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Lessons Learned In Finding The Work/Life Balance

  • By Jesse Thomas
  • Published Aug 8, 2013
  • Updated Aug 19, 2013 at 7:12 PM UTC
Illustration by Matt Collins.

Professional triathlete Jesse Thomas shares his experience with balancing his career with family and training in this edition of “Triathlife.”

Most of you know I’m a pro triathlete, but only those who read the little bio at the end of this article know that I also have another job. I’m the CEO of Picky Bars—an all-natural, gluten- and dairy-free energy bar company that I started with my wife, Lauren, and her running friend Steph. What began as a fun side project two and a half years ago is now a legitimate small business. We have three full-time employees, contracted manufacturing, national distribution, and are on track to reach $600k–$800k in 2013 sales. As our super trendy T-shirts say, “It’s Freaking Science, Dude.” „

Some people ask me, “Wouldn’t it be better if you could just focus on training and not have all these other distractions?” My answer: Yes and no.

Yes, I’m forced to make sacrifices in each “job,” but like many triathletes, without these distractions I can be too focused on my training and racing. Work gives me something else I have to do and think about. I only have 20 minutes to dwell on my craphouse swim session before I have to be at a Picky Bars staff meeting. With the right balance, work can keep you from overtraining—easily the biggest problem most triathletes face. I view work as a break from training, and training as a break for work. It makes me a better athlete.

PHOTOS: Jesse Thomas By The Numbers

That doesn’t mean that balancing both is easy. Below are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.

Set a schedule. It’s pretty simple, but everything I do starts with a schedule. I put my training plan, work meetings, family time, Triathlete magazine assignments and any other responsibilities onto a gigantor color-coded nerd alert calendar. Don’t forget to schedule chill time! If I don’t put it on there, it doesn’t happen.

Don’t multitask. “Switching costs,” as they’re called in biz school, are high. You might think you’re getting two things done at once, but a bunch of research shows you’re actually slowing yourself down. If I sit down, turn off my Wi-Fi, grab an iced soy chai latte cappuccino mocha light with two pumps of non-dairy whipped cream and force myself to write an article, I get it done in three hours. If I let myself check Twitter, Facebook and email, it takes six hours. If there’s a new sneezing panda video on YouTube, it takes 12 hours. Similarly, when I’m in a Picky Bars calendar block, I only do Picky Bars stuff. It keeps my brain focused on the task, and I’m quicker to finish the important stuff that I actually have to get done.

Realize you can’t do it all, so set priorities and practice the 80/20 rule. One of the toughest realizations I’ve made over the past two years is that there will always be more on my plate than I can actually do. Then when I inevitably can’t do it all, I feel like I’m letting myself and other people down. So realizing and accepting that it isn’t going to happen is necessary to becoming more efficient and happier because you release a lot of anxiety and stress.

Since you now know you can’t do it all, you have to set priorities. I identify two to three of the most important things about each day at work, or each training session, and get those things done to a satisfactory level. The 80/20 rule says you can get 80 percent of the work done in 20 percent of the time. This is my favorite rule in the history of the world because I consider 80 percent definitely satisfactory. Yes, I could spend 12 hours making the baddest ass pivot-tabled spreadsheet of all time for a Picky Bars financial projection, but if I can get the basic info we need in one hour, I’m done. I’ve got other stuff to do. It’s about getting 80 percent of more important things done, rather than 100 percent of just a few.

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Recognize that work stress = training stress. Physiologically, your body reacts identically to both. I take time off of training when work picks up out of my control. You have to go with the flow. If you try to force yourself through a huge workweek and training week, it’s the equivalent of overtraining and defeats the purpose of training anyway.

Ask for help. Since work stress = training stress, I ask for help as either load increases. When I have a race coming up, I (nicely) ask my employees to “shield me” from anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers for the same thing. You might be surprised how supportive they’ll be when you explain how much it means to you. They can become part of your “team,” and invested in the outcome themselves. Then, when the race is over, show up to work with a chocolate Danish and work your ass off for a week to make it up to them as your body recovers. I’ve found this is a cycle my employees generally support, depending on the buttery-ness of the Danish.

Know when to stop working … or training. It’s super-duper important to have time to chill, downtime with family, and especially time with TV. My goal is to be done “working” at 7 p.m., including training. That means I can make dinner and have an hour or so of chill time before I go to bed. During this time, I’m not allowed to look at or talk about work stuff, email, etc. I turn off my phone. It recharges me and allows me to maintain my focus the next day. If a task or responsibility sneaks into my brain, I tell it to go away, and then I’ll just go to bed and wake up and do it in the morning when I’m more motivated—and caffeinated.

Let me know via Twitter if you have any tips yourself—I’m always looking for better ways to make it all work!

More “Triathlife” from Jesse Thomas.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a three-time Wildflower Long Course champion. He lives in Bend, Ore., and is the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

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