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On a recent flight, I was thinking about a conversation I had with a friend.

Friend: “You seem to have a great work-life balance. How did you get there?”
Me: Euhm….

I didn’t know how to answer that question at first. I said a few things like how much I value good sleep and prioritizing happiness but I never thought about it more deeply. Over the last year, I’ve received similar feedback from friends and they’ve asked similar questions.

It wasn’t until my flight from Austin to Paris that I started thinking deeply about this. To kill time, I wrote posted a simplified list of practices on my Instagram that I considered essential to living a good life.

This post is a more detailed version of that and it has expanded my concepts further.

Preface: this list is my personal opinion. It’s not rooted in any science. It’s based on my life experience. I imagined writing this list for my younger brothers who both just finished college. This is the stuff I wish I knew earlier when I was younger. On a daily basis I consider myself a happy person. It’s far from perfect. Just like you, I have to deal with stress and stuff I don’t like, don’t want, and sometimes hurt me. What I’ve written here has worked for me thus far and I plan on updating this post every few years with my newest insights.

1. Live Life in Alignment

If there’s only one strategy I could give someone to live a good life, it would be to live your life in alignment. That simply means that your actions are a reflection of what you value most.

If you highly value family time but you work 100 hours a week, that’s living out of alignment.

If you value health but eat junk food a lot and never exercise, that’s living out of alignment.

To live in alignment, you must have self-awareness around your values.

What are your values?

It’s a simple question yet most of us never sat down and thought it through.

We have a podcast episode to help you discover your core values. For inspiration purposes, we’ve also released our five core values at Asian Efficiency. Since I’m the founder, they are a reflection of me. All AE’s core values are ones I have in my life with some additional ones that serve me in my personal life.

Once you know what your values are, take inventory of how you spend your time. Make a list of activities you do most and write them down.

Now compare your list of core values and activities. Do they align? If so, great job! You live life in alignment and I’m guessing you’re probably happy most of the time.

But if you compare the two lists and they don’t match up, there’s some work to do. They might look like lists from different people.

That’s okay. I’ve been there. Back in 2010 when I did this exercise, I was flabbergasted how much out of alignment I was. Quality time with friends and family was a value of mine yet I was working 80–100 hours a week so I never saw them. I skipped holidays, social dinners, and ignored invites from friends so I could focus on work.

Another value of mine was travel. As you might guess by now, that didn’t happen either because of work.

I always felt there was friction in my life and I couldn’t explain why. After I discovered this exercise, it all made sense. When you live life out of alignment, you feel a tension between what you value and what you do. You don’t want that tension. Your life should feel smooth and aligned.

Are you living in alignment?

2. One Week-long Vacation Every Quarter

Most of us work too much and spend little time on rest and recovery. It’s no surprise that burnout in the workplace is growing every year.

Life is a series of sprints. You focus and engage. Then you rest and recover before you go at it again.

You can drive a car anywhere you want at high speeds. Eventually, it will run out of gas and you will need to refuel it to continue the journey. And after a certain number of miles, you’ll have to change the oil so everything continues to run smoothly. Otherwise, your car will eventually break down and stop running.

The same is true for our lives. Great sleep is a great daily refuel but our minds and body get worn down. The weekend is like a full pump of gas that will keep you going. An extended break is the oil change that allows you to keep going even longer.

That’s why every quarter I take a week-long vacation. I’ll go somewhere outside of the city. This could be hill country just 30 minutes out of my city of Austin, TX, or flying to a beach in Florida. It doesn’t have to be anything nice or fancy. It just has to be away from home.

Each time when I return from my trip, I feel rejuvenated and have a high sense of motivation. This allows me to keep going after my goals, get closer to milestones, and live a good life.

Are you taking enough breaks throughout the year or are you just pushing the gas pedal all the time?

3. Be in Regular Communication with Your Family, Partner, and Closest Friends

Imagine all your friends, family members, and your partner telling you every week how much they care about you. How would much happier would you feel? How much more motivated would you be?

Every time you talk to your best friend, he/she tells you how much you mean to them. After hanging up talking with your parents, you feel good knowing they love you. Anytime your kid goes away, they’ll tell you how much they value you as a parent.

Not only does it make you feel alive, you get this sense of happiness and motivation to do good. When people give you these reminders frequently, you cannot be sad.

In my experience, I feel happiest when I’m in regular communication with my circle of people. That includes family, partner, friends, team members, and acquaintances. The 2020 lockdowns have highlighted that even more.

Are you in regular communication with the people that matter to you?

4. Read Every Day

Fun fact: reading 20 pages a day will lead you to finish 30 books in one year.

When I tell people that their minds are blown. Most of us struggle finishing 3 books a year so fathoming reading 10 times the amount seems out of reach.

