Losing Control

Last Friday was a long day for me.

The first Zoom call of the day started at 7 am, courtesy of a demanding continental client with a penchant for early starts.

A year ago, my secretary would have punted the meeting by a couple of weeks, with the convenient excuse of flights and conflicting meetings that required my presence elsewhere.

Six months ago, I could have taken the call in my bathrobe because…. well, because it would have still been a call.

Now, thanks to technological progress, I had to shower, shave, put on a shirt, and toggle my video on and off during the conversation, pretending I wasn’t having my coffee and breakfast at the same time.

The next eight hours were a blur.

Get older kid ready for the Nativity play. Hand younger kid off to the nanny.

Juggle a few deal calls, handle urgent (are they ever not urgent?) personnel issues, prepare for an important CEO meeting, hold said meeting.

Read up on the latest mega-deal threatening to redefine one of my coverage sectors. Deal with an unexpected tax issue regarding our most recent property purchase.

When I finally came up for air at 4 pm, I’ve realized that my to-do list has actually gotten longer. For every item I’ve ticked off, two new ones appeared.

I was clearly fighting a losing battle.

Realizing things can’t get any worse, I skipped out on my next call, took a ten-minute walk to the gym, and spent the next hour lifting weights instead.

Calm, refreshed, and with more than a little testosterone coursing through my veins, the day took a sudden turn for the better.

I powered through a few more deal calls, popped downstairs to read our daughter a bedtime story, deleted a big swath of unread emails, and finally joined my wife for dinner and the next episode of the Queen’s Gambit.

All of a sudden, the day no longer felt like a write-off.

Waiting To Exhale

To say 2020 has been busy would be an understatement.

Two young children, one of whom didn’t really start sleeping until September.

One of the busiest stretches in investment banking on record, making a 70-hour workweek seem like an absolute delight.

Another 10-15 hours a week working on this blog, following through on my promise to post twice a week and respond to as many reader comments/emails as possible.

A clearly futile exercise to recapture my youth through working out (the lockdown hasn’t helped).

A somewhat more successful – and ongoing – adventure in real estate investing.

And on top of all of that, an effort to maintain some semblance of a social life lest I become a modern-day Robinson Crusoe.

At times, it certainly felt like I’ve bitten off way more than I could chew.

To make matters worse, I’ve always prided myself on being highly organized. In other words, I like crossed-off to-do lists, empty inboxes, and a good line of sight to what my calendar looks like.

Expectations, say hello to reality.

Taking (Back) Control

By the time July rolled around, I realized a drastic change was way overdue.

My inbox zero mentality was the first one to go. As my incoming emails exceeded five hundred a day, I’ve quickly realized I need a new way of working if I wanted to get anything done.

Working offline has been a tremendous help here. I no longer get distracted by the arrival of yet another message.

More importantly, I’ve become highly selective in responding. These days, I only respond to important emails or emails from important people.

Everything else gets ignored until late in the day, by which point it has either become irrelevant or has been sorted by someone more trigger-happy (or with more time on their hands).

Taking control of my calendar was next.

I now have multiple two-hour “thinking time” blocks during the week. Sometimes my PA will give them up for truly important meetings. Sometimes they’ll get subsumed by an emergency of sorts.

More often than not, I use them to step back, reflect, and prioritize.

No more giving up my valuable time for someone who thought it would be a good idea for me to join yet another random call.

And yes, I’ve also got a daily standing block at 7 pm. My son needs his bath. My daughter wants her bedtime story. You better have a good reason to interrupt.

But most importantly, I’ve become much better at saying NO.

No to yet another marginal project. Taking a pass at a questionable internal initiative.

Skipping out on social events I don’t want to attend (thankfully my day job is a fantastic excuse here).

Sure, there’s a risk you’ll make someone else unhappy.

But as selfish as that may sound, I’d rather make someone else unhappy for a few minutes than make myself miserable for hours (or even days) at a time.

So as I recapped my Friday, a glass of Pinot firmly in hand, I found more than one reason to feel content with myself:

  • Focusing on $10,000/hour tasks at work? Tick
  • Building up my own passive income stream? Tick
  • Hitting the gym? Tick
  • Spending time with my children? Tick
  • Freeing up Saturday morning to write this post? Tick

Sure, 2020 may have been an overwhelming year. But as is the case with many challenging situations, it has also been a blessing in disguise.

If it wasn’t for a time crunch of epic proportions, I would have never adopted this new, ruthlessly efficient way of working. Now that I have, I find myself more productive at work, more present at home – and feeling firmly in control of my life again.

Mario Andretti once said:

If everything seems under control, you are not going fast enough.

As it turns out, I wasn’t going fast enough until 2020 rolled around. Now that I am, I have no intention of slowing down – and you shouldn’t either.

Thank you for reading!

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Banker On FIRE is a London-based M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker.  I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence and living the best life possible.

