Finding balance in the age of busyness

During my days at McKinsey, I once asked a retired senior partner about life before PowerPoint. How did they make presentations to clients?

He said that they used to create presentations on big chart papers using felt-tip pens. They would have to write in big font, find the right images, and finally, use glue to put it all together. It was quite a task!

With a smirk, I thought that what took them a whole day, we could do in an hour, thanks to PowerPoint.

But if we were so efficient, you’d think we had more time on hand, right? We should have been working fewer hours and taking life easy. Nope. We were busier than ever. And I imagine that today’s folks at McKinsey would be even more busy.

So as we get more efficient, the expectations only seem to be going up. With the AI revolution, things will only get crazier, and it raises the question: how can we find time for mental health, family, hobbies, and passions without compromising our jobs or career growth?

Let me share a realistic plan to achieve that ever-elusive work-life balance:

1. Drawing boundaries

This is a hugely misunderstood concept. People think of boundaries as saying no to work or rebuffing your boss. No, that is not what I am talking about.

Drawing boundaries is about suggesting how you propose to get the work done (without compromise) while keeping your sanity impact.

I remember a McKinsey colleague who told the team on day 1 that he wouldn’t work on weekends. He was divorced and got custody of his daughter on weekends. So he wanted to spend that time with his daughter.

He communicated his preferences, and the team was totally fine with it.

Be clear about your preferences and propose solutions that work for you and the team. Let them know how you can take care of the team’s needs without checking emails late at night. If you are feeling jittery, ask your manager if your proposal seems fine or do they have any suggestions.

As long as you make it collaborative, most people will be understanding.

2. Task clarity

Start your day by identifying a few (and only a few) things that really need to get done that day.

If you’re working with a team, have a morning connect to discuss what needs to be accomplished. If you’re working solo, list your tasks, prioritize, and pick 1-3 tasks that matter. This is not about being super-organized or having a calendar packed with tasks – don’t overdo it.

Once you know your daily tasks, you will be less tempted to keep checking your emails and messages. From my experience, late nights happen because we aren’t clear about what needs to get done.

18 hrs a day happens when you don’t know what to do for the first 12 hours.

3. Focus sprints

Once you have tasks clearly identified, set aside some dedicated, uninterrupted time for them. I am not saying you have to be focused the whole day. Even an hour or two of focus can do wonders.

I’ve found that one hour of focused work is more productive than three to four hours of distracted work, riddled with multitasking.

4. Batch tasks that don’t need intense focus

Despite your best efforts, there will be many tasks for which you can’t find focused time without any interruptions. In that case, at least, can you list them out?

Once listed, group together smaller tasks that can be done even with some distractions and interruptions.

One person who did this exceptionally well is Apoorba Patranabish, who was a participant in our Deep Work & Flow bootcamp. He would come prepared with a list of multiple small tasks he would complete during the deep work sessions. And it did wonders for his career.

You can do the same during office hours. This way, you can be productive even during less focused periods, with some distractions and interruptions.

5. Avoid multitasking

Here is the truth – multitasking happens not because you have a lot to do but because you can’t decide what is the one thing to do. When multiple tasks are beckoning us, we keep switching between them. And it is a disaster.

My solution: Pick one task and drop the rest. I don’t care how good your chosen task is, pick one. Work on it till completion or till you have made good progress. Then do the next. That is how I am writing this newsletter – right now, no other task is on my mind.

But what about busy people who have a lot to do? The busier you are, the most toxic multitasking is for you.

Once you learn to focus on one task at a time, you’ll do things effortlessly. You will be able to switch off from work at a reasonable hour, without anyone complaining.

In summary, achieving work-life balance involves drawing boundaries, gaining clarity, carving out focus time, batching tasks, and avoiding multitasking.

Remember — nobody cares about your work-life balance. So you have to. And this is the way.

Good luck and try it out.


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