Half of 2016 has gone by. It seems like a good time to take stock of how the year has been going, more so since I took the time in recent days to catch up over the phone with some old friends and got asked, naturally: “How have you been?” “How’s the business doing?” “How are things generally?” “How is Sindhu?”
The Mrs., too, has prompted some soul searching. She set out a few days ago on a two-week-long tour of South Africa and Kenya. She may have been combining work and pleasure (she runs a travel and tours business). Yet, the recurring theme to her delightful Whatsapp picture updates is: “So, why aren’t you with me on this trip?!” (The picture above, of a candlelight dinner opportunity missed, came in earlier this weekend.)
I don’t have an easy answer. After all, I have reminded myself and others of this enough times: “‘Too busy; no time’ is an excuse. People make time for what matters to them.” Still, if pressed for one, I’d sound like a Seattle-based friend at Microsoft, whose stock answer to a similar question used to be, “Product release”! My wife’s eyes would probably roll as his wife’s would. In my defense, I could throw in some more buzzwords: “Hiring, new-employee onboarding, knowledge transfer, marketing ramp-up, growth pains…” Some context: I run a startup and, for better or worse, am a solo founder. In the last three months, a support manager and a senior software engineer moved on, and I have stayed hands-on in bringing on board five new full-time hires and an assortment of interns. (Our tech lead could relieve me of supervising only the one app developer among the new recruits.)
There have also been other opportunities for reflection. As someone who would often get asked how I manage to stay trim (into my 40s), I would distill my response into a simple input/output relationship: “If you consume more than you burn, the pounds will but add on. So, watch what you eat, work out a sweat regularly, and don’t eat heavy meals late at night.” (Late-night calories won’t get burned before the body winds down.) What began to bother me was not that I wasn’t practicing what I preached. (Tip: Remember the useful line, “Do as I suggest, not as I do.”) It was that I was consistently eating late dinners myself – after 9 p.m. – and unable to break the cycle of staying late at work.
I have not had to worry, as many others do, about putting on weight. Attribute it to a combination of genetics, a relatively healthier and calorically less-dense vegan diet, a good metabolism, and self control when it came to at least how much I ate, if not at what hours. However, repeatedly accumulating a sleep deficit and not getting enough exercise has had me feeling like a bag of bones lately.
It has been several months since I hit a gym or went on a run. The new year began with a promising early-morning bike ride along Chennai’s East Coast Road, but the bike has been gathering dust, too, for months. I feel like an elected head of state, midway into an uneventful term and having to answer to lofty start-of-the-term promises.
The difference is, instead of softball questions from pliant interviewers, I am choosing to ask myself some hard questions here. Had I become so busy that I didn’t have the time to accompany my wife on a holiday? Would it have been impossible to carve out even some days? I think about that and, yet, the answer is that this is an intense stretch, with my product team just days away from a critical roll-out of v.4.
Then again, wasn’t there some other must-attend-to project or task when I chose not to accompany her on previous tours in the past year or so? Yes, before South Africa, there were Bhutan, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Nepal! Looking back, I don’t think it would have ground my business to a halt if I took some time off. Sure, it might have slowed things down a bit, but this was meant to be a long-distance race all along. Was I running it as smartly as I could?
If you’re an entrepreneur or know someone who runs a business, you may be familiar with the struggle, which may take many forms besides the one I am describing.
In fairness, my challenges are not unique to business owners or husbands. Many a career professional, student, or parent with a toddler out there has felt as I do – “So much to do, yet so little time. How can I possibly squeeze in time for leisure activity??” I am reminded of a college professor who introduced his operations research course with this unforgettable line: “Life itself is an optimization problem,” he said, “involving maximizing an objective function subject to a number of constraints.”
It has to start with intent, though, and it is probably a good thing that I am re-examining priorities. I view life as spanning four dynamic, overlapping sets—work, family, leisure, and service—with health as an anchor, at the center. Had I chosen a pontoon metaphor, you’d be staring at a capsized boat, what with an imbalanced load in the work quarter and not enough to little in the other three areas. (Others in a similar situation might describe it as feeling stretched in different directions.) So, this is to some extent about getting things back in balance. It is time for some mid-year resolutions.
Regaining a sense of work-life balance
If you’ve read this far and can relate to what I have shared, take a break and work on your own mid-year resolutions. I am going to start with the easy ones.
1. On the personal and family fronts:
- Go on a weekly date night with the Mrs. Carve out Friday nights. If something unexpected comes up, let Saturday or even Sunday serve as a buffer. As cliched as dedicated date nights may seem, they work! The very idea reiterates that the relationship matters to both of you and the practice helps to keep the romance alive. What would make this resolution more meaningful: Keeping our phones and work switched off for a few hours.
- Make more time for pillow talk – at least a few nights a week. I’d give this even more importance than a weekly date night, because as we wind down we naturally reflect on the day gone by, exchange stories and our views on them, visualize what lies ahead, and connect at the deep level that you would expect of partners in a healthy relationship.
- Check on elderly parents and aging mother-in-law multiple times over the course of a week and also make time, at least once a month, to call on Chennai-based parents of friends who live overseas.
- Spend at least one quality afternoon or evening a month with little nephews and nieces, play with them, teach them new tricks, and share more life lessons with them.
Confused? They are easy because what needs to be done and how are clear. The next one is where it gets challenging.
2. On the work front:
- Become dispensable in at least a few areas at work. This is no different from what career professionals need to keep in mind: You can’t grow in the organization and take on more responsibility until you make sure that there is someone else to take over what you are currently doing.
- Inspire, challenge, and encourage all team members to take on more responsibility and to be able to work effectively even in the absence of direction from me. It slows us all down if tech, design, marketing, support, and operations all need input from me and I become a bottleneck.
- Prioritize brutally and be comfortable with letting less-important things be.
- Be less of a perfectionist. Remember that sometimes good enough is enough – as in writing this blog post.
- Inculcate the discipline to touch base with advisor friends at least once a month. Keep getting healthy outsiders’ perspectives.
- Get more productive. As all-consuming as work can be, the more that can be done in a set amount of time, the better.
This is where health and fitness resolutions come in. More on that in a bit. Unfortunately, in the face of “Not enough time” situations, we cut back on exercise. Big mistake! Exercising regularly helps us sleep better and be more focused when we are awake. It also gives us the energy needed to be productive for long stretches at work.
Moreover, all work and no play would make for a dull mind. Pre-programmed time-outs would be a good thing, to rest, recuperate, and replenish the creative juices.
3. On the leisure front:
- Do nothing, absolutely nothing, on at least half a Sunday every month and be at peace with it.
- Spend more time reading – books, not just material online – and writing—at least two blog posts a month. Fluff pieces, such as on Indian dance moves, don’t count.
- Go on a holiday tour of Europe with Sindhu this fall and spend a weekend together in Goa in October. (To any India-based Chicago Booth alumni reading this: Signed up for the 2016 Pibar retreat yet?)
- Re-kindle old friendships and re-connect with many others with whom I have not managed to keep in touch.
It is sobering to reflect on one additional price I have paid in chasing my startup dreams over the last several years: I’ve dropped out of touch with many friends, classmates, well-wishers, and acquaintances. One study that I came across recently talked about how relationships not renewed weaken at the rate of 15% a year. (I am para-phrasing.) Drag the radio silence out 7 years and you are strangers again?! Rather than set any specific, measurable, attainable… goal here (e.g., email X friends, talk to Y friends, and have coffee with Z friends a month), I’d rather that this happened organically.
When in grad school, I had a habit that I liked – when in a cheerful mood, I would think of a friend and call them, just to spread good cheer. So, if you’re someone I’ve known and bonded with, expect a call out of the blue, in the coming weeks and months, just to know that I was thinking about you!
4. On the service front:
The joke goes that, if you need to get anything done at a government office in India, you either pay with your time – if you are unwilling to grease palms but don’t mind long waits, repeat visits, and being given the run around – or your money (see “grease palms” above).
The time/money choice applies in nobler situations, too. Wealthy but busy do-gooders engage in philanthropy, giving money to causes that they care about. Many cash-constrained yet idealistic individuals give generously of their time, volunteering for causes that they care about.
Here’s my problem: I am both cash- and time-constrained. It is more than seven years now since I embarked on this startup path. More than seven years since I drew an income (not counting rental income). There was a time, in my late-20s, when I gave between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of my time over a few years, volunteering for a few dear causes and non-profit organizations. I don’t have anywhere close to that time to spare these days.
Yet, I know that I still live a far more comfortable life than a few billion people on this planet. Surely I can do more than the little I have done in recent years.
I have some ideas here, including a few that relate to corporate social responsibility. However, rather than flesh out resolutions, I’d like to chew on the ideas and take measured, thoughtful steps in the right direction. More on them, as they evolve, in a separate post.
5. Lastly, on the core area of health and fitness:
I am going to expand on this section, beyond just listing my resolutions, by providing tips that may be applicable and beneficial to others.
