Five Steps to Better Work-Life Balance, Backed by Science

We can’t use just one yardstick to measure a successful life. Pexels

We all know the good life means more than money…but none of us is exactly sure what those other things are or how to get them. Let’s face it: money’s pretty easy to count and it consistently brings some happiness for at least a short period of time. We all know love and friends and other stuff are important too…but they’re a heck of a lot more complicated and we can’t just have them delivered to our house by Amazon Prime.

Evaluating life by one metric turns out to be a key problem. We can’t use just one yardstick to measure a successful life.

In Just Enough the authors refer to it as a “collapsing strategy”— collapsing everything into one barometer of whether or not our life is on track. Most of us find it easy to focus just on money and say “Make the number go up.” Convenient, simple…and dead wrong. The insanely successful people the authors spoke to often felt they were missing out in another area of life, like their relationships. When we try to collapse everything into one metric we inevitably get frustrated.

The researchers realized multiple yardsticks for life were necessary. For instance, to have a good relationship with your family you need to spend time with them. So hours spent together is one way to measure. But if that time is spent screaming at each other, that’s not good either. So you need to measure quantity and quality.

The study came up with four metrics that matter most:

  1. HAPPINESS: having feelings of pleasure or contentment in and about your life
  2. ACHIEVEMENT: achieving accomplishments that compare favorably against similar goals others have strived for
  3. SIGNIFICANCE: having a positive impact on people you care about
  4. LEGACY: establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success

They also came up with a simple way to interpret the feelings these four need to provide in your life:

  1. Happiness = Enjoying
  2. Achievement = Winning
  3. Significance = Counting (to others)
  4. Legacy = Extending

How much of each metric do you need to feel like a success? It can be intimidating to have to determine, right now, what balance of these four will provide what you need for the rest of your life. You don’t need to go that far. What made you feel fulfilled at age ten isn’t true at twenty and won’t be true at eighty. Things will change and that’s okay. Specifics will shift, but your values probably won’t move nearly as much.

You want to be contributing to the four needs on a regular basis. Here’s how.

TRACK YOUR TIME

You cannot balance your time if you don’t know where it’s going. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove once said, “To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they will do.” Write down where each hour goes as it happens. Don’t rely on your fallible memory. Do this for a week. Where are your activities taking you? Is it where you want to go? Note: this will be depressing. I assure you, you’re wasting more time than you think. Beyond that, note which hours are contributing to which of the big four (happiness, achievement, significance, legacy). Or is that hour going in the “None of the above” bucket?

To improve how you use your time, take a lesson from criminology. To reduce crime in a city, tracking people isn’t nearly as effective as looking at geography. Researchers discovered that half of crimes happen in just 5 percent of the city. This is called “hot spot” policing. Giving those few areas twice the number of police patrols cut crime in half in the hot spots and reduced citywide emergency calls by 6 to 13 percent.

So look for hot spots in your schedule. When do you waste the most time? When do you overdo one of the big four at the expense of another? You’ll get more bang for your buck changing your routines around these hot spots than by a vague notion of “working less” or “trying to spend more time with the family.” By the same token, look for trends that are working. When do you get disproportionate results? Early morning or late evening? At home or at the office? Try to make those moments more consistent.

Remember, you cannot maximize two things that are both dependent on the same resource: time. You also don’t want to eliminate any categories with a sequencing or collapsing strategy. You want the balance of the big four that works for you. Make a decision on how much time you want to allot to each per week. You can revise it later, but you need an answer now. Once you hit the number of hours in one category, address the hot spots in another.

As we talked about in the grit chapter, turning things into a game can make tricky problems more fun and engaging. Renowned venture capitalist Vinod Khosla certainly stays on top of how well his investments are doing, but he also has had his assistant record how many times a month he has dinner with his family. Coming up with a clever metric that works for you can make all the difference. Kevin Bolen, managing director of Strategic Investments and Growth Initiatives at KPMG, wanted more time with his wife and two sons. His main hot spot was traveling for work. So he focused on losing his platinum status on all his frequent-flier accounts. That became his goal. He got fewer free flights and perks, but it became a great barometer for how successful his work–life balance efforts were.

TALK TO YOUR BOSS

Some will say they just don’t have the latitude to make big changes. Their boss won’t let them. If you really want a better work– life balance, don’t make assumptions. Sit down with your boss and actually discuss it. No, you don’t say “Hey, I want to work less.” Ask your boss for a clear idea of your role and their expectations, and whether this or that change would really be an issue. You’ll probably be surprised by the answer, especially if you think about their needs and try to make it a win-win. Ask for an estimate of how much time they want you doing “shallow work,” like responding to emails and sitting in meetings, and how much they want you cranking on “deep work” that really produces results. Just having this conversation can drop your stress levels. A study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology showed that getting more clarity about what you’re expected to do reduces strain when work demands are high. It’s easier to make the right decisions and not worry.

