Tag Archives: Work-Life Balance

Book review: Essentialism. Part II

A while ago, I wrote a book review on Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Today I wanted to follow up with a part II. “Why?” you might ask. I gave the book to my dad for his birthday (as an actual book this time). He loved it but when we talked about it, I noticed that he had remembered completely different things than I had. So I decided to listen to it again and this time, other things stuck with me. I always find that the really good books can be read millions of times and every time, you will find something you hadn’t previously noticed. Essentialism definitely is one of those books.

 

Essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less but better

But what does ‘disciplined’ mean anyway? The author gives the following example: the normal state of the closet is to get more and more cluttered if a conscious effort is not made to get rid of non-essentials. Consciously making this effort over and over again is what he calls ‘disciplined’. You need to re-do it all the time even though you might feel like you just did it. But the clutter piles up again and everytime it does, you need to act even though you don’t want to. You need to know where the next thrift store is and when it’s open. You need to have a plan in case somebody drops off their clutter in your closet.

 

Do less than you want to do

This might be known to some of you as “Leave one in the bar” from working out. McKeown realized that it would be difficult keeping up a journaling habit every day because people tend to write more and more every day. This ends up making the habit harder every day and one day will come when you won’t stick to it anymore. So he asked himself how he could overcome this limitation. And he decided that the solution was to always do less than what you want to do. This helps to ‘keep the fire going’ and stops you from losing motivation.

I have this problem with my own routines, be it exercise or translating some of this Latin text every morning aside from my actual PhD writing. I tend to think “Well this went well today. I might just to two pages of translation tomorrow, then I’ll get done earlier.” But the text is 250 pages long. And after three days of translating two pages every morning, I lose motivation. Apart from the fact that two pages takes away enough energy that I am not very effective with my PhD writing anymore. I decided that I need to do less than I feel I could. That’s what makes it sustainable. I have been much more successful doing one page per day now. It’s for this reason that some ‘habit formation philosophies’ like Mini Habits (Steven Guise) or the Japanese Kai-Zen have become popular. In order to make it sustainable, do less than you could. This also goes for working hours, in my opinion, though I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me and is most sustainable.

 

Protect the asset and have more fun

This is kind of self-explanatory. But probably worth mentioning again here: One of the main reasons high-functioning people sabotage themselves is by not getting enough sleep and not taking time for fun, play and rest. For me personally, I have decided I need more active rest (=play/fun), not passive relaxation like binge-watching 😉 Otherwise, my work-life-balance project is going ok: I never work evenings anymore (at least until this week where I succumbed twice already) and I take one day off completely every weekend. However, without some more prioritization on what I work (not only taking into account how long), I feel that I am still not doing as well as I could.

Also, by the way, did you know that being tired and dehyrdated both reduces your brain capacities as much as being a little drunk constantly? It’s sound cheesy and simple: But I think we could all do with some more sleep and water. Also, getting enough rest helps you prioritize which is one of the most important skills ever in this busy world full of distractions. Which leads me to the next point:

 

What’s important right now?

If you don’t know what’s important right now, what’s important right now is to find out what’s important right now. This is my new credo at the moment. Over the last stressful weeks, I have noticed that the biggest factor in me sabotaging myself, except for procrastination probably, is not knowing what’s the most important thing and thus, wasting time on non-essentials. Your time and energy will be gone no matter what you do. Your dissertation will only get written by you writing your dissertation.

 

This is it for now. But actually, there were many more takeways, so I’l probably do a part III at some point 😉

Best,
S

 

How to… do selfcare as a PhD candidate – Part III: Social life

Welcome to part III of our selfcare-series and I decided this time to write about social life, because I am a few days away of going on a long holiday. I definitely need a break and I really need to do this. And yes, there is still a lot of work to do – there is still a thesis that wants to be written.

But let me begin with… well, with us. We are all human beings. Human beings are social beings. Actually, this is very simple and logical and necessary for our survival – but, yes, you must have time for being social, espescially while trying to achive things like a PhD.

There are for sure some periods of your writing and thesis finishing phase where you are very anti-social and love everything about this kind of life. However, you may know that we cannot survive without social contacts and you may know that there are a lot of people who love you and who want to be part of your life because they care for you.

