I recently attended a network event as a panelist on the subject of social media. Before the panel discussion part of the evening began, a group of about one hundred attendees who work in PR and/or own a business, were mixing and mingling in the pre-show drinks and nibbles party.

I was standing in a circle talking to a group of people, all involved in running their own businesses. As we talked I noticed a difference between how these people worked to build their businesses (or at least how they talked about their work) and how I work on my business. They seem forever busy, and while they were brave enough to start their own business, the amount of labor hours they put in is significant.

The problems people have with their relationship to work became clearer when I mentioned that I’m doing a productivity course from Eben Pagan (Wake Up Productive), whom none of them had heard of.

I told the people in the circle how I often have a nap in the afternoon if my body feels like it, which got a laugh from some, presumably because they couldn’t imagine sleeping in the middle of a work day. I felt the need to defend myself and explain the nap is actually beneficial for my productivity (Eben suggests this in the course – though I didn’t need him to give me permission to take a nap, that’s for sure!).

My naps are short, usually around 20-40 minutes long and are not solid sleep, more like a dozing in and out of consciousness. I feel amazing once I get up, very clear and coherent – it’s like a reset button when you are feeling tired in the afternoon. Eben, and people he quoted, concurred about the effectiveness of napping for improved productivity.

This concept, the idea of “not working” when it’s designated work time based on what society tells you or how you have conditioned yourself, is something that lots of entrepreneurs and certainly employees have trouble coming to terms with. If you’re working for someone else then obviously you can’t just go to sleep on the job and if you are working for yourself the sense of obligation to keep producing is very strong – you feel guilty if you don’t work a 12 hour day.

Personally I got over the typical working day time structure a long time ago. Truth be told, I never really had to adopt it because I went from school, to university to running my own business at my own pace, so I never had the stringent nine-to-five mentality applied to my life, even if most people around me live that way Monday to Friday.

Do You Work Too Hard?

I’ve started to look at how I work more closely because it’s become quite clear that how I “work” is how most people want to work, yet never seem to be able get there. People are curious to find out if I really do just blog only a couple of hours a day and how could I travel the world and run my business at the same time for almost an entire year. How can I live with such a fluid work structure?

In your case, your very long working days could be because of your employment situation or life situation if you are a mother looking after kids for example, or because of some kind of mental conditioning you have applied to yourself. For whatever the reason, you are working when you don’t want to and you don’t know how to change.

Even among my highly successful entrepreneur friends, I’ve noticed the conditioned state is always striving for more and more. Successful people sometimes have it worse, because they become trapped in a vicious cycle where they always need something bigger and greater in order to feel a sense of purpose. If they are not running as fast as they can to the next financial milestone, they just don’t feel right.

Another chronic problem I’ve observed in today’s work environment, something I’ve deliberately made choices to avoid, is the idea that you need to take on every project that comes your way. Heaven forbid that you could miss an opportunity to grow your business, get a promotion or make more money.

Time is a resource people seem so willing to give away if the promise is more growth, more money and more status, yet you understand that those things don’t lead to more fulfilling lives. Worse still, adding more stress is a guaranteed outcome if you take on more projects, and we all know how good stress is for us.

If you’re an entrepreneur who makes your own work day, you don’t have anyone else to blame but yourself if you’re working long hours. As an employee you can try and lay the blame on your boss, but still, you chose to take that job and continue to follow the entrenched working day structure. These things can be modified, if you have the impetus to make change.

Laying the blame elsewhere is a mental cop-out, so the first thing you need to do is accept that working too hard is your own fault, no one else is to blame. Take responsibility for your situation and then start making changes.

Wisdom From The Tao

Back many years ago when I was running my English school, I spent a day printing out and then laminating small paper cutouts of famous quotes I liked, which I stuck up on the walls of the school.

Once I shut the school down, I took the quotes and placed them on the walls of the spare room in my house, which I use for video recording and is going to become my strategy room for business planning and mastermind sessions.

