Notes on the Work – Life Balance

Sometimes it feels like life really is a selection of onions, where you’re learning the same lessons over and over again for each lesson-onion while you gain that little smudge of wisdom from peeling back each failure-layer.

Recently I failed at the work-life balance onion. I worked and worked and worked, becoming more and more sick and unfulfilled, until something had to change. So I peeled back a layer and started afresh with that little bit of extra wisdom, which I’m sure will last me for another short time before I go out of balance again and need to learn another lesson.

It’s complicated, life is.

Anyway, this post was inspired by an article on Philip Bloom’s blog. In it, Philip talks about the ‘elusive work/life balance’, and how several things including the death of a close friend prompted him to reevaluate how much time he currently spends working:

I let my work get in the way of the important things in life…I am guilty as hell now he has gone

Philip Bloom is a great man, a true authority in the camera world and someone who has found their calling and pursues it with passion and depth. And I’m someone who places a great amount of importance on your calling in life. So it moved me to hear how he wants to do less work. It validated my intuition to stop working so much, and allowed me to follow that instinct instead of keeping my head to the grindstone because I might not ‘fulfill my purpose’ or ‘miss out on the satisfaction that comes from following one’s passion’.

Since this realisation I’ve spent more time with family and friends and reading fiction and doing all the things that’d normally make me feel guilty for ‘not doing something useful/important with my time’. And it’s been simply marvellous.


Tip-Top Advice in a Forgotten Huffington Post Article

Joseph Campbell popularised the phrase “follow your bliss” and we see its ‘thousand faces’ in the many sayings we hear today – “follow your passion” “do what you love” “find your purpose”.

Now thats all fine and dandy but, for most, following this advice proves difficult when it comes to it. Now of course a nuts-and-bolts detailed instruction manual to following your bliss may never appear – and perhaps shouldn’t – but now and then it’s reinvigorating to hear some practical ways of applying this wisdom.

And with that, I leave you in the capable hands of Neil Gibb at the Huffington Post:

1. Get with a group of people you have an affinity with – the flipside of which is: stop working with assholes

2. Make sure you up to something

3. Work on becoming really good at something

And he leaves us with my personal favourite line of the article:

The novelist William Gibson said: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression first make sure you are not surrounded by assholes.”

Take a look around at your life: are you working really hard at journalling etc. to try and discover your passion yet flanked on all sides by an uninspiring environment and miserable friends?

A flower can’t flourish in a shopping mall, and neither can a man follow his bliss when lazing about at his parents house with the same depressed high school friends. My thoughts anyway.


What Should You Do With Your Life?

Cal Newport he talks of a student who ‘loves’ two different subjects and can’t choose between them, so is choosing to do both. The student asks whether it’d be better to focus on one subject. This is Cal’s response:

From an objective perspective, what does it mean for a second semester freshman to “love” electrical engineer or mathematics? At best, it means he enjoyed a handful of courses on the topic and/or thinks it sounds interesting.

To feel real passion for an academic subject…requires years of honing your craft. Until then, you’re pursuing an idealized simulacrum.

The reason why I love this response is that instead of treating young people and students as if they should have everything figured out, it takes the pressure off by saying:

“Hey, you’re young and pretty stupid and aren’t going to just know what you’re meant to be doing in this world, so relax and enjoy yourself and just pursue something that interests you. If you work hard and are nice to people then it’ll all fall into place.”

Or, less frankly – and perhaps inaccurately – put:

The obvious advice to this student, then, is to choose one of these topics that interest him and then invest the time necessary to learn the craft and develop a true connection to the material.

Source: The Student Passion Problem – Cal Newport

Deep Work and Soul

What is ‘Deep Work’?

