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balance

When Martin Bjergegaard took his first try at entrepreneurship, following in his father's path at age 18, he failed. He started five companies before the age of 23, but they weren't particularly successful. "I was a terrible leader. I was okay doing my own work but when it came to managing an organization of other people, I was too young and immature," the Copenhagen entrepreneur said in an interview.

After gaining a masters degree in management, he moved into consulting to gain a better understanding of business – and failed again. This time, the issue was work-life balance. The McKinsey recruiter had warned him of the long hours ahead and Mr. Bjergegaard lied, saying it would be no problem. But he didn't like the prospect of those long hours – or the reality when suffering through them.

At one point, he found himself on a project in Kuwait City, overwhelmed by the burden of working late and unable to sleep in the too-few hours allotted because he was so stressed. "I had only two options – one was to end my life or quit my job. That meant I had to quit my job, which was difficult because everybody told me I was lucky to have my job," he recalled.

He called a human resources official at McKinsey's office in Copenhagen to advise he was leaving. She tried to convince him to wait until he returned, but his body knew she was wrong. He found work with gastronomic entrepreneur Claus Meyer, co-owner of the famed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.

"He was a contradiction to those McKinsey partners who always looked so miserable. He's passionate about food quality but he combines that work passion with life quality. He worked out, took vacations, and spent time with family. I wanted that," Mr. Bjergegaard said.

By studying others who were successful and changing his own behaviour, he is now a flourishing entrepreneur, starting a series of companies with some colleagues under the umbrella group Rainmaking, and balancing that with a high quality of life. He has co-edited a book, Winning without Losing, on succeeding in business while living a happy and balanced life, and recently shared six key ideas in a blog post:

1. Choose a mission that motivates you

When people think about work-life balance, they usually focus on reducing work and getting more life. But if you still aren't getting enjoyment from work, you will be miserable, since you are happy only when in non-work. So whether you are self-employed or working for somebody else, you need to carve out work that is meaningful. Even then, restrain yourself, and don't succumb to working 16 hours a day to pursue this delicious mission. "It's like eating too much chocolate – if you keep eating it, you will be in trouble," Mr. Bjergegaard said in the interview.

2. Stand up for yourself

Guard against the tendency of trying to please others at the expense of yourself. You may feel that a nap or a run would be lovely at lunch or want to play tennis at 5:30 p.m., but you don't act on those needs because it would curry disfavour from colleagues or bosses who view such behaviour as disloyal or unproductive. But that just leaves you unsatisfied, and less productive than you might be. "You need to manage expectations, or people will always be coming to you, asking you to do almost anything," he said.

3. Optimize your time in flow

Not all hours are created equal. Sometimes we get a lot done in an hour and then not much accomplished the remainder of the day. You want to pay attention to how much time you spend in that highly productive state known as flow, when your focus is intensely on work. Usually flow won't extend beyond 90 to 120 minutes, so when it dissipates, take a break and do what is needed to prepare yourself for another period of flow. View your day as periods of flow and periods preparing for flow rather than a full day of mostly half-hearted, ineffective work.

4. Make a Today List

You undoubtedly have a to-do list stacked with items you hope to get done. Instead, like Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, who shared this tip with Mr. Bjergegaard, create a small list of no more than three items that you need to complete today that will move you ahead on your most important goals and initiatives. If, when they're done, you have time to tackle other items on your overall list, pick something. But that list is supplementary, for any time. The today list is today's prime direction. "Do the three things and feel good about that. It's important to have a sense of daily accomplishment. Without that, work loses hope," he said.

5. Never write or respond to an emotional e-mail

If somebody sends you an e-mail that raises your ire, don't reply by e-mail, which will likely intensify the emotions. Pick up the phone and talk to resolve the matter. In the category of emotional e-mails – you may want to check you aren't sending them yourself – are terse messages like, "Not good enough. Do it again." The sender may not view the message in that light but the recipient's temperature will likely soar. Such e-mails may seem efficient, but they can destroy relationships and only cause the other person to stew. If you're the recipient of such a missive, reach for the phone.

6. Just go home

The day will never end with work completed. At the appointed hour – a time chosen to keep the work day sensible – just get up, as if going to the washroom, and casually leave. Don't make a big deal of it, to yourself or others. There will be another day – a highly satisfying day – to continue tomorrow, if you follow his prescription for improving your quality of life.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter