When you feel overwhelmed, understand balance is hard

Speaking to people around my age or younger, they often tell me the same story: adult responsibilities are terrifying, and most people feel lost.
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Last Sunday, I had a long list of tasks I wanted to finish. I told myself it’d be a perfect productive weekend: get eight hours of sleep, do two sets of perfect-form pull-ups in the morning, listen to a high-quality podcast, then start working on my writing just before noon. Instead, I found myself trying to escape — mindlessly FB procrastinating before I finally crawled out of bed at 2 p.m.

It’s scary, because I increasingly feel overwhelmed, making me hide from things I need to do. And speaking to people around my age or younger, they often tell me the same story: adult responsibilities are terrifying, and most people feel lost.

Personal sharing: In my day job, I’m the Country Manager for a rapidly-growing startup at a critical time. I try juggling that with running this blog in the early mornings and weekends, plus attempt to regularly stay in touch with more than 10K followers on social media. For health, I try to work out 2-3 times a week and get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. But of course I can’t neglect my fiancee, as we’re preparing for our wedding in 1+ months. Psychometric tests show I’m under a lot of pressure. But of course, I don’t need a test to tell me I’m stressed.

I can’t even imagine what parents must go through, once kids enter the picture…

WANTING TO WIN, THEN WANTING MORE

How did we get here? I was recently reading an excellent article on The Atlantic — suggesting many of us don’t even have quality time with our partners, let alone our friends anymore.

The world of work has changed. Technology was supposed to have made our lives easier, but instead we find ourselves on our phones at 10 p.m. on Friday nights, trying to read complex work emails on 5.5″ screens. We’re always “on” and it’s screwing with our mental health.

I know, technology is just a tool. Set proper boundaries, and you can be ultra-productive without going crazy. But it’s hard. The pile of unsorted clothes on my bed tells me my life is out of balance. My dad taught me to shine my shoes every Friday, but I haven’t done it for at least 52. I don’t have time to clean my home so I pay cleaners to help me monthly. Supposedly. I’m so busy I can’t even find time to schedule help over.

Of course, maybe all this is laughable if you’re a slacker. But if you’re reading this, you’re not. You’re probably competitive like me. I wanna win at life. It’s not enough for me to help others do good work. I want to be a good manager, coach, and mentor — and still be known as someone who “gets his hands dirty.” It’s not enough for me to work out three times a week. I want to be fitter than I was at 25. It’s not enough for me to have a loyal following. I want to be the best writer in the country.

And I want all this while having a perfectly-managed home, shiny shoes, and a regularly-serviced car with 220 kPa tire pressure DAMNIT.

IDEAS THAT HAVE HELPED ME

What salvation is there for the overwhelmed, hyper-competitive achiever? Will you always be doomed to feel the need to prove yourself, as if you weren’t already worthy?

Contemplating philosophy helps:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

“He is richest who is content with the least, for contentment is the wealth of nature.”

– Socrates –

I’ve written before that the only person you should compare yourself to is yourself yesterday. Cliche advice, but hard to pull off, especially since comparing ourselves with others, and wanting more seems ingrained in our human nature.

So I thought it’d be helpful to share some of the more practical ideas I’ve used in my own struggle. Ideas that help me stay afloat in this tsunami of modern-day living. In your overwhelming quest to be number 1, may you find balance too:

1. GOALS VS SYSTEMS – AIM FOR PROGRESS

Goals vs systems was popularized by Scott Adams — the same guy who draws Dilbert comics. It allows a subtle shift: from measuring our lives by goals we achieve, to creating routines that still help us achieve good things, but in much more enjoyable ways.

A simple example:

Goal: I will lose 10 kg by January 2020 (High pressure, makes you dread January 2020, and even if you achieve the goal, then what next?)

System: I will do some exercise I enjoy three times a week. I will reduce the amount of sugary drinks to once a day, and “recruit” a friend to join me on my weight-loss adventure. (Lower pressure, ironically makes achieving the goal more likely, and since I enjoy this new routine, wouldn’t mind doing it forever.)

When I beat myself up for goals I fail to achieve, I remind myself I need to focus more on the system. Just take another baby step. As long as I’m making progress, eventually I’ll get there.

Girl walking on fence, with balance

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2. WARREN BUFFETT’S 25/5 RULE – ELIMINATE AND FOCUS

Warren Buffett is one of the richest men in the world, worth around 82.4 billion USD. The 25/5 Rule originated from career advice Mr. Buffett gave to his personal airplane pilot. It’s a thought-provoking story which I won’t get into detail, but recommend you read here.