‘Deep work’ is the title of a book by Cal Newport and it’s a term he invented to describe:

the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task¹

¹ The above quote is from an Art of Manliness interview which I’ll be quoting extensively from in the rest of this post

This may sound like just normal work, but there’s more to it. Key words are “without distraction” i.e. without checking your inbox every ten minutes, and “cognitively demanding” i.e. not reorganising your photo albums, or as Newport has put it (quoting from memory of the book)

The longer it would take for a smart high school graduate with no previous experience of the activity at hand to solve/fix/complete it, the higher the level of deep work

For more examples and clearer definitions, check his blog.

What does this have to do with soul?

I believe that the deeper the work you’re doing, the more soulful it will be, and the more you’ll be in touch with your soul.

Deep work creates VALUE. Value, richness, a sense of craftsmanship, a sense of mastery. The reason why I want to talk about this is because of the abundance of the OPPOSITE of deep work in today’s world: shallow work. Newport says of shallow work…

It doesn’t require intense undistracted focus. It’s work that tends to be a little bit more logistical in nature and that doesn’t really leverage your skills at a high level, that is someone else could replicate it pretty easily. That would include things like answering emails, meetings, maybe optimizing your social media analytics setup.¹

Shallowness and emptiness

You’ve probably experienced this type of work first-hand. The type of work that gives you hit after hit of dopamine as you tick off another ‘to do’ yet when the day comes to a close you feel empty, unfulfilled and ungrounded.

A necessary evil

That’s not to say shallow work is all guff and no good. Shallow work has its place and some professions are geared towards shallow work, particularly social media experts etc.

Newport’ll put it better than I ever could:

They both have their value, but recognizing that you need to do both, just having a different term for each. Making that distinction at least in my own life was a real step forward. It got me out of this trap of hey, anything that possibly has a benefit is work. I should just be doing stuff and be busy all the time. It gave me a more nuanced understanding of work where I see it more that shallow work is a necessary evil. It’s the stuff that allows you to keep your job, while deep work is the stuff that’s going to help you get promoted. It’s the stuff that’s really going to make a difference.¹

I’m convinced. Instruct me

To engage in more deep work you must carve out the time in your life for long period of intense focus on an activity that matters to you.

I’m still have trouble with the last part: I write these articles but they don’t give me as much joy as say, making a film or animation etc. It’s a question I’d like to ask Cal myself: can these more artistic disciplines be considered deep work? Are painting, drawing, photography etc. cognitively-demanding?

I’ve just posted a comment on Cal’s website and we’ll see what he (or most likely one of his blog’s followers) think.

Back to the issue at hand – how to work deeply?

Key requirements I’ve found for working deeply:

  • Plan out your day

The following image shows how Newport plans his day:


This page is divided into two columns. In the left column, I dedicated two lines to each hour of the day and then divided that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, I add explanatory notes for these blocks where needed.²

Nothing more needs to be said. Do this.

  • Find somewhere quiet where you will be undistracted

I stay in my bedroom and work at my desk, or go to the library, or the park, and the last resort is cafes/pubs. If you’re only faced with the last resort then you can bring some earphones and play some repetitive instrumental music (I like African or Chinese music).

  • Create a ritual for entering and exiting your work period

A ritual will train your brain to recognise that you’re about to concentrate intensely and it will help you avoid the desire to distract yourself by doing something other than the task at-hand. I get a hot cup of coffee or tea, clear my desk, close any unrelated tabs/programmes, and sometimes write a journal entry with my intentions for the deep work period and write down anything I’m worrying about so I can continue to worry about it AFTER I’ve finished working.

And then watch the soulfulness shine through.

I can’t praise this way of working highly enough. It has changed my life completely. The sense of satisfaction after tapping into the deepest recesses of your creative intellect to bring forth something deep, true and valuable is greater than any trite and fleeting happiness attained through years of shallow work or watching all three Star Wars trilogies in one sitting, or having a pissed night out with the lads or scoring with a hottie.

Action step

Basically, buy Cal’s book.

¹ Art of Manliness: Podcast #168: The Value of Deep Work in the Age of Distraction

² Cal Newport: Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of your Day

Additional reading

Robert Greene – Mastery

The Way of the Superior Man – David Deida

Additional viewing