This chat will be good for the boss too, whether they realize it or not. The Harvard Business Review detailed a strategy called “active partnering” in which employees and managers disclosed what they wanted to achieve personally and professionally. A study of 473 executives showed that after a year of active partnering, 62 who wanted to leave the firm decided to stick around. A number of them even got promoted.

You’ll want to have more of these conversations over time as you tweak your plan, but in all likelihood your boss will appreciate it. Proactive employees who have plans, ask about priorities, and try to head off problems are valuable. The people the boss has to come to after the fact to correct errors are the real difficult ones. And when you produce results, you’ll get more latitude. More latitude means more freedom and control to execute your plan. Handle it right and it’s an upward spiral for everyone.

You know your troublesome hot spots and what gets you disproportionate results. You’re allotting hours to all of the big four, and you’ve gotten direction and approval from your boss. Now you can really make a difference…

TO-DO LISTS ARE EVIL. SCHEDULE EVERYTHING.

Georgetown University professor Cal Newport is the Genghis Khan of productivity. And Cal thinks to-do lists are the devil’s work. Because the lists don’t give any consideration to time. Ever wonder why you never seem to get to the bottom of that list? You can easily list twenty-eight hours worth of activities for a twenty- four-hour day. You need to be realistic about what you can get done in the time you have. The only way to do that is to schedule things on a calendar instead of making an endless list.

Decide when you want to leave work and you’ll know how many hours you have. Slot in what you need to get done by priority. Cal calls this “fixed schedule productivity.” You need boundaries if you want work–life balance. This forces you to be efficient. By setting a deadline of six p.m. and then scheduling tasks, you can get control over that hurricane of duties, and you can be realistic instead of shocked by what is never going to happen.

Most of us use our calendars all wrong: we don’t schedule work; we schedule interruptions. Meetings get scheduled. Phone calls get scheduled. Doctor appointments get scheduled. You know what often doesn’t get scheduled? Real work. All those other things are distractions. Often, they’re other people’s work. But they get dedicated blocks of time and your real work becomes an orphan. If real work is the stuff that affects the bottom line, the stuff that gets you noticed, the thing that earns you raises and gets you singled out for promotion, well, let me utter blasphemy and suggest that maybe it deserves a little dedicated time too.

Also, at least an hour a day, preferably in the morning, needs to be “protected time.” This is an hour every day when you get real work done without interruption. Approach this concept as if it were a religious ritual. This hour is inviolate. Emails, meetings, and phone calls are often just “shallow work.” You want to use this hour for what Cal calls “deep work.” One hour when you will actually move things forward instead of just treading water. Shallow work stops you from getting fired—but deep work is what gets you promoted. And you don’t want this at the end of the day when it may get bumped. You want to be able to bring your full brainpower to the tasks that matter. Research shows that two and a half to four hours after waking is when your brain is sharpest. Do you want to waste that on a conference call or a staff meeting?

What if you’re totally overwhelmed at work? If you never get a break from interruptions, then do your protected time at home for an hour before work. Peter Drucker cites a Swedish study of twelve executives that showed they literally could not work twenty minutes without being interrupted. The only one who was able to make thoughtful decisions was the one who spent ninety minutes working from home before entering the maelstrom of the office.

Planning out every day so rigorously is a pain at first but it works.

For extra credit, you may want to start planning out your free time too. Before you recoil in horror at the thought, I’ve got some data for you. A study of 403 people in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed that managing your free time is associated with higher quality of life. What was fascinating was that increasing people’s free time had no effect on their happiness, but scheduling that time in advance made all the difference. As we discussed earlier, we often don’t use our time off wisely—we do what is easy instead of what makes us happy. By taking some time to plan, you can make it much more likely you’ll really have fun instead of being a couch potato.

So scheduling everything and using protected time can make sure the important stuff gets done. But I know what you’re thinking: all that shallow work isn’t going away. A good way to deal with the busy work is in “batches.” Rather than reactively living in your inbox, schedule a few intervals when you process emails, return phone calls, and shuffle the papers that need shuffling. After that session is over, turn off notifications, silence the phone, and get back to important stuff. Three batches a day works for me, but a job that requires frequent interaction may need more. The point is to be able to control and schedule these periods as much as possible so they don’t creep into the time you’re doing deep work. We got to the moon and built the pyramids without email and Facebook. You can go a couple of hours without checking them. What if your boss demands quick replies? Set up an email filter so you only get notifications from the head honcho or whoever else really matters. The rest can wait.

There’s one more scheduling item you need to keep in mind to make sure you don’t undo all the good you’ve accomplished so far: learn to say no. If you get rid of unnecessary activities, schedule everything, use protected time, and batch busy work but you can’t stop people from piling unimportant tasks on your desk, you’ll forever be mired in the shallows. You have your priorities from your boss and you’ll align your tasks with how many hours you actually have in the day. If something doesn’t have priority and there’s just not time for it, you need to say no. To quote Warren Buffett, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

CONTROL YOUR CONTEXT

It matters. More than you think. It influences your decisions even when you don’t realize it. When I spoke to Duke professor Dan Ariely he said:

One of the big lessons from social science in the last forty years is that environment matters. If you go to a buffet and the buffet is organized in one way, you will eat one thing. If it’s organized in a different way, you’ll eat different things. We think that we make decisions on our own, but the environment influences us to a great degree. Because of that we need to think about how to change our environment.

