Managing yourself: Achieving equilibrium in an electronic age

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Work-life balance has become a big buzzword in today’s society. And though data doesn’t necessarily show that Americans are working more hours today, we often feel that way. Technology has automated tasks and delivered apps that enable us to get more done in less time. Office boundaries have blurred, and we can work from almost anywhere, any hour of the day. What’s more, other people can reach out to us faster and more frequently.

Yet this accelerated pace with longer to-do lists and shorter deadlines doesn’t mean you have to lose control over your personal life. In my opinion, it’s not about how much leisure time you have, but what you do with it. Below are ten priorities that help me balance life.

1. Get outside. Scientists have shown that spending time in nature yields a wide array of mental and physical benefits, from boosting memory, concentration and creativity to improving our immune systems. And what’s especially great, this doesn’t require a huge investment of time or money. You don’t have to trek the Pacific Crest Trail or go on an ocean cruise. Simply visiting a public park or working in your garden yields significant dividends. Even looking out the window or at pictures of nature scenes can be invigorating. For me, being out in the natural environment generates both energy and a sense of peace, a combination I find to be very powerful.

2. Exercise daily. This is something my wife is passionate about, and we’ve committed to working out seven days a week — no days off — and try to do a variety of activities. Everyone feels bulletproof when they’re young, but the sad truth is that once you hit 50, you really have to be disciplined about physical exercise. It offers so many benefits — looking better, thinking better, sleeping better, reducing risk for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. There are simply no excuses not to do it. Granted, you may not be able to get to the gym each day, but you can always squeeze in some creative workouts. Park your car at the far end of the lot. Take stairs instead of elevators. Commute to work on a bike if possible. I have a yoga mat in my office, so that in between meetings I can do push-ups, core exercises and stretching. Building exercise into my daily routine really helps me stick with it.

3. Ponder. Our founder, Ed Lowe, was a huge proponent of what he called “pondering,” meaning taking time out for solitude and quiet contemplation. It’s where he got some of his best ideas for creating new products, improving processes or resolving thorny issues. In our digital age, where smartphones often seem like umbilical cords, pondering may be a difficult behavior to embrace. Yet it’s crucial to turn off your electronic devices (better still to walk away from them), be alone and let your mind wander. It’s where innovation comes from. In fact, reflection is so important that I believe it’s important to put it on your calendar, to consciously work it into your schedule. This is especially critical for business leaders, which is why the foundation has introduced a new retreat called Think Week, which combines leadership and business content with lots of reflection time. “Second-stage business leaders are usually extremely busy fighting daily fires,” points out Dino Signore, who heads up our retreat programs. “Mindfulness helps leaders think more clearly, not only in urgent situations, but also about long-term bigger-picture issues.”

4. Be a life-long learner. I’ve written about this in other articles, and it’s one of my favorite leadership principles. One LinkedIn study showed that Millennials will change jobs four times in their first decade after college — double the rate of job changes for Generation Xers. There are many reasons for changing jobs, but my point is, where you start is not where you finish. And by constantly expanding skills and knowledge, you can create new opportunities and even reinvent yourself. Even if you stay in the same organization for a long period of time, technology, laws and regulations change constantly and you need to keep up or risk becoming a dinosaur. Accelerating technology requires learning new skills just for daily living. And my final reason to embrace learning: Staying mentally sharp leads to longer, healthier lives.

5. Do something difficult. This relates to life-long learning, but with a different twist. It’s not just important to learn new things, but to tackle something that gets you out of your comfort zone. This could be learning a musical instrument, studying a foreign language, training for a marathon. For an older person, it might be learning a new technology. The point is to stretch your skills. On the job front, it makes you more valuable to your employer — and more marketable. On the personal front, it makes you more interesting — both to other people and to yourself. It’s also pretty darn exhilarating. In fact, psychologist Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the scientific study of happiness, says that people experience happiness most often when “their body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I’ve certainly experienced this euphoria when training for marathons or taking long hikes; I’ve also experienced it when preparing for and presenting a speech. Bottom line, don’t push the easy button.

6. Be proactive about networking. This word is often associated with being superficial and manipulative. But in my mind, true networking is about sincere relationships, mutual benefits and creating opportunities. Solid relationships take time to build, so you have to be proactive about starting them. How to do that? Be intentional about it. When I was young, I wanted to get involved in policy, so I went to places where policymakers frequented…. Farm Bureau meetings, Nature Conservancy outings, business conventions. And because I was genuinely interested in what these people were trying to achieve, connections and relationships began to form and led me to bigger networks. Granted, many people are reluctant to network, feeling shy or intimidated. Yet I believe it’s important to invest the time and effort. Networks are fundamental in achieving success, problem solving and achieving goals — at least big ones. You can’t do it alone.

7. Unpack your bag. Emotional baggage. We all have it — stress, anger and frustration that stems from past events and relationships, both in the workplace and at home. But carrying it around doesn’t do you any good. So get rid of it. For me, unpacking is a lot easier when someone else is there to help. It can be a friend, your spouse, a psychologist. It might even be talking to your pet. The point is to get rid of the negativity. You’ll feel a lot lighter.

8. Have fun. In the United States, we have a culture of working hard and keeping our nose to the grindstone. I don’t want to disparage that, but at the same time you have to have fun. Fun means different things to different people. To me it’s about laughing and not taking yourself so seriously. It’s about adding some levity to a challenging situation. Similar to exercise, having a sense of humor has a wide variety of perks, from improving communications and relationships to boosting your health and productivity. Life is short. Don’t wait for the weekend, vacation or retirement to start enjoying yourself. Find delight in what you do daily.

9. Give back. I believe that helping others is the path to a meaningful life — at least, it gives me purpose. Being a mentor is one of my favorite ways to give back. For others, it might be donating to a charity or helping in a soup kitchen or even random acts of kindness. Whatever form it takes, benevolence provides you new insights and makes you feel more connected in this world. Like exercise strengthens your body, giving back strengthens your soul. Because it’s not all about you.

10. Cherish your friends. At the end of the day, most of us only have a few friends that really matter in our lives. It’s easy to get focused on jobs, career and ambitions and take loved ones for granted. But don’t. You have to build time in for close friends and family, or you could lose them. And these people are essential to your equilibrium.

Just as you manage other people and projects, you have to manage yourself. Here’s a great quote from Stephen Covey: “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”

So my challenge to you is this: Determine what’s important to you, and build that into your daily or weekly routine. I think you’ll be surprised by the outcome.

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.