Aug 3, 2013

A Life worth living. Part Tr3s.

Lately, I've seen a lot of my friends share articles about work-life balance and the 'busy trap'. Everyone seems to agree that we're all too busy these days, and it isn't quite right. Most articles are written by people who devoted most of their younger years to work, and came to regret it later and now extol the importance of work-life balance. They tend to swing to the other extreme, and don't offer too many suggestions on how one should fix the issue. I'll attempt to do that here.

This post might appear a bit preachy, and I offer two arguments to defend that:
1. Most of this is things I've learnt by reading recognized experts, whose ideas appealed to me and many others too.
2. I have a better work-life balance than most and - more importantly - I'm happy with it. That's not something a lot of people can honestly say these days.

Most of us have heard the story about how Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and discovered gravity, and how this led to the birth of modern physics. But what was he doing at that moment? Enjoying a leisurely afternoon cuppa of tea in an orchard with a friend.

Penicillin is regarded as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine. You may have read that it was discovered by accident - Sir Alexander Fleming had left an open petri-dish unattended for a while and a mould had grown on it. Why was it unattended for a while? He'd been away on vacation with family for a couple of weeks.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar claims that the Sudarshan Kriya was revealed to him while he was observing 10 days of silent introspection alongside the Bhadra river. He's built the whole Art of Living empire around it.

NN Taleb, in his book Black Swan, contends that history moves forward in irregular leaps through serendipitous discoveries made by maverick thinkers, not the endless labours of busy suits and lab coats.

If you want to come up with the next big idea or great discovery, and leave your mark on history, you're much more likely to do so in times of idle introspection. That's when you find moments of inspiration and have epiphanies. Make time, and give life a chance to positively surprise you!

Most people will counter that they just have to much to do. Their work and other things they have to do just fill up all their days. Stephen Covey, in 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' tells us to always begin with an end in mind. Think about who you want to become and where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years time. Define your main goals and figure out what will make you truly happy. Sort out your priorities. Then evaluate all the things you're doing today. Which ones are taking you in the desired direction, and which ones are simply drains on your time and energy? Identify the latter, start cutting your losses, and making more time for things that will matter in the long run.

It also helps to apply the 80/20 principle and the law of diminishing returns. Most people can accomplish most of their important targets with a few hours' work. Then there are activities that also deserve a good amount of time. Finally, there's the things that take up a lot of time and energy, but the pay-off simply isn't worth it. Find ways to cut these out.

The same applies to goal-setting. It's good to have ambitious targets at work that challenge you and provide you a considerable sense of achievement and pride, but one must be realistic and identify the point of diminishing returns. Hitting 50% of your target is usually a walk in the park. Exceeding it by a bit takes considerable time and effort. Trying to exceed it by more than 20% will usually sap the joy out of your life and badly affect all other aspects of it.

Covey also suggests a grid - with urgency as one axis and importance as the other. Most of us tend to deal with the urgent on a priority basis and it gives us a buzz. We tend to defer the things that are important but not so urgent. He was talking mainly about building professional capabilities in this quadrant, but the concept applies equally well to life in general.

To me, it is important to read about a variety of subjects and articulate my own thoughts on this blog. It is also important to read/watch something intelligent and witty everyday because it keeps me mentally sharp. These things make me happy and help me become better-informed and more versatile - which also greatly helps my productivity & success at work, and makes me better company. Everyone needs to find things like these to unwind, recharge and grow, and make time for them. We've all heard the saying 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' early in our lives, but seem to have forgotten it along the way.

I'm going to talk a bit about relationships here - because they are very important and tend to be affected most directly and seriously by our time-allocation choices. We're designed to be social and our joy increases when we have special people in our lives to share them with. We also need support systems when things get tough. But meaningful relationships need time investment and nurture.

I don't have siblings and have been living on my own for almost 15 years now. I depend on a few close friends as my support system. Right now, one of them is going through a painful divorce, another one is evaluating investments offers for his business, and a third is coping with a new life in the USA. I'm happy to be there for them at these times, and they're there for me when I need them. You can't achieve this by scheduling them into the 3rd Saturday of every month, for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I don't have a family yet, but I'm sure being a good partner or parent works the same way.