There’s one special quote from my wall I’d like to share with you that is particularly relevant for the topic of this article –

Balance and Illumination

When you are mindful in times of rest, you are observant in times of movement. If you have self-mastery in times of rest, you can be decisive in times of movement. If you have stability in times of rest, actions will not lead to unfortunate results. Rest is the foundation of movement, movement is the potential of rest. When you do not lose the constant in movement and rest, your path will be illuminated.

The Tao Te Ching, 13th century classic text of Taoism

I really like this quote, and I’m not just saying that because it makes great justification for afternoon naps.

If you take on the meaning of the quote you will truly understand how important it is to be a master of how you spend your energy, both during times of rest and work.

When I think of what the human body is capable of doing and what a tremendous source of energy we all are, it brings into light how critical it is to get the balance right in how you use your body. If you don’t work smart, re-energise effectively and prepare well, then your life will start to fall apart.

Your potential for creative output is interlinked with your ability to use your down time well, and vice versa. If you hate your job, then you’re more likely to use the time away from work on poor habits, like excessive drinking and food consumption, lazing in front of the TV for hours, forming poor habits of thinking – becoming cynical, negative – and even destructive.

Conversely, when you don’t get enough sleep, when you don’t put in time to learn and study, or when you don’t input enough quality nutrients into your body, then your work output suffers and you start to get sick.

Harmony is the key here and if you want to enjoy your working life you need to take control of every hour of your day and find a balance that delivers fulfillment. Work, rest and play are all interlinked and when in harmony can result in a wonderful state of being. If even one of them is out of kilter, the other elements suffer.

The 80/20 Rule, Leverage and Your Work

Long time readers of this blog know my dedication to promoting the 80/20 rule as a key for success. The part of the 80/20 rule that we focus on the most is the 20% that delivers leverage. This is an easy concept to understand, because if you look closely, you know that only a few of your work activities result in the majority of the output that actually makes an impact, so you should focus on those activities.

In my case, writing blog posts like this, sending emails to my newsletter, and creating content I deliver to my paying customers, are the highest leverage activities for my business. They happen to be some of the most fulfilling work I do from a creative standpoint too, which is one of the reasons I’m successful at what I do – I enjoy my work for more than just the financial return.

What’s interesting is my high leverage activities don’t consume much time from my day – less than 20%, so the rule holds true again. I can spend less than 20% of my day on the handful of output tasks I know that deliver big results and thus run a very successful and fulfilling business.

That’s great and we should all strive to find what few things deliver most value to us, but there’s something I’m not talking about here – what do I do with the other 80% of my day when I’m not working?

Let’s say on average it takes me about three to four hours of each day to be productive for my business. That’s not four consecutive hours, but cumulatively over the course of a single day, about that much time is dedicated to getting things done to maintain momentum in my business.

As Tim Ferriss points out in The 4-Hour Workweek, if you carefully measure the time when you are completing work, the period that you are actually productive is quite small. If you spend 8 hours at your office, collectively you might get two hours of productive work done – work that moves you forward (that usually doesn’t include responding to emails or talking on the phone).

Eben Pagan suggests a schedule that focuses on short work bursts of concentrated focus of about one hour, which has been proven to be about how long we are capable of staying focused on a task, without needing a break or experiencing degradation in our ability to focus.

The point is very clear – we don’t need to work long hours every day to achieve the results we want. We’re not built that way and if you are forcing yourself to work for hours and hours, then you’re doing harm to your body AND being less productive.

Become focused and direct your energy on completing a very small handful of the most crucial tasks, then you can become a highly productive person, yet only work for less than 20% of your day.

What About The Rest Of Your Day?

We’ve come to the realization that our work time doesn’t need to take a huge chunk of our day, which leaves us with quite a few hours left over to spend on other activities.

Our natural inclination might be to indulge in leisure activities, but as anyone who has ever tried to spend every day sitting on the beach drinking martinis, it gets boring pretty quickly.