Unlike many beginners who have the desire to work out, but aren’t sure of what best to do and how to go about an exercise regimen the right way, I don’t have that problem. I have been athletic from a young age and have long enjoyed bicycling, running, and weight training. My problem is one of motivation. True, motivation holds many others also back from working out.
Take my own wife. Her complaint would be that, despite being married to someone blessed with athleticism, she wasn’t receiving the kind of nudging that she would have expected and welcomed. She promptly joined a local cycling group and a neighborhood gym. It is encouraging to see organized cycling and running groups in Indian cities, with even women getting more comfortable with running outdoors in shorts and tights. (If you choose to run outdoors, remember to stay safe. Here are some tips on staying safe while running.) Groups provide welcome support and information, and the social commitment involved makes it easier for people to establish and keep up an exercise routine. If you would benefit from a running or cycling group, look for them on Facebook. If you don’t find one, start your own!
Unfortunately, groups don’t work for me. I am more of a lone wolf when it comes to running, road-biking, or working out. (I prefer to be lost in thought than in conversation while exercising.) What does is setting and working towards goals, and I realized that it was time to find new ones.
Now, while I’d love to be able to run a sub-3:00:00 marathon in my lifetime, that is unrealistic and not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Having trained hard and run a half marathon in ~1:32:00, with stomach distress, in my mid-30s, the goal is attainable. However, I am just not going to be able to carve out the hours, in the coming months, to log 10 to 20 miles a week, week after week and for months.
For goals to work, they need to be SMART, i.e., all of these:
If you need guidance in setting appropriate goals for yourself, here are detailed tips:
As for myself, here is the first goal that I have chosen:
- Get fit again and stay fit. Work out for a few minutes every day. Specifically, be able to do 100 consecutive double-unders with a jump rope.
Double-unders are when you swing the rope twice around your body in every jump. Check out the video below for a demonstration, in slow motion.
What I like about skipping regularly as a primary fitness-oriented goal:
- It is a quick and effective way to get a good cardio workout, especially for the time-constrained.
- It is low-impact and easier on the knees, compared to running.
- It can be done indoors, at any time of the day, irrespective of weather conditions.
- It doesn’t require expensive equipment. A good jump rope can be bought for under ₹1,000 or $10.
- You can pack a jump rope and work up a good sweat within minutes even while traveling.
I also like that my specific goal seems challenging and, therefore, likely to keep me motivated. Just take a look at how good a cross-fit competitor can be at double-unders:
I also see it as doable, having done up to 46 non-stop in the past – like a raw, brutish Dhoni, mind you, without the kind of refined technique you see in a Tendulkar. To see where I stood, I took a break during this blog post and surprised myself by doing 42 straight. 100, I’ll see you by the end of September!
Working towards the goal should take me just minutes a day. It will be the kind of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session that research is showing to be as effective, for physiological benefits, as much longer but moderate workouts (“1 Minute of All-Out Exercise May Have Benefits of 45 Minutes of Moderate Exertion,” New York Times).
If running is your preferred exercise, take note: Even running for as little as five minutes a day, at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile (a kilometer in six minutes), has been shown to have lasting health benefits.
For those who’d like a short and simple all-round exercise plan, here are two variants of an interactive, follow-along 7-minute workout. It is also available as a free mobile app. See the images below for what the workouts—involving just free exercises and, in the advanced version, dumbbells—look like.
Want a more challenging program? You could try this 28-day fitness challenge. Use common sense, though, rather than blindly follow what you read online. Consult with a physician before you undertake any physical activity. (I have lived long enough in a sue-happy society to know to cover one’s ass with such disclaimers.)
Returning to my mid-year health and fitness-related resolutions, I’d add these to the mix:
- Sleep at least six hours every night. We know that sleep is important, yet how we skimp on it! I need a good seven hours of sleep to function at my best, but let me first hit six consistently.
- Take to meditation. 10 minutes, every night. As Russell Simmons put it “If you don’t have 20 minutes to delve into your self through meditation, then that means you really need two hours.” (Who would have thought that a hip-hop mogul would become a preacher of mindfulness.)
- Take up yoga. 30 minutes every Sunday. Remember the part about overlapping sets? This is one activity that I could do with my wife, who has taken yoga lessons from trained practitioners.
- Install a home gym – so that I don’t have to factor in additional time in commutes to and from a commercial gym – and work out with free weights at least once a week. I had a TuffStuff power cage installed in my Seattle garage years ago. A power cage it will be again, by the end of July. I prefer free weights, which work well with a power rack, although others may prefer a multi-station gym.
Good luck in dealing with your own struggles and regaining a semblance of work-life balance. May you all know peace, love, and happiness.