Yet it is.

The power of books is underrated. It might have taken someone 20 years of experience and knowledge to write a book on a particular subject. You and I can get the same insights in one afternoon without spending all these years figuring stuff out.

That’s crazy when you think about it.

That is why I encourage everyone to make reading a habit. It can be as easy as reading 20 pages a day which takes most people 15–20 minutes. Not only does it make you smarter, it’s also relaxing and fun. I wouldn’t be in this position today if it wasn’t for my reading habit.

If you don’t like reading, audiobooks are a good substitute too.

Are you reading every day?

5. Sleep 7.5 Hours Every Night

At Asian Efficiency and on our The Productivity Show podcast we’ve covered extensively the magical powers of sleep. It’s a force multiplier for productivity.

One good night of sleep will make you feel superhuman and uber-productive.

However, most of us don’t get enough sleep. You don’t know what you’re missing out on until you string a few nights of good sleep and feel the difference in energy, focus, and mood. It’s night and day. You’re twice as productive, your mood is good, and everything gets done faster.

How do you get more sleep? It starts with going to bed earlier. You can start with going to bed 5 minutes earlier than normal and then add another 5 minutes each day. Within two weeks, you’re sleeping an hour earlier what might have seemed impossible in the past.

Your parent’s childhood punishment of going to bed early is now one of life’s great joys. Are you getting enough sleep?

6. One Tweak A Week

At The Productivity Show, we’re known for our phrase of “one tweak a week”. It’s the idea that implementing one minor change every week is simple and when you string it 52 weeks in a row, you’ve drastically changed your life.

Oftentimes these small tweaks don’t make a huge difference to your life in and of itself. Yet when you do many of them every week it starts to add up.

For example, I oftentimes forget to bring my charger for my laptop. It’s plugged in at home and I’ll have to crawl under my desk to unplug it and then not forget to pack it. It’s a bit of a hassle.

So I decided to buy a second set of chargers and always keep it in my laptop bag. Now I never have to remember bringing it or unplugging it and plugging it back in. That’s an example of a tweak that was easy to make but near the bottom of my to-do list.

But if you can knock off one of the bottom tasks of your to-do list every week, your life will be better off. Whether it’s a task or a small change to a habit, it adds up.

Some other tweaks I, team members, and Asian Efficiency members have made include:

  • Change phone background to have your goals on there so you get reminded of them every day
  • Pour a glass of water and put it next to your bed stands so it’s friction-free to drink water after you wake up
  • Trashed all socks that had holes in them so I never had to worry about which ones had ones and which didn’t when getting dressed
  • Bought multiple scissors and placed them around the home because you need them more than you think
  • Install can organizers in the fridge so you have more space for beverages and it’s organized

Imagine knocking these off one by one every week. In a month’s time, your life will be better off. It starts with one tweak a week.

Making big changes to your life doesn’t have to be drastic. Tweaking something every week will get you there too and it’s much easier.

What small tweak can you make this week?

7. Close Open Loops in Every Aspect of Life

Have you ever looked at your to-do list with a lot of tasks that are in progress but not finished?

You might have started on 10 tasks and none of them are done. Every now and then you think about one of the ten tasks. Perhaps you’re waiting on someone to get back to you. Maybe you’re holding off until you feel motivated to get it done. Either way, you’re still thinking about it. Oftentimes in moments when you least expect it like sitting on the toilet or over dinner with your partner.

When you have open loops it takes up mind share. Anything that’s incomplete will create tension and take up free real estate in your head.

This doesn’t only apply to tasks. I’ve found this to be just as bad, if not worse, with relationships with people.

A friend and I recently had a disagreement and we didn’t resolve it. Both of us didn’t know where our friendship stood. Are we still friends? We’re definitely not reaching out to each other but also not ignoring each other. It was a weird place to be and created lots of tension and mindshare. We had an open loop. Weeks went by and every few days it would come up in my mind and sometimes in conversations with our mutual friends. It wasn’t until I reached out and made an effort to resolve it that things felt good again for both of us. We both felt relieved and we could move on to how things used to be.

Do you have any open loops in your life?

Let’s close them. This could be in various areas of life:

  • Relationships – friends, parents, siblings, co-workers.
  • Projects – tasks you’ve been putting off, unfinished work.
  • Goals – goals that are unfinished.
  • Finances – paying off debt, saving money, paying someone you owe money.

It could be as simple as you needing to call someone back you’ve forgotten about to accelerate paying off debt with a financial plan in place.

When you close most, if not all, the open loops you release tension and headspace. To live a happy and productive life, you can’t have open loops taking up any mindshare.