I’ve never been good at what most people call the traditional holiday, which is essentially “doing nothing”. I need to be creative, both in terms of output of my own creative process and stimulation from other people’s ideas. Balance is key here and spending a full week just reading a book down by a pool is not my idea of a good holiday.

If you are working your butt off putting in 50 hour weeks, dreaming of the two week break you get in a couple of months time, it makes sense that you look forward to taking a holiday that involves nothing much. You’re so exhausted that simply sleeping and watching TV or reading a book is what you desire, because you need to regenerate after using your energy so inefficiently and out of balance in your working environment.

If however, you have a working life that is all about short, laser focused, optimal usage of work energy, you don’t feel drained and look for time off to do nothing. You have plenty of energy left over for other things and this is when the real challenge comes in.

Not only do you have to learn how to work smart, you also have to learn how to use every other hour of your day in an effective manner. You have to become a master of your own energy, which as the Tao quote so elegantly presents, is the key – what you do when not working is the determinant for what state you are in when it is time to perform.

Let’s Talk Professional Tennis

Professional tennis is my favorite sport to watch. Every single day I read about the ATP and WTA tour online, who is winning what and all the news from the tennis world.

Professional tennis presents a great example of the importance of perfect harmony of energy and mind, during times of performance, preparation and rest.

Tennis is a physical sport, but at its heart, it is a mind game. The term “inner game” may have in fact come from the book – The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey – first published in 1972, which offers an introduction to the world of mindset and self talk, and in this case, how it affects your tennis game.

Tennis as a spectator sport is interesting because you only see the players during their performance time. A tennis match, on average is only a few hours long. During a given tournament, especially the best-of-three set smaller tournaments, the amount of time a player spends on court is minimal, yet this is when they must concentrate focused effort if they want to win.

Match time is when a tennis player does their job and is the highest leverage activity in their life, at least while they remain a professional player. During a match a tennis player has to master their mind so their body can go to work to construct enough good points to win. If you really drill it down, only a handful of points within a game make the difference between winning and losing, so the most critical times in a tennis player’s life are a very tiny proportion of their entire life – it could literally be 30 seconds, a few times in each match.

What we don’t see as spectators is the amount of effort tennis players put in to prepare for these critical moments. Hours are spent in the gym. They go to sports psychologists to help work on mindset. They live on the practice court spending hours each day drilling routine shots and plays over and over again. They need to monitor their fluid intake, eat the right foods and get enough sleep despite jumping across different time zones as they travel to different tournaments around the world.

Though we don’t observe it as spectators, a tennis player is constantly working to find balance and harmony, so when it’s time to perform, all aspects of their game are ready. In this case, if you have self-mastery in times of rest, you can be decisive in times of movement, has never been more true.

Find Your Harmony

I hope by now you’ve started to look at your entire day holistically to see the interconnectedness of all aspects of your life, and are considering what needs to change in order to bring things into balance.

I suggest you look at these factors in your life as first places where change might be necessary –

  • What work you choose to do and how you do it
  • How you use the time you don’t work, which includes time “at work” when not working

If you don’t love your work, then that is the first thing that needs to change – it might be time for a career shift. If you do love your work but you find yourself exhausted after long days, then you better figure out exactly what it is about your work that delivers value, then subtract that from everything else you do, and what you have left is what you are wasting time on.

If you truly want to excel at something, and if you are doing a job you love you are motivated to achieve results, then the time you spend preparing to do that job and the time you spend away from that job, are just as important as when you do the job itself. It’s all related.

Above all, this is about balance, and the only thing in your life that should take more than five hours every single day is sleep (unless you are a polyphasic sleeper).

Mix things up, do what you enjoy for fun, what you love as creative expression, study, learn from and be entertained by what others express as their passion, eat good food in frequent moderate servings, exercise, meditate, relax and then when required, you will be ready to perform at your peak, but you won’t have to do it for very long to succeed.

Seeking Harmony