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Balancing the Grind with Kris Niles, Product Designer & Remote Work Coach

Kris Niles is a Product Designer and Remote Work Consultant, working with design teams on how to build exceptional products for their customers, and showing them the best practices required to get meaningful, collaborative work done from anywhere in the world.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

Sure! My educational background is in graphic design. I started out my career on the web as a visual designer, and over the years I transitioned to Interaction Design, UX Architecture, and eventually into Product Management.

I’ve had the opportunity to work at some fantastic companies like Citrix Systems, InVision and Basecamp. In 2018,  I decided to branch out on my own as an independent product designer, working with a variety of clients across consumer electronics, blockchain, and personal finance. 

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I work remotely from the foothills of the Rockies, just outside of Denver. I’m an avid trail-runner, so my day typically starts around 6am with a trail run, to get my body and mind moving.

After that, I’ll make breakfast for our two kids, and get them ready for school. Once they are off, I head downstairs to my home office (around 9am). 

I start my work day by reviewing my to-do list, picking my desired outcomes for the day, and blocking time for them on my calendar. These can be either personal goals, or client work.

Once I have a good picture of what I want to accomplish, I check email / Slack / Teams / Basecamp / etc. to see what’s new with my client(s), and adjust my schedule if need be.

As I go throughout my day, I log progress in a notebook on my desk – just a sentence or two whenever I complete a task. This helps me stay focused, and also serves as a log that I refer back to for billing, or recapping progress at the end of the week.

I wrap up work around 4:30pm by reviewing my work log and updating my to-do list. Then it’s time to hang out with the family – which usually involves getting outside, walking around our property, riding bikes in the driveway, working in the garden, or swinging in the hammock. Summer is in full swing!

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

I’ve been fiercely remote for about 10 years. It’s been one of the key factors I’ve used in determining my career choices, and it has enabled a flexibility and control over my life that otherwise would not be possible.  

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though. Just like being self-employed, it can be fantastic — or a nightmare — if not managed well. The key is to be mindful of what you need in order to do your best work, and make sure you are getting it.

This includes in-person meetings, relationship building, co-working, and choosing the best location for maximum productivity on a given day. 

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

This is actually a pretty deep question, and answering it makes you think a lot about what you value, and even what you consider the meaning of life to be — i.e. “Do you work to live, or live to work?” 

But rather than think of it as an “either / or” or as one “vs” the other, I’ve found it helpful to think about it from the perspective of energy: What activities generate energy for you, and which ones sap your energy? Jeff Bezos talks about the “flywheel” metaphor, and the idea of keeping energy and momentum flowing) has stuck with me: 

… [Bezos] gets questions about work-life balance. He doesn’t, however think the question is framed in the right way. He prefers to think of it as “work-life harmony.” What makes a difference is wether the work gives someone energy or saps it. “I know that if I’m energized at work, happy, adding value, part of a team … that makes me better at home. Likewise, if I’m happy at home, it makes me a better employee and better boss … It’s a flywheel, it’s a circle, not a balance.

Bezonomics: How Amazon Is Changing Our Lives and What the World’s Best Companies Are Learning from It by Brian Dumaine

Ideally, all components of life (which work is a part of) should compliment each other, and if energy if flowing between them, there is harmony. 

The key is to be mindful of them, and adjust as needed. To accomplish this, I have a monthly “check-in” reminder to reflect on how I’m investing my time, my energy levels, and if I’d like to shift anything, moving forward.  

5) In the past 12 months, have you started/stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

The tricky part about being self-employed is that you have a terrible boss. And that means you need to create systems that help you get work done, even when you don’t feel like it.

To help with that, I’ve started setting quarterly goals for myself, with monthly check-ins, weekly reviews, and daily logging of progress.

The act of writing just a sentence or two describing what you did with your day (for better or worse) has a powerful effect of changing your behavior the next day, and creating momentum.

It also allows you look back and mindfully reflect on your progress each week / month / quarter, and make improvements and adjustments as you go. It’s the underlying routine that enables everything else. 

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Book: Principles by Ray Dalio. Fantastically organized and concisely written, I love how Dalio  takes a “principled” approach to decision-making. His metaphor of “being a worker in a machine vs being a designer of the machine” is worth the price of admission alone.

Podcast: Your Undivided Attention by Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin. Tristan and Aza discuss how technology and the attention economy (i.e social media) are effecting society, and what product designers should do to address it. If you are involved in product design, this is a must-listen-to podcast. 

Newsletter: I’ve been loving Recommendo (6 cool things each week), Book Freak (quick synopsis of a book) and Gareth’s Tips, Tools and Shop Tales (tips / tools for makers). Every week, I always find something interesting or learn something new.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

When I’m out trail running, I often have ideas or inspiration I want to remember later, and after fiddling with Siri (poor transcription, or cell service unavailable) and voice transcription apps on my phone (take way too long to open, fiddly to use while running), I ended up  getting an Olympus VT-10 voice recorder. 

It’s super small, clips on to my shirt, and when inspiration strikes, it instantly records a voice memo with the flick of a switch – no fumbling or fiddling. When I plug it into my computer, I have a script that automatically uploads the memos to Rev.ai, which transcribes them (with surprisingly exceptional accuracy), and then delivers them into my Things inbox, where I can turn them into todos or projects. 

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I’d like to hear more on this from Naval Ravikant – he’s a deep thinker and I feel like he would have some interesting things to say on the topic. 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to work-life harmony – it’s all about experimenting, reflecting on your experiences, and using that to move you towards what you enjoy and gives you energy. Embrace the process!

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.