For me, this is the hardest step out of everything listed in this article. It oftentimes involves having uncomfortable conversations with other people. One thing I have learned is that the more uncomfortable conversations you have, the more competent and easier it gets over time. A few resources I’ve found helpful for this are Non-Violent Communication (book) and the Communication Course of Landmark (in-person workshop).

Do you have any open loops that must be closed?

8. Move Every Day

I won’t bore you with the benefits of exercise. You already know what it is. You feel better, live longer, have more energy, and can be functional let alone be pain-free most of your life.

Exercise is quite a magical thingie if I say so myself. There are so many benefits associated with it. I’ve found that moving every day allows me to experience all these benefits. When I say move, I don’t mean that you don’t have to stress the body every day with exercise. It simply means to be more active.

For me, that means resistance training three times a week, a fun physical activity, and going for walks. Ideally, I aim to average 10k steps a day over a week. While the science behind 10k steps is a little blurry, it’s a useful benchmark to aim for. Especially when you have a sedentary job like I do and work from home. I average 6k steps a day if I just live life “as normal” which is not a lot.

By focusing on 10k steps and making that a target, I see more opportunities every day to move, walk and be active. Sometimes that means walking the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Other times it’s doing kettlebell swings on breaks or doing calls on walks instead of at my desk.

When we’re in good health, life is more fun and we open many more possibilities. That starts with moving every day. Are you doing that?

9. One Lifetime Experience Every Quarter

When I read Die With Zero by Bill Perkins, I liked his concept of a memory dividend. He shared his philosophy on happiness and how life is about the acquisition of experiences and memories. Anytime you create a lasting memory, it will pay you dividends for years to come.

Think of your favorite moments in life. Perhaps it was a summer vacation with your best friend growing up. A holiday trip with your partner in the Caribbean. The once-in-a-lifetime sporting event that you attended.

When you think about that memory, you feel a little happier in that moment. That’s a memory dividend. When you share a story of that memory, you create another memory dividend. When someone feels touched or inspired by your memory, that’s another dividend paying off. This will go on for years to come.

This concept resonated with me and it made me think…how do I create these memories that will pay dividends?

If I lived my normal with no intention to create memories, it might happen or it might not. I’m not the type of guy that leaves things up to chance. So I said to myself that I will intentionally create a lifetime memory every quarter.

I would rather have one fine dining experience at an amazing restaurant than 10 mediocre nights dining out. After a while, all these dinners end up being blurry and feeling the same. There’s no story to share. However, when I flew from Austin to Chicago for a quick 24-hour trip to dine at Alinea (3-star Michelin rating) with three of my friends…that is something I will never forget and will bring up in conversations every now and then.

Just like I went on a 7-day trip from Austin to Paris to Manchester to Toronto and then back to Austin. Amidst all the pandemic restrictions and protocols, I saw Messi score his first goal for PSG, Ronaldo score a last minute winner in the Champions League, and I fine-dined at Alo (the top restaurant in Canada). Oh, and I went to my first Blue Jays game in Toronto (baseball). That was three sporting events in three countries in three days. A lifetime experience I keep thinking of and telling stories about.

One lifetime memory a quarter is four a year. That’s not much when you think about it and very doable.

It also doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Some might cost more than others. However, in my experience, intentionally creating a lifetime memory does often involve time planning it. Oftentimes the more time you spend on creating it, the more fulfilling it is when it becomes a reality.

10. Happiness Over Everything Else

This is something I wish I knew earlier in life. When I think about my two younger brothers, this is what I want them to know: prioritize happiness over everything else.

I believe we’re all here to be happy. Our higher purpose as humans is to be happy.

Everything we do is pointing in that direction. Whether we’re chasing fame or fortune, they lead to the same destination: happiness. We might think fame or fortune will make us happy but they don’t. If you’ve ever accomplished a major goal, you know that fleeting feeling of accomplishment might last a day. After that, it’s gone and you’re already trying to chase the next emotional high.

That feeling is something we can experience daily. We don’t have to delay our happiness. You can experience it today.

And I try to say that in the least woo-woo way possible. You know I stay far away from that. So when I say you can experience it daily, I mean it. When you implement everything I’ve outlined in this post, you will experience that happiness high we’re all after. It might not be as intense as hitting a goal but you’ll have consistent doses of happiness keeping you in a good place.

I’m not saying to stop chasing goals or grinding to accomplish major milestones in life. Far from it. I still set goals and work hard to take my life to new heights. But I’m not confusing it with chasing happiness because I can have it now.

So when you wake up tomorrow, prioritize everything I’ve listed here and make your happiness a priority. Everything else will fall in place after that. Which decisions you make, which actions you take, and how you choose to spend your time.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.


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