Danielle Chang isn’t exactly used to having downtime. In addition to cofounding The Hao Life, the 49 year-old cultural entrepreneur typically spends her time running a dozen events a year for the Asian food festival Lucky Rice, cohosting the PBS series Lucky Chow, writing cookbooks, and much more—all while raising two teenage girls in her Soho apartment. But in the pause of the last year, she’s found herself reconsidering such a breakneck pace: “My daughters are looking at colleges, and I’m about to become an empty nester,” Chang explains. “The forced slowness has been very necessary. It’s allowed me to take time and develop me as I enter this new life stage. Because I'm about to be alone with me all the time!” she laughs. Here’s how the (somewhat reformed) multitasker manages her days.
On personal sustainability (and saying ‘no’)
I used to subscribe to the belief that you should say yes to everything and see where it takes you. Saying no wasn’t in my vocabulary. But I realized over time that this was a direct path to burnout. So now, if I know I won’t deliver my best work, I will turn a project down.
There have been times when my calendar was simply too full already, or maybe I had the hours to do it, but not enough mental space. I just say thoughtfully, “You know, I can’t take this on right now. It’s not the right time. I’m not the right person.” Ultimately, people appreciate the honesty. And this way, you aren’t burning a bridge.
Similarly, I usually block out times on my Google work calendar to get actual work done; this prevents a string of meetings that delay me from accomplishing what I need to that day.
I consider this all a practice of personal sustainability—to protect myself and my energy. Ultimately, human beings are precious resources.
"It’s so much harder to sustain energy for things that just don’t align with your purpose."
On asking for help
In whatever I do, I have great friends who support me, and it’s very much reciprocal. Beyond friendships, though, I’ve found that people naturally want to help other people. And you should never be afraid to ask.
After college, a friend asked me, “What do you want? What's your ideal job?” I said to be an art critic at The New York Times. The friend told me to just send that person a letter explaining who I was and why I wanted to meet her. Ultimately, that letter led me to getting hired.
From then on, I haven’t shied away from reaching out to anyone. Because what’s the worst that could happen? You get ignored?
Also, sometimes articulating what you want or need helps you get a really clear on your end goal.
On making work feel less...like work
I’ve tried to do a lot of things in my life. At one point, I was working in finance in Asia and it just wasn’t me. I could do it, but it felt so inauthentic and I felt it in my gut—there was this nauseous feeling.
Just because you can do something or you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should be doing it. It’s so much harder to sustain energy for things that just don’t align with your purpose. That becomes clearer with age. I find myself sort of consistently drawn to work that shares my Chinese heritage with the world—through the arts, food, and now health. And while that sometimes means I have more on my plate, it never drains me because I’m so passionate about it.
On identifying good ideas
I don’t jot down ideas, because I never follow my thoughts. I'm not one of those people who can wake up in the middle of the night and scribble a couple of things, go back to sleep, and then wake up in the morning and follow the thought.
Instead, if I have an idea, I let myself think of it. And if it comes back to me, then I know it’s a good idea and I pursue it.
An example would be this 150-foot rice paddy that Lucky Chow built outside of the Oculus by the World Trade Center last year. It was three tiers that grew rice from different parts of the world to showcase how universal the plant is. People would come and sit all around it, and it was really beautiful. I thought about doing this for 10 years! Every time I met someone who was in a position to help with the project, I’d pitch it. Finally, it paid off!
On meditation for antsy types
I’ve tried to meditate and I’m not good at it—it’s just counter to who I am to sit down and close my eyes. I have to do something. But I do practice a lot of what I consider moving meditation, which happens to have a rich Chinese history, like with tai chi.
Recently, I’ve been practicing something called Yin yoga, where you hold the postures for long periods of time. It really allows me to work on my balance and breath, and it helps me set an intention for the day.
On dreamy bedtime stories
I keep a lot of cookbooks on my nightstand that I read for comfort. I really like the early Fuschia Dunlop books, for example—they’re actually biographies. For me, reading about recipes is just so soothing: It takes you on a journey somewhere and gets your mind off of things. I imagine myself going through the steps as I doze off.
On choosing positivity
At the onset of the pandemic, I started driving my daughter to school in the mornings from downtown to the Upper East Side. It was rather traumatic at first to see the once-bustling sidewalks so empty. Instead of torturing myself with this daily commute, I decided I should turn it into something pleasant and healing. So, every day I try to take a different route and think of the memories I have of the places I pass. Going past Columbia, I’ll remember getting my degree. Then I’ll see a corner shop and recall that it’s where I had my first slice of pizza in the city. I’ve lived here for over 30 years, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.