5 ways to stay focused in a busy world

In an increasingly connected world, it can be difficult to say no to 24/7 accessibility. How can we avoid turning into workaholics but still achieve our goals? Hear from Nobel Laureates.

15 Apr 2019

You probably won’t win a Nobel if you don’t spend a large amount of time on one key thing: research. Still, despite the constant travelling, research efforts, teaching and speaking engagements, Nobel economists rarely show signs of sleep deprivation. What are their secrets to maintaining a healthy work-life balance? We spoke to a few Nobel Laureates who gave us their Nobel guide to more success and less worries.

Step 1. Be passionate about the road you’re taking

Most of us spend the better part of our day at work. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, one-third of adult life is spent working. Research shows that one of the most important aspects of a healthy work-life balance is to feel needed, appreciated and to be able to contribute to something of value. Nobel Laureate Daniel McFadden emphasizes that it’s not about paying a price for success but to make success possible by choosing what we feel passionate about.

“I was never doing my work because I viewed it as a road to success. I did it because I was compelled to do it,” says McFadden. “I’d have these unsolved problems and I simply had to solve them.” You will feel better each and every Monday if you know that there is something waiting on your desk that you will enjoy working on.

Step 2. Accept that you need a break sometimes

“Creativity is one of the great rewards of being an academic, and I think you do that best if you’re not doing it 100 percent of the time,” says Robert Engle, a financial economist and father of two. “My family expects and deserves equal share.”

Engle acknowledges that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is difficult, especially for people who push hard on their career. “I think you just have to decide this isn’t a compromise that you want to give up.” He’s a good role model in that regard, says his wife Marianne, a psychologist. “Parenting has been for us one of the best parts of life. He works all the time, but our children didn’t feel it,” she says.

Step 3. Demand more flexibility

Joseph Stiglitz knew he wanted to be a professor when he had to write an essay about his dream job in 9th grade. “I don’t know if I knew what it was to be a professor,” the Nobel Laureate of 2001 remembers, “but I knew it was a life of the mind.”

Over the years, Stiglitz realized that his profession allowed him to live a more flexible life. “I haven’t had to face some of the tradeoffs so many other people have faced,” says Stiglitz. “Academia gives you the ability to control your time more. I’ve been able to work at home, play with my kids and write.”

Flexibility in the workplace is something that employees expect today, and employers should provide it. More flexibility leads to reduced stress levels and increased productivity, a win-win for all parties involved.

Step 4: Don’t be afraid of failing

Enough with the pressure! Angus Deaton, an expert on welfare economics, has an important piece of advice to share: be easier on yourself. “You’re not really going to get anywhere in life if it’s all planned step by step from when you start,” says the Nobel Laureate of 2015.

Once the pressure is off, you are more likely to accept turbulent times. “I would tell young people not to worry too much about the meticulously-planned life,” says Deaton. “At some point, you’re going to have to go off that track. You have to find yourself and finding yourself means making mistakes.”

Step 5. Lower your expectations

For McFadden, winning the Nobel was a gamechanger in many ways. Still, he would have been equally happy if it had never happened. “Don’t worry about whether there’s a Nobel Prize 40 years down the road or not,” he says. “Concentrate on doing a good job right now.”

More Nobel Laureate stories

What stops people making good decisions?

Daniel L. McFadden

Nobel Laureate, 2000

Can we avoid financial crises in the future?

Robert F. Engle

Nobel Laureate, 2003

Can economics solve financial injustice?

Joseph E. Stiglitz

Nobel Laureate, 2001

Does wealth always improve your life?

Sir Angus S. Deaton

Nobel Laureate, 2015