There’s no need to live only for your work.
Part of what I suspect makes Finns some of the happiest people in the world is that as a whole, we tend to put as much emphasis (if not more!) on our free time as we do on our work.
I lost touch with that mentality a little bit (or a lot) after moving to the US in 2012 and starting a photography business in 2014.
Because I had moved to such a high-hustle place like Silicon Valley and started a business, it meant that many of the voices I found myself surrounded by said that you gotta suck it up for a few years when you start your business, or that you have to hustle really hard if you want success. You don’t care enough about your business if you don’t get up at 4 am to do some deep work.
Spoiler alert — that kind of mentality didn’t turn out too well for me. It almost made me quit my business after a few years.
But instead, I realized that I needed to get back to my Finnish roots and relearn how to step away from my desk and enjoy my life — even if I hadn’t reached my goals yet.
I took some time to tease out exactly which parts of the Finnish lifestyle could help me get back on track, so that I could get what matters done without burning out in the process.
I identified three central themes that build up a strong foundation for living a life you enjoy while also making progress on the work front — and when there’s a lack in one or more of them, it’s tough to get meaningful work done and to feel happy about your days.
One of the key things that were missing in my life was self-care. At the time, it seemed like a fluffy idea; advertised as a luxury and an indulgence — I wasn’t interested in that. I had a business to grow! I could indulge myself when I’d made it.
But after a few years, I had trouble staying asleep through the night because of intense overnight headaches. I’d wake up every hour to turn onto my other side to ease the pain on whatever side I had been sleeping on. I’d give up after a few hours — I might as well get something done.
Eventually, I was sent to a physical therapist when I had struggled with sleep for over a year and was even grinding my teeth during daytime hours. I know I should’ve gone to the doctor’s office earlier. I was even worried about having a tumor — but I somehow convinced myself I didn’t have the time.
It turns out that the soft tissues and muscles around my head, jaw, and neck were so tense that even the pressure of my head on a pillow was too much.
Once I started taking care of myself, working less, and sleeping better, I was way more effective with everything I was doing.
That’s when I understood what true self-care is. It’s all that stuff that Finns just do — spend time in nature, eat mostly homemade food, move their bodies throughout the day, spend quality time with friends and loved ones, and be truly off the clock when they are away from their desks.
When you feel well physically, mentally, and emotionally — and when you feel like the things you spend time on have meaning — you do better with everything you put energy into.
I had been working off of a never-ending to-do list for years. (Actually, I had a notebook filled with to-do lists, which required an index to keep track of what kinds of tasks were listed on which page.)
I never knew what I was going to work on on a given day, everything on that list felt equally important, and I always felt like I was running behind.
But as I got my sleep back, I was thinking more clearly — and realized that I was trying to do too many things.
So I decluttered my to-do list to about 10% of what it had been. Now I just needed a smarter way to get them done.
I started planning my tasks and commitments directly into my days one week at a time and haven’t made running to-do lists since. I made sure I was taking care of myself every day, and regularly took a step back to get a big picture view of everything I was doing in my business.
Making sure that solutions are practical, sustainable, simple, and innovative is at the heart of Finnish design. In business, this translates to having routines, practices, and systems in place that are easy to stick to — because that’s what makes them sustainable in the long run.
There is no direct translation to English, but sisu is a virtue that’s a national treasure for us Finns. It’s about showing up with spirit, grit, and determination for all the challenges that are part of life — yet still recognizing and accepting when it’s best to move on.
It’s about believing that you have control of your actions and that taking action matters.
I believe we all have sisu — and for some of us, it’s what helps us keep going in our businesses even when we don’t see the success we’ve dreamed of.
My sisu lost a bit of its glimmer each year, as my business wasn’t progressing considering the hours I was spending by my desk — or how many hours of overtime my brain put in even when I was trying to be present in my life outside of the business. I started judging myself for things not working out the way I had imagined, instead of encouraging myself to look at what I could do differently — or what I could do less of.
Showing up for your business becomes challenging when you overwork, don’t have an intentional plan to get things done, and aren’t taking good care of yourself (or your relationships.)
Because if you only lean on sisu and keep pushing forwards while ignoring your needs and doing a bunch of busy work, the sisu is going to waste.
As I’ve been weaving wholeness, design, and sisu back into my life, I’ve learned just how much magic comes when the three combine.
When you have both wholeness and design in place, you increase your creativity. When you feel well, you’re more likely to think clearly and have more out-of-the-box ideas.
When you have both sisu and wholeness, you increase your capacity. Because when you have energy *and* grit, it makes you more resilient and less likely to give up.
When you mix design and sisu, you have the ingredients for continuous iteration. You’re more likely to refine your routines and plans until they work for you, and to recognize when you need to iterate again.
When you feel well, have a solid plan, and have the resilience to top it off with, it’s a lot easier to be productive when you want to be — and to step away from your desk to enjoy the life you dreamed of having.
While I’m still on my journey — and acknowledge that it’ll actually never end — I’m happy to report that I’m sleeping much better and am no longer tied to my desk.
The best news?
You, too, can practice wholeness, design, and sisu no matter where you are or where you’re from.
Want to free up time inside your business asap? Start with the Instant Relief guide, which includes a 4-step exercise that helps you drop time-consuming marketing tasks without sacrificing progress. Grab it here.
Listen to the Building Balance podcast for weekly thoughts and tips around time management, productivity, and work-life balance — find in your fave podcast app.