wanted to learn, notifications, things I wanted to read and people I wanted to talk to or email. Still I was in a generally pretty good situation, since I had managers that told me to work less and made it very clear that this is not what they expected from me. And I wasn’t even in a particularly bad situation, I wasn’t really miserable, I still liked my job a lot and I wasn’t close to a burnout or anything. I just knew I didn’t want to continue like that because work should really be fun and constraint to … well … work hours. And it wasn’t really for me anymore, I felt overwhelmed and at the same time like I didn’t get anything done. So this year I started with some very basic realizations:

  1. There’s always more work that you could do
  2. There are always more things to read, watch or catch up on
  3. Most notifications don’t really need to interrupt you

The Workday

And I started to make some changes from there. The very first one was strict working hours. At the beginning of the year I decided that I will go home at 6.30pm every day. Unless something is really on fire. It really helped that I take the ferry to and from work everyday. So I settled for a ferry schedule that I wanted to take and stuck with it. There are no excuses. All the work I’m doing in the evening will still be there the next day. And there is no work, work email or any such things after I got home. In order to further this more I also deleted any work related email and calendar accounts from my personal laptop a couple of weeks ago. If I want to get more work done I have to get up and start work earlier. In reality this usually plays out to me being in the office around 10am or 10:30 with 30 to 45 minutes of working from home before that. Usually I check email and try to flag things I want to get done that day in my OmniFocus at home as it’s more quiet, earlier in the day, and less busy. Obviously there are exceptions to this, as I said already when things are on fire, when I’m on-call of course, or when I’m really in the zone and don’t want to stop (although this is really really rare after 5:30pm to be honest). On regular days I stick to my working hours.

Reading things

The next step was embracing the fact that there is always more to read. I’m pretty happy with my e-mail setup but it took some time to be ok with heavy filtering and only checking it occasionally. And in addition to not having any sort of notifications for my work email I have also turned off icon badges in the iPhone mail client (except for VIP mails from friends and family). The number of unread emails doesn’t really mean anything other than that it causes you to keep checking it because it’s a pattern of “todo” items. And you really want to get this number down. For no particular reason other than that it feels good to cross things off. So it’s easy to get into the habit of keep doing it. I realized that the icon badge doesn’t actually mean anything for me as all the emails I need to answer are in my OmniFocus so there is no need for badges on my email client. I also turned off unread count badges for basically everything else, but most notably RSS feeds and articles I’ve saved for later. Reading things shouldn’t be a chore but something you enjoy when you have the time. I always felt bad that I have so many things pile up in my different accounts. And it ended up being a constant hassle of cleaning up the lists in there, instead of enjoying the things I can read from it. So I stopped feeling bad about having an insane backlog of articles in my queue and now see it more as a big pool of interesting things to read when I have the time (thank you Mike for this).

Notifications and the phone

So that leaves notifications. You have probably realized by now that every app on your phone competes for your attention. And even more so with notifications. Every single app wants to be able to push notifications to your phone. Even if it’s just a game that wants to remind you what you’re missing while you’re not playing. So while realizing that a ton of things actually don’t need my attention, I started to divide the things on my phone into 3 groups. The first one is allowed to push notifications, make sounds and interrupt me and they are basically only the phone and messages app for SMS. The second group is stuff that I care about enough to allow notifications but isn’t urgent. Twitter clients, Foursquare and Pushover (which I use to tell me about IRC mentions when I’m idle) notifications fall into that. Whenever I have time I’ll skim through the notifications on the lock screen on my phone but nothing in that list is allowed to make a sound or vibrate the phone. And all the other apps on my phone don’t get to push notifications at all. My notification setup has also much improved since I got a Pebble. While it’s not crucial, it makes checking notifications a matter of a handful of seconds by flicking my wrist versus checking my phone. The downside is that when it comes to vibration it’s all or nothing on the Pebble. Right now it doesn’t bother me much but is definitely something I’m watching out for in case it gets annoying. And in addition to cleaning up notifications I also cleaned up my iPhone’s home screen while I was at it. I only have things on there that I actually (want to) use every day. That way my phone looks and feels way less cluttered (and it’s way more fun to have wallpapers).

iPhone homescreen

What else?

Changing those simple habits has made a big impact in my life. I’m definitely more exhausted when I get home because I’m trying to get as much done as possible during the day. But at the same time I’m super excited to get back to work the next morning. My phone doesn’t make a noise except for really important things, so although I have work email and calendars on there, when I just have it in my pocket or on a table it doesn’t remind me of work things after work (I disconnect the Pebble when I get home as I don’t have a need for it there). I actually feel less stressed out about my phone and interruptions all day and get more out of the things I actually want to do on my phone.

There are still some things I want to improve though. I definitely don’t spend as much time reading as I want to. Something I want to try there is take a page from my friend Mathias' book and get 30 minutes of reading in every morning before I head into the office. At the beginning of the year I have also started to keep a work journal to jot down things that happened during the day and that I worked on. And I would love to expand that to also include non-work related things.

I’m also notoriously bad about taking vacation days. I usually end up with a 2 to 3 week long vacation at the end of the year because I need to use up all my days. I really want to get back to taking a longer time off in the middle of the year to enjoy the summer and spread more days off over the year.

What did you do to improve your work-life balance this year? Email me, tweet me or better take some time and write a blog post about it!