I have mentioned it before: the problem with your time. But you might remember part I and part II of our selfcare series – you have to plan your time carefully and you have to build up some routines. I am sorry to say this, but yes, you will sometimes need to make clear that your first priority is in fact work and your thesis – but that doesn’t make you a bad friend or a bad son/daughter/whatever. Some people will not understand it, I know this from my own experiences. Sometimes, this may be the case because they have no idea what you are actually working on and why it is so time consuming. Sometimes, it may be because they are not so interested in your life – we know these kind of people as toxic people and no, they are no good and you should not listen to them. Seriously, DON’T you ever let anybody tell you that you are a bad person because you are keeping your priorities fixed on your academic career. You need balance, and balance means that you have to say “no” to some social events. And you know, people who love you will understand.

But how to get that balance? Sometimes you cannot say “no”, because you should absolutely not. Like, birthday parties, visiting your grandparents or parents, vacation with friends, … some things are important for your well-being. The tricky thing is to know how to handle the huge amount of things that seem important.

You have to plan your time and you have to talk to your friends and your family about these things. They must know that you cannot be a spontaneous person for some years. And they love you and they will understand it and encourage you. The same thing works with you being good to yourself and allowing yourself to go on a holiday and getting some fresh air. And fresh thoughts, because your brain needs to relax.

So, the important thing I want to tell you in this post is: You have to be good to yourself. And this is really hard work, trust me. There is this toxic academic background: We are used to a huge workload and of course we will work night and day, we have to publish and doing research, we have to attend conferences and so on.

I can tell you a lot about this feeling, the terrible imposter syndrome – and the people who are always asking where you are going – at 5 pm, because they are still working and how can you possibly go home?

You can read about this academic overwork on all social media platforms. We are the new generation of academia. And what does this new generation mean? It means that we have a chance to change the system – at least a little bit. If all of us try to be good to ourselves, if all of us admit that taking a break, spending time with family and friends is totally normal, because we are social beings. Let overwork not be your guide in this jungle we call academia. Talk with your colleagues about it. Talk with your loved ones. Create a good environment of people who know how hard our world can be – and let them help you in reverse to never let go of the important things in life.

This advice does not mean that people who love to be all alone and love their work should stop working. I know these phases myself. There are times – months, sometimes only weeks – that I spend nearly alone, with my material and my research. I simply don’t like people in this phase. And then, when I am done, I will get back to normal.

And there are times that like to spend with my loved ones. And sometimes I do this with a real bad conscience – I should be writing/reading/… and instead I am eating the third slice of cake of my love’s grandma, having a blast at the barbecue party in her garden.

One day, I will remember this. I will never ever remember the days and hours locked up in my office with my research. I am proud of my work when it is done. But I remember the stories, the talks, the laughter, and for this I need real people.

So, next time you have the birthdayparty of your mum coming up – just drive home earlier that day. Surprise her. Or your love spends the day cooking for you – join him or her. Cook together, laugh together. And the day after you will start again, refreshed and relaxed – and in a very good mood. And being a happy academic you will do research happily. And happy research leds to happy ideas. And happy academic ideas lead to good work.

That’s it – be good to yourself, take a break and by the way, you are such a good looking person, you have it all, the intelligence, the wit, the spirit. You deserve a break. Go, get it!

See you all when my holiday is over. 😉

(Yes, I will struggle to get back, because … I mean, we are heading to Sardinia, you know – sea, sunset, the food! But yes, I will come back. After all… I have a date with this thesis.)

Book Review: Essentialism

This time, I wanted to share with you another book from my quest to regain some work-life-balance: Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, NY 2011. McKeown mainly challenges one quite fundamental assumption about our time: the illusion that we could just do it all.

 

Have you ever found yourself struggling with information overload? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilised? Do you ever feel busy but not productive?

Priorities

The word priority used to be singular only. Which makes sense because actually, it is not possible for two things to be “the most important thing” at the same time. It is this introduction of a plural for priorities which shows how we use language to lie to ourselves.  It means not acknowledgeing the fundamental truth that you just can’t have it all. This is especially revelevant for myself because I am really bad at accepting this. When asked to choose something, I always decide to do both. But this is not ‘being super-human’. This is acutally being stupid and naive.

We perceive countless things around us. Yet our greatest power is the power to focus, which means of making the choice to ignore most of the noise in order to get to the message. This is what ‘essentialism’ is about. To not ‘do more’, but to do ‘less but better’. To ignore most things in order to value the important things.

 

Trade-Offs

We often think that we’re just not good at saying no. But saying yes to something always means saying no to something else. So ultimately, we are constantly saying no by saying yes. We might as well choose which thing to say no to directly. Because you just can’t have it all.  Yet, it is understandable why people have difficulty saying no in a society which encourages you to say yes. Saying no is not the nice thing to do. It is uncomfortable. Saying yes is what is praised in the moment. People who say yes seem productive, seem like they ‘have it all’ and ultimately, most bosses do actually expect you to say yes to everything. Even if this massively hurts your overall productivity. 

