Tom Engström is the co-founder and product designer at Timespace, an app development company fusing well-being with productivity apps.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I started out in media technology and coding but eventually leaned into my childhood passion for illustration and visual design about 10 years ago.
During my design studies I got into mindfulness practice and that steered me towards well-being and health tech. My career has been an exercise of marrying design and technology know-how to build websites and digital well-being products.
A few years ago I co-founded Timespace with my way more entrepreneurial brother Sam. We’re developing products that help people be well and thrive both at work and in their lives.
Currently I’m the lead designer for our latest product, OurBalance. The team is small so I’m usually wearing/juggling a lot of hats from user research, product design, marketing design, branding etc. A lot of days I feel like that “this is fine” meme dog.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I usually wake up between 8 and 10AM, do some light exercise, shower and have breakfast. Today I woke up late so I skipped my usual workout.
After the morning routine, I set up the living room table for work and get some focused work in before lunch. I dedicate the morning each day to a different topic, today (Wednesday) was about marketing: setting up analytics and drafting social media posts (I also got lost watching videos and reading blog posts about design).
At around noon I have lunch at home and then take a short walk outside. Today the weather was bad so I just spent a few moments on the balcony for fresh air.
After lunch, I get maybe an hour more of relatively productive work in and then it’s time for meeting prep, paperwork and a daily team meeting. After that’s done, around 6PM, I pack my laptop in a box under a shelf and lift the monitor on the floor to transform the work space back to living room mode.
Immediately after work, I do a light workout to get my mind off work. I got a Ring Fit for the Nintendo Switch recently, and it’s been a fun way to do this!
After the workout, we do the groceries with my girlfriend, have dinner, do chores and just chill at home. On Wednesdays we have our weekly sauna slot in our apartment building so today was a special sauna day!
Around 11PM-12AM I wind down reading a book and go to sleep 1AM(ish).
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
I’m fortunate in that my work is very flexible and it hasn’t been affected all that much. It’s basically all the same on the computer, and online whiteboards have replaced physical ones quite effectively.
However, working from home has removed the earlier physical or temporal boundaries between work and other life. So my biggest challenge has been drawing and maintaining some kind of artificial boundaries.
I do that with simple routines or rituals to enter and exit work mode. For example, moving work-related devices away from view outside of working hours, and taking a walk or doing light exercise when the workday starts and ends. But it’s not really working that well – these days my thoughts drift towards work way more than before the remote work started.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
We’re building a product to measure and improve life balance so I deal with WLB pretty much on a daily basis. To me, it’s not a question of work vs. life – it’s all just life, work included.
To me it’s crucial to maintain an awareness of what I’m doing throughout the days and weeks and how it’s aligned with my values – and to keep reminding myself what they are. To help me with this I keep a quasi-daily journal and answer a set of questions every month. And of course, we have the app we built.
As a personal quirk, I’ve been working with family and friends and as a freelancer or entrepreneur for most of my life so there’s rarely been a clear distinction between work and other life.
One way I maintain boundaries is by protecting close friendships from turning into work relationships. So even if a friend has a work brief that sounds great for me on paper, I usually try to connect them to another designer I trust rather than helping them out directly (unless it’s a reeeeally juicy sounding project).
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
Quite recently, I got back into a regular habit of reading books after a long break. I find fiction books are light enough to not require 100% focus and also exciting enough to keep me invested and away from my devices, so I can avoid getting sucked into late-night YouTube or Netflix binges. I didn’t realize how much I missed reading books until I got back into it!
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
Books – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow recently helped me organize my thoughts about meaningful life and values. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman was great fun. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is an old favourite and a must-read for anyone interested in visual narratives.
Podcasts – I really enjoyed Beyond Huaxia by Justin Jacobs. It’s a history of the big movers in East Asia and builds a really interesting big picture of how historical events have fed into each other in the region. Just recently, I started listening to How to Save a Planet by Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and it’s doing wonders to assuage my anxiety about the state of the world.
If I can recommend a video game, Spiritfarer is a wonderfully written game about death and letting go, also very nice for pandemic escapism.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
I couldn’t live without a sketchbook. I carry a pen and an unruled black sketchbook everywhere, and I love observing and drawing things that happen around me – but that’s really taken a hit with social distancing.
Things happening at home or on Zoom calls just aren’t as interesting, I suppose. I also got an iPad and Apple Pencil lately and they have been super fun toys for drawing and note taking – but I’m not ready to forego the feel of pen on paper.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
In early background research surveys for our product we got answers from artists who didn’t seem to understand the whole WLB problem, or our questions. It would be fascinating to delve deeper into that world. Maybe artists have this whole thing figured out?
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
I used to be somewhat obsessed with not having this ideal, perfectly balanced and meaningful life.
A few years ago visiting Korea I was staying with a host family who introduced me to an old buddhist monk in a monastery in Korea – someone who by my understanding should be a paragon of a virtuous, balanced life.
However, one night it was revealed that the monk is part of their old high school friend group and that he sometimes gets blind drunk on soju with the rest of them (they were a bit hush-hush wink-wink about it so I gathered it wasn’t entirely cool with the local Buddhist powers that be).
I realized that if this monk person can live with lapses like that, I can give myself a break from my little shortcomings too.
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