How to use the 25/5 Rule? First, list down the top 25 things you want to achieve. Then, choose the most important 5. Everyone knows you should focus on these 5, but what about the other 20 goals? A common response might be “work on these in your free time.”

However, according to Warren Buffett, the other 20 goals are actually “avoid-at-all-cost.” They’re obviously things you care about, but spending time on them will just distract you from achieving your top 5. Choose carefully.

When I find myself overwhelmed by a huge number of priorities, it helps to remember even the most successful people focus on just a few things. It’s okay to admit you already have too much on your plate. It’s okay to say “No.”

Ray Dalio, head of the world’s largest hedge fund put his own twist on the subject, while giving advice to his son:

“You can have anything you want in this world, but you can’t have everything…”

3. THE FOUR BURNERS THEORY – A TIME FOR EVERYTHING

I first read about the Four Burners theory from the bestselling author and productivity expert James Clear:

Imagine your life is a stove with four burners (you know, the four circles where heat comes out from). Each burner represents something important in your life:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Health
  4. Work

The theory says that to be successful, you have to switch off one burner. To be really successful, you have to switch off two. So for example, if you wanna be a world-class investment banker while still maintaining a J.Lo bubble butt, you’re not gonna have much time for family and friends.

Sounds terrible, I know. But if you think about it logically, time is the true constraint of life. Contrary to what feel-good motivational gurus would sell us (and in-line with what the billionaires say above), life is about trade-offs: win some, lose some.

But there’s also a positive twist to the Four Burners theory: remember that burners can be switched on and off. For example, in most seasons in your life, family will take priority. However there might be short stretches of time where you’ll need to bury yourself in work. Come back to family and friends when the time is right.

When I feel guilty that I haven’t been spending time on the “correct” things, the Four Burners theory reminds me I can’t be 100% in every single aspect. It’s okay to ride the waves of life and live in the moment, instead of constantly struggling to bend fate to exactly what I want.

4. THE EISENHOWER MATRIX – PRIORITIZE THE IMPORTANT

Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th President of the USA, and also a five-star general during World War 2. He is commonly quoted with the below:

“What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

It’s the foundation of likely the most famous time management tool that exists. You’ll probably recognize it:

Since I find the Eisenhower Matrix most useful at work, here’s an example of how you could use it at a typical office:

  • Not urgent and not important: Scrolling Instagram fanpages of your favorite K-pop starlet. Solution: Stop doing shit like this at work.
  • Urgent but not important: Answering the impossible question: “Where to have lunch today?” as you’re walking to the exit. Solution: Assign a different team member to decide every day. (Or force your intern to make the call.)
  • Not urgent but important: Having lunch with 10 of your most important customers to understand how to serve them better. Solution: Schedule weekly time for this.
  • Urgent and important: Solving a work crisis that immediately affects 50% of your customers. Focus on this right now.

When I feel lost; confused about what to do next, the Eisenhower Matrix helps guide me towards the best thing I can work on. I need to accept I won’t be able to fix everything myself — but I can ask support from people who can help. As the saying goes “If someone can do a task 80% as well as you, delegate it to them.”

It also reminds me that everyone: including your boss, your colleagues, and those perfect social media personalities you admire, struggles with work sometimes — maybe even more than you. You’re not alone.

– – –

A couple of weeks ago, I met my ex-colleagues for dinner and drinks. We used to work together during my Oil & Gas years. I was so proud. Some of them have become experts — flying all over the world to run highly-skilled engineering jobs. We used to be a team of 20+, but now only 3 remain in the team we once built together.

Halfway through dinner, a familiar voice called to me. My thoughts shifted to the pile of outstanding work I had temporarily ditched to meet my friends. My desire to fix things and be “perfect” nagged at me. I was giving up at least a couple of hours of productivity. Would I even be able to wake up early tomorrow and continue writing my latest blog post? Damn you deadlines…

Then I looked up — at a group of people who I cared for, smiling, drinks in hand, chatting as if there would be no tomorrow where we had to go back to fighting for balance in a world of chaos. An old friend asked for a wefie, and we captured the moment for eternity.

In that moment, I realized I was happy.

– – –

Pics from Pexels: energepic.comSebastian Voortman

Aaron Tang is the founder of mr-stingy.com, where he writes about optimizing Time, Money and Relationships.

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