Urgency, on the other hand, is often artificial and created by ourselves by either trying to do too much, or having our purpose & priorities messed up. I lived that kind of life for a few years. My day started with paranoia about discovering a bomb in the inbox (an error in recently submitted analysis, or an unhappy client), followed by about 12 hours in the office, and ending with anxiety about the next day. There was always more to be done, fires to be fought and something to be frustrated with. It affected my lifestyle and started taking a toll on my health and general well-being. I took some time off and decided to draw some lines in the sand, and am much happier today.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of my peers already having trouble keeping their lives straight. Some have had serious health issues and surgeries, some have had their marriages break down, and some others have just become jaded and cynical pale shadows of their former selves. We're just one decade out of college, and have about 3 more to go, and responsibilities are only going to increase both at work and at home. It's way too early for people to start burning out.

Being busy is an unhealthy addiction. It gives you a buzz and makes you feel wanted and purposeful, but in most cases that is due to blinkered vision. Just think back 5 years. Most of what kept you busy then probably appeared crucial, but will likely seem almost trivial now. The same will probably be true when you look back 5 years from now.

Think about the managers you've had. Some must be busy bodies, always on their toes, always buzzing and usually quite successful. People respect them and admire their energy, but most wouldn't want to be them. On the other hand, there are the leaders who always have a calm demeanour, never get ruffled, are equally successful or more, and always leave the office in time to spend quality time with their families or pursuing other interests. These are the guys who really inspire others and get farther in life. Which one would you rather be?

We are designed to appreciate outcomes and rewards obtained by others, not their efforts. In college and at work, the hard-workers were pejoratively labelled 'fighters' and the lazy versatile geniuses were labelled 'studs'. It's because the latter found ways to achieve good results more efficiently - with lesser time and effort, and had time for a greater variety of activities and all-round development. Most people can do that by using some of the principles outlined earlier.

I feel American culture is partly to blame for the current state of affairs. Americans make their jobs their lives, and tend to equate what they do with who they are - and seem to be missing the bigger picture. We Asians are worse because we have it upside-down. Our cultures tend to measure and reward effort as much or more than outcomes. It's even a central tenet of Hindu philosophy! I personally admire European and Australian societies because of the emphasis on culture and sport respectively, and I feel that's a more holistic perspective.

Another negative effect of always being busy is people have little time to think. I work in the analytics industry and we bill our clients based on man-hours utilized for each project, so there is a perverse incentive to always try to do more. But our real job is not to present clients with more and more information, but to help them make better decisions. Whenever I'm involved in a project, I urge the team to try and find out what decisions our analyses will inform, and try and streamline the output to help our clients make better decisions. There is no point providing more information than needed, or analysis results that are confusing or inconclusive. We should always try and do less but do it right. And then go home, play video games, chat with friends or enjoy a cold beer. I'm sure the situation and challenges are similar in most professions. People are doing too much, but a lot of it is a waste of time. They need to do less, think more and make time to live happier lives.

This brings me to the subject of smartphones and instant email. Sure, the IT revolution has made our lives better in many ways, but most of these are outside of work and related to our personal/social lives. I'm not sure businesses in general have become much more successful or better at decision-making with the advent of instant messaging. It has made all of us a lot busier, but not much richer intellectually or epistemologically (Ha, really wanted to use that big word!)

Personally, I was thrilled when I got my first company-paid Blackberry device. It was a status symbol of sorts, and I felt I had arrived. But I soon realized it was an instrument of corporate slavery. The emails followed me wherever I went all the time, immediate responses were expected, and it wasn't such a good thing at all. I still use such devices, but I don't let them control my life any more. I only check email a few times outside the office, and I ask myself 'Do I have to answer this right now, or can it wait till tomorrow morning?' Usually, the answer is that it can wait, and I put the device down and return to the TV. Life is much better this way.