Another hallmark of the subconscious unability to say no is the act of constantly cramming in “just one more thing”. Like I do. McKeown even makes the example of this one annoying colleague who foolishly doesn’t accept they just can’t have it all and thus ends up answering “just one more” email before they leave for a meeting they would already have been late to before they even started writing that last email. Let me introduce you to this colleague. It is me.

Essentialism is the deliberate pursuit of ‘less but better’.

Delusional thinking

Like I said, McKeown brings the example of people who know they have 10 minutes left to get somewhere, it takes 10 minutes to get there and yet they still sit down to answer an email before they go – thinking they could just “fit it all in”. The result is that they are guaranteed to be late and thus, still miss one of the two things. Or, at worst, both. All because they are afraid to make conscious decisions to reject something. If you don’t know this from personal experience, you have just gotten to know me. This is who I am. I am not proud, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t make this choice (of what to do with the time you have), somebody else will make it for you. This is kind of like with digital addiction.

We are ever only aware of the decisions we actively make. That these imply that we also automatically (and perhaps unwillingly) say no to other things, we often don’t want to see. At least I don’t. Before saying yes, we should ask ‘What would I give up to do this?’ rather than ‘Can I fit it in?’ which is what societal pressure tells us we should do. McKeown introduces the concept of trade-offs, i.e. the fact that when you decide to do something, you simultanesouly also reject something else. Because you just can’t have it all. When you meet person A, you secretly have rejected spending your time with person B. Only that you are not aware of this fact. Essentialism means becoming aware and accepting of this reality of trade-offs.

 

The unimportance of practically everything

Essentialism is about the unimportance of practically everything. By that, McKeown means that not all actions are useful or effective. Many are a complete waste of time compared to others. He brings the example that bosses feel one really good employee doesn’t create results twice as good as another but 10.000x as good. McKeown learnt in his own childhood that delivering papers was a poor use of his time. He had to trade one hour of his time against one pound. Being able to afford something nice would be a gigantic pursuit with countless hours of toil. He then realized that washing cars on Saturdays would be able to get him a six pound per hour return and thus, was a incomparably more effective use of his time. This is the sort of thinking he suggests we should do when he tells us to do ‘less but better’.

 

Philosophy and practice

The book is splitted in a more ‘theoretical’ part explaining the ‘philosophy’ behind essentialism and some more practical parts. These contain tips not unlike those time management tips from all of the other books I looked at so far, be it in the Digital Detox experiment oder Rest.

  1. Part two (“Explore”) suggests you ‘escape’ and save time by being unavailable (ruthlessly avoid going to useless meetings, etc.); you see what really matters, make time for (serious) play, get enough sleep and select what you spend your time with using ‘extreme criteria’. 
  2. Part III (“Eliminate”) suggests you clarify decision making, dare to say no and learn how to do it gracefully without offending people, uncommit from non-essentials and gain freedom by setting boundaries for carefully ‘edited’ amount of meaningful activities.
  3. Part IV (“Execute”) praises using a “time buffer” between commitments, removing things which hurt your effectiveness most rather than starting some new quick fix technique on top of everything, progressing with small wins, using routine to get in the flow, focusing and being in the moment by asking (“What’s important now?”).

 

So that’s it from me today and from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And remember: You can’t just “have it all”. Do less, but better.

Best and until next time,

yours,
Sarah

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Rest

As you might remember from the last book reviews, I am on the quest for a better life in a digital age. I have tried reducing exposure to screens, but in Make Time, I came across more than just the allure of ‘infinity pools’ like the Internet. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘busy bandwagon’. The fact that your success is measured in how ‘busy’ you are or appear to be. The more I think about it, the more disgusted I am by it. I am sick of all the people around me being proud of their business – because obviously, how busy you are shows how successful you are, right? – and I could throw up at myself for answering ‘busy’ to every innocent ‘How are you?’. Since when has the standard answer to ‘How are you?’ changed from ‘good’ to ‘busy’?

 

Jumping off the busy bandwagon

Anyways, in my quest for a better life, I now try to find a way of jumping off the ‘busy bandwagon’. In Make Time, a few simple steps are already mentioned. Things like not answering email straightaway but rather in batches, not being constantly available, making time for family and so on. But there is more to it than just ‘changing how we work’. Because, after all, working constantly is what I am trying to avoid. So thinking about how to work more efficiently is not the right way to do it.

This is why today, I wanted to give a review of another book I recently came across. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, NY 2016. Also check out the website: http://www.deliberate.rest/

Overwork is the new normal. Rest is something to do when the important things are done – but they are never done. 

