What work/life balance means to me

I have a certain capacity for creative output. That level may increase or decrease over time, but it stays relatively constant day-to-day.

You can think of this capacity as tokens that I have available to spend each day. I can either spend these tokens at my full-time job, at a side gig, or on a personal project.

I feel most balanced when I use 80% of my creative capacity at my full-time job and 20% elsewhere.

When I use 100% of my capacity at my full-time job for an extended period of time (say 2 weeks or more), I feel unbalanced. My overall creative capacity starts to decline. Some might call this feeling burned out.

When I use more than 20% on personal projects or side gigs (i.e. less than 80% at work) for more than two days in a row, I feel unbalanced, like I’m neglecting my work responsibilities. Like I’m falling behind and my output isn’t up to par.

I’ve never taken complete breaks from creating things. The manifestation just tends to shift. On vacations I tend to pick up photography and journaling to fill the creative gap. Sometimes drawing. During the holidays I tend to make more elaborate meals and try making new cocktails.

I’ve also never shifted 100% of my capacity into personal projects for an extended period. I haven’t been unemployed for more than a week in the past 7 years. Vacations are breaks from personal projects as much as traditional work, so that is why the output tends to shift to photography, journaling, and drawing.

I routinely go 3-4 weeks at a time at a 95/5 split on work/personal. Those times my personal creative output tends to be listening notes from podcasts and cooking. Days during high work periods where I manage to put out a longer blog post, I’m almost certainly eating leftovers or takeout. (Tonight, for instance: 3 blog posts plus curating a bunch of book recommendations on Likewise and I ate leftover soup for lunch and made a taco salad from leftovers in the fridge for dinner.)

I radically cut down the amount of side gigs I take on in order to prioritize personal projects. In fact, I have no side gigs going on at the moment.

What would my creative output look like when focused 100% on the personal side? I haven’t experienced that since high school and college, but the photography projects I focused on during those periods still rank among what I consider my best. Even periods where I’ve shifted to a 20/80 split on work/personal resulted in projects I’m proud of and look upon fondly.

In the next few years, I’d like to take a complete month away from full-time work and focus on personal projects for the entire time. Deliberately throw myself out of balance in a way I’m not used to and see what I create.

My Inbox Clearing Method

Like many, I’m all about that Inbox Zero life. I’m not going to preach here about it. You’ve heard enough of that elsewhere. I’m going to show you how I get it done.

Winning Before Starting

I like to set myself up for success whenever possible. What that looks like here is severely limiting the amount of inbound email I get. Fewer incoming messages means fewer messages to process.

  • I am ruthless about unsubscribing to unwanted emails. I am only subscribed to seven newsletters, all of which I get value out of regularly. I immediately unsubscribe from sales and marketing emails I get after buying stuff online. If I have to give an email address on a website, I add “+promo” to the end of my address and use a rule to automatically send it to the trash.
  • For important day-to-day questions and messages from coworkers, we use Slack.

These few things cut my email volume by 80%. The remaining 20% is primarily important, valuable, or actionable: Emails from clients, customers, friends, and family, important notifications, and interesting newsletters that I actually read.

Method

  • I primarily process email on my 10.5″ iPad Pro using Spark or Airmail. I switch back and forth between the two every few weeks. Emails I can respond to immediately, I do. Emails that need further action get added to my to-do list. Both have a key feature that is critical to my workflow: The Share Sheet. This allows me to take an email and put it as a to-do item in my favorite task manager with a few taps without switching apps. As soon as an email gets added to my task list, it gets archived. The task includes a link directly to the email so I can get back to it quickly if needed.
  • On my Mac I also use Spark and Airmail, switching to whichever one I’m using on my iPad at the time. Both have widgets that allow me to share the email to my favorite task manager.
  • I use Things 3 as my task manager. Tasks that I share from my email get put into a holding zone (also called the Inbox), which I process and assign a due date and put into the correct bucket twice a day. Things has my definitive task list and I use it as a launch pad for planning my day each morning.
  • Every Monday I set my plan for the week and send it over to my boss. Because I’m not dogmatic about maintaining Inbox Zero every single day, I clear it out on Monday mornings before organizing my task list for the week just in case something in my email needs to go on the list.

That is it. This is consistent for me because it is tied to a concrete weekly deliverable: My weekly check-in with Isaac. In order to give an accurate representation of my priorities and tasks for the week, I must clean out my inbox first. I leave myself no choice in the matter, because if I did, I’m likely to ignore my inbox and let it get out of hand.

Using Walks, Drives, and Commutes For Work

I used to think that walking, driving somewhere, and commuting were things that we fundamentally opposed to work. Complete downtime. Even using them to listen to podcasts isn’t working. It is a good use of the time, but it isn’t working.

I now regularly go for walks throughout the workday and take time commuting between my house and coffee shops without stress because I’ve learned how I can best use those periods of time productively for work: I use them to think about a specific problem.

We all think when we walk, drive, and take public transit, but the key is using that time to focus solely on one problem instead of just letting our minds wander. It is tricky, because unlike working at your desk or diningroom table, driving, walking, and commuting are full of opportunites for distraction.

Here is what works for me:

  • I define the problem I’m trying to solve, give it parameters, and write it down in my notebook.
  • I go over the relevant research I’ve done previously. It usually takes me no more than 15 minutes.
  • I forego podcasts and most music. If I’m on the train, sometimes I put instrumental music on to block out the surroundings, but if I’m walking or driving I leave my headphones in my bag. If your mind wanders, notice it and pull it back to the topic at hand without judgment.
  • I have a notebook ready to take notes. If I’m driving, I usually wait until I get to my destination. If I’m walking or taking the train, I can take notes immediately. I used to take notes on my phone, but I find the allure of apps and notifications too distracting, so now I opt to leave my phone in my pocket.

Here is an example from earlier today. I wanted to go work from a coffee shop for a while because I needed some coffee. Here is how I used my time driving there and back:

  • Defining the problem: I have three months of curriculum content to decide upon with TK in a meeting this afternoon and 6 topics to choose from. What best flows from what already exists and how can it be used?
  • Research: Going over the existing 6 topics to choose from and the curriculum elements we’ve already decided on.
  • Today I was driving, so I left podcasts off and just thought as I drove. When my mind wandered off, I noticed it and gently shifted my focus back to the curriculum, just like I’ve been learning to do with my daily meditation practice. (I use Headspace.)
  • When I got to the coffee shop, I wrote down the ideas I had and took a few minutes to refine them.
  • I worked on something else for a while, and then got ready to go home. I reviewed my earlier notes and asked myself, “Where are the holes in this plan? What would make this better?” That is what I focused on while driving home.
  • When I got home, I had 15 minutes to write down my notes and get ready to talk to TK about them.

I do this all time time now, especially on my walks. It is amazing how much framing a specific question before leaving and focusing on that can turn something we usually squander into useful time.