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Turns Out You Can Actually Have It All

With a little mindfulness, success may not require the trade-offs you think it will.

 Turns Out You Can Actually Have It All
[Photo: Осадчая Екатерина via Wikimedia Commons]

Of all the narratives about work and life out there, this is the most persistent: Success at work requires harsh trade-offs in the rest of life.

Randi Zuckerberg called it the entrepreneur's dilemma: "Maintaining friendships. Building a great company. Spending time w/family. Staying fit. Getting sleep. Pick 3." I have seen a similar dilemma expressed as the "Four Burners Theory." Like a stove, life has four burners: family, friends, health, work. To be successful you need to turn off one burner, and to be really successful you need to turn off (at least) two.

But is it true? To be sure, life will always involve trade-offs, but many successful people make time for all the important aspects of their lives. Indeed, some people believe that keeping other burners going can help the "work" burner in the long run.

A Problem With The Math

The first problem with the Entrepreneur’s Dilemma, or the Four Burner Theory, is that all these areas of life do not take equal time. Almost no one spends 40 hours a week with friends, or exercising. Simple math reveals that eschewing these areas would not save many hours in the long run. There are 168 hours in a week. If you spent 60 working—more than the vast majority of people—and slept eight hours per night (56 per week) that would leave 52 hours for other things. In 52 hours it seems quite possible to exercise for four hours, and mindfully see friends for three hours, while still having time for family meals or reading bedtime stories. If you work fewer than 60 hours, this opens up even more possibilities.

That’s what Ed O’Keefe does. A Chicago-based serial entrepreneur who’s also the author of the book The Art of Time Collapsing, he has seven children under the age of 11. He recently completed a Navy Seal-inspired "Hell Week" challenge, which he admits "sounds cheesy," but the important part here is that "I figured out a way to make time to train for that." He sees his seven children too; he told me that after our phone call he would be heading off to one son’s baseball game.

"The first key decision any aspiring entrepreneur or current entrepreneur must make is what’s important to them," he says. He’s figured out his non-negotiables, and has built his businesses and schedules around that. In the morning, he and his wife get the kids ready for the day together. Then he spends the first hour of work time thinking and strategizing. He blocks out time at 9 a.m. to train, and ideally schedules no phone calls or meetings before 11 a.m. "That’s how I protect three really important things," he says. "My thinking time, my health time, and my beginning—starting the day with my family."

To be sure, this involves some good time management. He dictates book chapters while in the car or waiting around at kid sporting events. He tries to "avoid meetings if at all possible," and limits email (project management tools work better). He works friends into other activities; "I only do business with people I like," he says, and trains with friends in the mornings too. But in general, he’s realized that "soft time will always get pushed out by hard time. If you really want to spend more time with certain people, you have to add it to the schedule as a hard priority that sticks."

A Checklist Approach

Time passes whether we think about how we spend it or not, and so this focus on making sure the non-negotiables happen is key. Sabina Nawaz, an executive coach who’s helped many high achievers make time for the rest of life, recommends a checklist approach. "I make tracking sheets with them for all sorts of things," she says, and she tries to "keep it as simple as possible. Like a yes/no. If it gets too ambitious or too involved, they won’t do it or sustain it."

So the checklists include items such as:

  • Did I go to the gym today?
  • Did I spend time with my kids before they went to bed?
  • Did I get home in time for dinner with the family?
  • Did I do a date night once a week with my spouse?
  • Did I meditate each day?
  • Did I get time outdoors each day?

If work can be all-consuming, a checklist is one way to ensure it won’t be.

Jonas Koffler, co-author of the forthcoming book Hustle: The Power to Charge Your Life with Money, Meaning, and Momentum, recommends that people who want to invest in all areas "set up focused blocks of time for each area of work and life."

He schedules everything: "If my wife and I have plans to cook a curry dish or decide to perform acoustic Fleetwood Mac covers at 9 p.m., I’ve scheduled time for it. Even sleep hours have a comfy place on the calendar." Lest you think this requires packing stuff in every minute, know this: "I block out a minimum of 10–20% of my time for creativity, novelty, and unexpected pursuits daily," he says. "This is where discovery happens." He goes for walks with people daily, and plans get togethers with friends on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

168 hours is vast, and with a little mindfulness, it all fits. "Let's get beyond the ridiculous stories that conventional thinkers repeat ad nauseam: that we have to give ‘something’ up to get ahead. We don’t," says Koffler. "You need not be superhuman. You need only be disciplined, find leverage points, and choose to own your dream by creating a reality that maps to your daily needs and desires."

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