We can’t control our environment everywhere we go, of course, but we have more control than we usually choose to exercise. Distractions literally make you stupid. Students whose classroom was situated near a noisy railroad line ended up academically a full year behind students with a quiet classroom. When the noise was dampened, the performance difference vanished. Offices aren’t much different. Research shows that the most productive computer programmers have one thing in common. It’s not experience, salary, or hours spent on a project. They had employers who gave them an environment free from distraction.

This is where you can actually use being reactive to your advantage. Shawn Achor recommends the “twenty second rule.” Make the things you should do twenty seconds easier to start and make the things you shouldn’t be doing twenty seconds harder. Sounds tiny but it makes a big difference. By rearranging your workspace so temptations aren’t visible, you can trick yourself into making better choices. Ariely told me of a simple study done at Google’s New York office. Instead of putting M&M’s out in the open, they put them in containers. No big deal. What was the result? People ate three million fewer of them in a single month. So close that web browser. Charge your phone on the other side of the room.

I know controlling your environment can be hard. Shared work-spaces, open-plan offices, chatty colleagues, and bosses that look over your shoulder. This is why I recommend a simple solution for at least part of the day: hide. Book a conference room and work from there. Not only will you be distraction-free, but you’ll probably be more creative. Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton note that “a large body of research shows that the more that authority figures hang around, the more questions they ask, and especially the more feedback they give their people, the less creative the work will be. Why? Because doing creative work entails constant setbacks and failure, and people want to succeed when the boss is watching—which means doing proven, less creative things that are sure to work.”

END THE DAY RIGHT—AND ON TIME

You used “fixed schedule productivity,” right? You decided when you wanted to leave work and arranged your schedule around that. Good, because Leslie Perlow said the key to getting those work– life balance results is to impose a “strict time-off mechanism.” You want to know when you’re leaving the office so you can make sure you’re adding to the buckets of enjoying, winning, counting, and extending—not just working, working, and working.

Unless you want to hate your job, how you end the day matters a lot more than you might think. To explain, I need to talk to you about getting things shoved in your butt. Yes, literally getting things shoved in your butt. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Redelmeier looked at how much pain people remembered after colonoscopies. It turns out that how long the procedures lasted and the average amount of pain didn’t influence people’s recollections. What really seemed to matter was the peak amount of discomfort and how it ended. A longer colonoscopy with a higher average amount of pain but a low peak and a gentle ending was remembered as less uncomfortable. Meanwhile, a quick one with a low average but a sharp peak and an unpleasant conclusion was remembered as being far worse. Whether it’s arguments with your spouse or the last lines of a Hollywood movie, endings matter. So take the time to end the day well. Those last moments at the office every day loom large in terms of how you feel about your job.

Cal Newport recommends a “shutdown ritual” in which you take the time to close out the day’s business and prepare for tomorrow. Research shows that writing down the things you need to take care of tomorrow can settle your brain and help you relax. As neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains, when you’re concerned about something and your grey matter is afraid you may forget, it engages a cluster of brain regions referred to as the “rehearsal loop.” And you keep worrying and worrying. Writing your thoughts down and making a plan for tomorrow switches this off.

Then get yourself some downtime. What are the best ways to de- stress? It’s far better to engage in a hobby or spend time with friends. Research shows that weekends are great because it’s the extra time with the people you care about. You get an average of 1.7 extra hours of friend time on the weekend, and this creates a happiness boost. And don’t neglect sleep. You don’t want to start hallucinating that you’re a football star.

Now that you have your rough plan, write it down. Research by Roy Baumeister shows this not only can this help you achieve your goals but it also stops your brain from continuing to obsess about stuff when it’s time to relax.

Your plan won’t be perfect right out of the gate. You’ll screw up. It’s okay. Don’t forget the self-compassion. Forgiving yourself both makes you feel better and prevents procrastination. A study of 119 students showed that those who forgave themselves for procrastinating on studying for one test subsequently procrastinated less on a second test. They felt better, and rather than beating themselves up, they were able to move on and perform better.

As you see what works and what doesn’t, tweak your plan. Which of the big four isn’t getting enough hours? Adjust until you’re closer to the balance you want. This method of tracking, reviewing, and improving is how Peter Drucker says you can get where you want to go. A plan will move you a lot closer to all-around life success.

Steven Jay Ross, who helped build the TimeWarner corporation, put it best:

There are three categories of people—the person who goes into the office, puts his feet up on his desk, and dreams for twelve hours; the person who arrives at five a.m. and works sixteen hours, never once stopping to dream; and the person who puts his feet up, dreams for one hour, then does something about those dreams.

Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 290,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here.

Five Steps to Better Work-Life Balance, Backed by Science