 

Introducing ‘deliberate rest’

Rest isn’t primarily a book about productivity, that would be contradictory. It is a book which argues that (deliberate) rest is not just a by-product of being human, a necessary obligation to be reduced to a minimum. No, it is an enabler of creativity which is, after all, what we really want to achieve. Being ‘productive’ doing ‘superficial’ work does not create value. (Yes, I remember I still owe you the Deep Work review). What we really mean when we say we strive for productivity is: unique creative and valubable output.

I began to wonder if our productivity had as much to do with the pace of our lives as the place we lived. I started to think that maybe our familiar ways of working and living, and our unquestioned assumptions about our need to stay always connected […] to treat weekends as a time to catch up on work […] don’t work as well as we think. […] Today’s leaders treat stress and overwork as a badge of honour, brag about how little they sleep and how few vacation days they take and have their reputations as workaholics carefully tended by [PR. …] They remind us that the working lives of even the most powerful people unfold in an environment saturated with unquestioned assumptions about the virtue and inescapable necessity of constant work. Whether we embrace the idea that overwork is essential for productivity and creativity or reject it, we all are defined by it.

In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the habits of successful people. They have mostly been analyzed to see how those people work, how they are productive. Rest does the same. This particular book, however, notes how it is striking that all those creative geniuses mostly didn’t do more than 4 hours per day of what we would consider their most important work. Often, this had previously been judged as ‘Oh, they are so capable that they succeeded despite all their off-time’. Rest asks whether this might not have been the other way around: They weren’t successful despite the copious amounts of rest, but because of it.

I have come to see our respect for overwork as […] intellectually lazy. Measuring time is litterally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity. It’s also very unreliable.

Rest is more than just the mere absence of work. It is not an inconvenience. Leisure nowadays is seen as a luxury to be consumed and shared publicly on Instagram, at best, and at worst, the negation of all our values surrounding success (willingness ‘to go the extra mile’, etc.) With workaholics, it can easily happen that we don’t even really exist outside of work. I think many people who are considererd ‘successful’ in Academia do not have a life or even a self outside of work.

 

8 ways to work better using ‘deliberate rest’

As we become ‘more productive’, we work longer hours. […] You cannot work well without resting well.

  1. You are capable of no more than (max.) 4 hours of ‘real’ creative work per day. This is also the generally accepted amount from the 10.000h rule study and the ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘deep work’ movements. Of course, you’ll need to do some low value work which takes up a lot of the time every once in a while. But think about this the next time you’re about to work overtime. Do you really think this is going to yield quality output or could you do that night’s work in half an hour when well rested in the morning?
  2. Add walks or naps to recharge. A short walk will heighten your ability for creative work for multiple hours afterwards. So it’s not necessary to walk while thinking. But walking and creative thought are related.
  3. Have a morning routine where you get the most important task done for 1-2h. Regularity generates creative output. Routine is also a necessary step to protect rest from the invading work demands.
  4. Sleep enough.
  5. Take regular breaks.
  6. Stop work in a good moment when you still have energy left. Many know this rule as ‘leave one in the bar’. Stop before you’re tired. And, if possible, in a good place to continue for the next day.
  7. Exercise, deep play, sabbaticals. Hobbies, like playing music, allow you to detach emotionally from work. The way we spend our off-time determines how effective we are when at work. Rest even cites a long-term study on which academic careers succeed and which ones don’t. Most of the exceptionally successful scientists intensively engaged in sports and active rest, some even did climbing 😉 While according to a study, low achievers tried to get better at work by doing more work, the ones who really ended up successful were busy with “deep play”.
  8. Not taking time off creates exhaustion (emotional and physical) and has long term health risks. Take vacations. I actually don’t get how anyone can get along with 5 weeks of holiday per year. If I’m honest and wanted optimal productivty for myself, I would need at least two weeks off at least every three months. Not that it’s possible. But when I secluded myself in the south of France last Christmas for two weeks, that was one of the most productive and mind-clearing experiences I’ve had in a long time. People in Academia should be allowed to go on “writing escapes” to get their writing done. Maybe (hopefully) my upcoming fellowship this summer will have the same effect.

Vacations are like sleep. They need to be taken regularly to be effective.

The book isn’t super long. The audiobook lasts only 7 hours. Many of the tips don’t go deeper than what’s included in the summary here, except for lots of examples. But it mentions climbing as an activity for active rest. So yay for that. And examples might be helpful to you. If you feel that overwork and not resting enough is an issue for you, the book will definitely be interesting to you.

Best,

Sarah