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20 Comments

  1. Great reminder. I have also become better at saying ‘no’ in 2020: no to clients who live too far away, no to travelling more than an hour for a single session, and no to teaching age groups I don’t really want to work with.
    This post reminds me of a TedX talk I heard by Sarah Knight about ‘The Magic of Not Giving a F***’. Very similar concept!

    • There’s also a great book called “The Art of Not Giving a F***”.

      Despite the name, a great manual for distilling what’s important in life vs what isn’t.

  2. Thank you for all your posts this year – they have all been entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I am reading Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ at the moment and it sounds like you are applying the principles!

    • Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed them!

      Haven’t read the book but have heard it mentioned a few times. Would you recommend it?

  3. Although my job, and for that matter, life, isn’t as demanding as yours, this reminds me of three crucial things that help me get through both my working and non-working days:

    Ruthless prioritisation
    The Eisenhower Matrix
    The Pomodoro technique

    • Agree with you – if you don’t prioritize, others will do it for you, but inevitably with their own agenda in mind.

      The result is you end up like a hamster in a wheel – exhausted and with nothing to show for it.

      Off to read up on the Pomodoro technique now 🙂

  4. Absolutely incredible that you’ve kept to two posts/week in addition to everything else going on in your life. Well done and thank you, I look forward to reading every post!

    • Glad to hear Stephen. What I’ve learned this year is that sometimes it’s good to take on more things than (you think) you can handle.

      Inevitably, the most important ones bubble up to the top of the list and the less important ones weren’t worth doing in the first place

  5. Loving the blog which I’ve only recently found. I’ve read most of the back catalogue and i’ve picked up lots of tips and insights so thank you.

    I really struggle saying ‘no’ to people in work. I like being the “go-to” guy but then I regret it when I get sucked into other people’s problems and end up holding the proverbial baby. I too find that a walk or a run helps me to put things into perspective a bit, but it’s not always easy!

    • You are not alone – many folks share that mentality.

      What helped me was starting to frame things in terms of opportunity cost. I.e. if I do A, that means 2 hours a week less with my kids, if I sign up for B that’s a missed workout etc.

      Put another way, the only reason you are saying “no” to certain things is that so you can say “yes” to other things.

      Good luck!

  6. Well thank you for all your hard work. I love the theme of productivity and would like the recommend the methods of David Allen “Getting things done” can find the book on Amazon, Tiago Forte digital productivity methods and on YouTube there is Ali Abdaal who covers productivity and investing.

    • Cheers Cleophas – and many thanks for the recommendations. Very timely for some Christmas reading – will look them up.

  7. Well done BoF! I don’t know how you handle investment banking and frequently blog posting. I can barely handle consulting and posting on my own occasionally!

    You might enjoy the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. He talks about working offline and blocking off time for yourself as you describe above.

    Thanks for posting!
    MM

    • Thanks MM. Interestingly you are the second person recommending Cal’s book today.

      How did you find this year work-wise? Would hope not having to travel as much made things a bit more palatable?

  8. An exhausting post just reading that BoF – and whilst I enjoy content – one of the best new PF blogs I’ve seen – a word of warning from your last line. You say you are better at saying ‘No’ but then finish with ‘As it turns out, I wasn’t going fast enough until 2020 rolled around. Now that I am, I have no intention of slowing down – and you shouldn’t either.’ Like lifting weights, the body adepts to new stresses and they become the norm. With this mindset and driven type personalities (of which you are without a doubt) it’s very easy to ‘properly’ exhaust yourself – I’m sure you must be aware of this in ‘former’ colleagues – and completely fry your CNS – both mentally and physically and truly burnout. I speak sadly from experience when I say that; so slow the ***k right down there amigo. What you can get away with in your 20’s, isn’t the case later on … as I discovered.

    • Fully agree with you. Most folks don’t appreciate how much damage they are doing to themselves by going at an unsustainable pace.

      The point I was trying to make, however, was slightly different. It’s true that I’ve had a ton on my plate in 2020, but by virtue of changing my approach as laid out above, I’m actually focusing on the important things for me (big items at work, family, health, this blog) and cutting out everything else.

      So at the end of the year, I’ve been able to get much more done while still maintaining a decent physical and mental balance.

  9. This is the challenge. Working full time, dealing with two young kids AND also trying to keep a blog on the go. Man, you have done so well, extremely impressed.

    One thing that sometimes gets me about the FIRE community and the suggestion to start a side hustle, is who in this day actually has a 9-5 job? I wish I had a 9-5 job. My job is pretty much 9 to whenever the clients want us to stop working.

    • As I’ve once read in the Economist, “the factory of the 21st century is inside our heads”. Hence, it’s impossible to escape.

      I’ve got to admit, running a blog alongside everything else I’ve got going on isn’t easy. That being said, once you get into a routine, it is highly enjoyable – and provides a much needed distraction from the day job.

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