This is How 'Active Relaxation' Transformed CEO Craig Fenton's Work-Life Balance

Craig Fenton
June 11, 2024
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New-Zealand born Craig Fenton was Director of Strategy and Operations for Google's business in the UK, Ireland and Southern Europe for almost seven years. In January Fenton relocated back to New Zealand to begin life as the CEO of New Zealand Rugby. Craig is also a TEDx Speaker, YouTuber, Author, Founder and Investor. He also calls himself an 'active relaxer'. Intrigued? So were we. 

I’ve never known how to stand still. When I was younger I tried to force myself because it’s what everyone else did: spend a weekend at home, binge watch films, not really ‘doing’ anything. In reality, I was always itching to do anything other than that. I craved activity. My wife calls me an ‘active relaxer’ which means that my method of relaxation is being as busy as possible doing something completely different to my day job. I take great joy from this and it also is a great way of staying balanced. I’ve learned to fly, bought and explored on my treasured Super 73 electric motorbike, formed my own record label, Big Community Records, started a YouTube channel called Coffee, Eggs and Inspiration and spent years meeting two to three new people every week. 

Other than indulging the curious child in me, I find that having interests outside work allow me to explore avenues that have changed both my professional and personal life in more ways than I ever thought. Here are some of the benefits I have found. 

Finding Balance 

I really enjoy working, but it can be pretty time-consuming. Particularly working from home, it can be quite easy to find yourself adding an extra hour here and there to your day until you start finishing work at 11 pm and starting at 7 am. 

As well as being strict about how I spend my time by only replying to emails in batches during short and infrequent windows and trying to stick to work schedules, I also dedicate my time to hobbies and interests to stay balanced. 

When I ride my electric motorbike, fly or work on ‘Coffee, Eggs and Inspiration’, I am expanding into something different from being the strategy and operations guy at Google, and I'm able to really enjoy myself. When I return to work I enjoy it much more as I’ve had diverting time off. Probably most importantly, I’ve chosen hobbies where I can’t be on my phone and that allow me to spend time by myself or with my family without interruption. It’s that little slice of freedom that keeps me balanced and sane. 

Thinking Differently 

When we do the same thing day in day out, we can become uninspired or get bored because we aren’t using our brains to their full potential. Whether our jobs provide it or not (mine does, fortunately), we need cognitive variety to progress personally and professionally. It’s like doing the same thing every day and expecting different results: we need variety to grow. I have always been obsessed with travel and wanted to become a pilot when I was younger, fascinated by the exotic allure of going overseas. When I finally took up flying as a hobby, I had to dedicate time to learning the basic physics of flight, what the control surfaces do, get my radio license, and eventually, a pilot's license. This was extremely technical and cognitively intensive to learn. 

Now, when I fly, my brain is entirely consumed by flying and nothing else - no autopilot (!) - so work and everything else happening on the ground is well and truly out of mind thousands of feet in the air. I also see flying as a mindful practice as I can only focus my thoughts on flying and being in the present moment. While not everyone has an interest in flying and it’s understandably a niche past-time, any hobby that is cognitively intensive helps test our brains in different ways and is hugely beneficial to our wellbeing. Studies show that using our brains for different things outside work also helps us do better when in work. 

Meeting New People 

Spending time on a side hustle is a great way to meet new people. I like to meet at least 2-3 new people a week and this is one of my favourite things to do. Through my YouTube channel, mentorship and record label BCR, I have met a huge variety of fantastic people from different backgrounds that I wouldn’t normally be surrounded by. 

I’ve learned about the five types of stress from Olympic athlete Maya Bruney. I’ve learned how to take risks and handle failure from artist Renee Vaughan Sutherland. Also, how to live outside your comfort zone and pursue a passion from social entrepreneur Bayo Adelaja and many other things from many other people. 

Often in work or life we get stuck in the same circles, revolving in the same world. For me, the more different the person, the better. 

From everyone I meet and speak to for my YouTube channel, I take away at least one thing that helps me look at my life differently. I’ve learnt a huge amount that I wouldn’t have if I’d have just stayed in my default circle, and they’ve all made massive contributions to my life. 

Doing Good 

Before I started Big Community Records I realised there was a section of society that didn’t have the wealth of opportunities that they deserved. I asked myself what I could do.

I knew I first had to understand what it is like to grow up in a lower socio-economic area and experience it through the eyes of a person who had lived this. I started mentoring and meeting people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It quickly turned into a two-way mentorship experience; I would learn from the people I was talking to as much as they would from me. 

One person, in particular, Kwazi Cort, taught me about what it was like to grow up in Mitcham. From our friendship and mentorship, I was inspired to start BCR to support his music dreams and help others from disadvantaged backgrounds find their stage to shine, giving them the oxygen to breathe. 

By using my privilege outside of work I not only learn about different people and their fantastic talents but most importantly, I get to give opportunities to the people who deserve it the most. 

Although it’s been fantastic, you don’t have to set up your own record label to help others in your spare time. By volunteering or creating your own fundraising events, you can use your spare time for good and make a few friends on the way. I’ve found it hugely fulfilling and I now have friends I never would have met before BCR. 

Given that we spend around 90,000 hours at work in our lifetimes, it can very easily feel as though it is all we do. However, there are great ways you can change this by taking up interests outside of work that both feel like you’ve had a good break and that force you to take time away. Whether it’s something as simple as taking up yoga or running or something as extroverted as flying, it will improve your work-life balance, your mental health and wellbeing, and if you choose, other people’s lives too. 

For me personally, it’s dramatically improved the way I live and work.

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Craig Fenton
CEO of New Zealand Rugby