What is the secret of work-life balance?
I get this question a lot. Fair, given my journey and recent choice of vocation. In this article I want to share a framework for analyzing balance, and finding it.
In the next article I want to talk beyond work-life balance i.e. potential and actualization and all that good stuff. In other words, how to get work in a place that supports how you want to live and who you want to be.
Think of a time when your work and life were in balance. What did it feel like? What did it look like? How long ago was that?
Most of us have experienced the Holy Grail of balance, if only temporarily. You have a sense of purpose and you’re getting some time to have a social life and to exercise a bit (for example). Things are “normal”.
Though if we’re honest with ourselves (and probably why you’re reading this article), “normal” is too often the exception. Most of us have too much work and not enough time. A constant feeling of not being able to bring our all to work, and at the same time, a feeling that we’re sacrificing important things in life.
Work-life balance issues ARE real, and can be debilitating. What lack of balance feels like is different for different folks, but a combination of: exhaustion (physical and mental), anxiety, escalation, numbness, depression, unwilling sacrifice, regret, isolation, powerlessness, being trapped or stuck and so on. Balance is different for different people, but the symptoms of imbalance are real.
There are Five C’s that will help you reflect on, and fix, the causes of (im)balance:
- Clock – what is the absolute number of hours you work, and also the degree of flexibility you have in how to schedule those hours?
- Content – do you care about the work you’re doing? Does it align with your values? Does it help you learn and grow?
- Control – are you able to exert control on how, when and where you do your work? Or are you at the constant mercy of other's demands?
- Consistency – the predictability of hours. How much forward notice do you get of your work demands? How often do last minute and surprise things impact you?
- Context – what additional demands are placed from your home/personal context (kids, medical and health demands), and how supportive is your work and home “team” (i.e. community and communication). Do you like the people you work with (and your boss)?
Go through the list and place a check mark (tick) or cross next to each item.
How is your balance?
What are the biggest pain points?
Here are some suggestions that might help with your balance. Why not pick a couple to work on in your personal work-life balance action plan?
1. Creative hour - Use the first hour when you wake up (and before you check emails) to ponder the biggest life or work issue on your plate
2. Compartmentalization – Work is endless. Learn to be able to draw a line under what you’ve done today. The work will still be there tomorrow (and perhaps you’ll get a flash of insight on it overnight)
3. Saying no – exceeding other's expectations drives success, doing more, but to an average standard does not
4. Delegation – the one thing you probably need to say yes to more often
5. Protected time – pick an evening a week that is protected time and agree it with your team (ref: Leslie Perlow of Harvard, Sleeping with your Smartphone). No work emails or calls during this time.
6. Take on an ambitious personal project or hobby. This might seem like adding fuel to the fire, but this will force you to keep things in perspective, and use snippets of time towards a meaningful personal goal. If in doubt, do something creative, particularly if you don’t think you’re creative
7. Exercise – you know it. You’ll better deal with stress, and be more productive.
8. Communicate - It can feel like we’re physically chained to our desks, but the way out of your stress bubble is to talk.
Most things are negotiable, so don’t suffer in silence. And if you’re a leader, have a conversation with your team about innovative ideas to increase the quality and productivity of the work experience (theirs and yours). You might be surprised what you hear.
Perhaps the biggest myth about work-life balance is that there is a silver bullet solution for everyone. There isn’t. In fact, in balance and in life, the quicker you realize that happiness is about finding and following what works for you the sooner you’ll begin to thrive not just survive. If anything, that is the secret to work-life balance.
For most of us, the actuality of finding elusive balance will be a combination of habits and communication (see above) in the short term, and using the space those initial actions create, to make larger and more sustainable medium-to-long term creative changes in how work supports your life.
In the next article, I’ll talk specifics about those transformational ideas to move beyond work-life balance. What if the sustainable solution to your balance, is to change careers or start a business (or something in between)? If you've lost passion for what you're working on, who you're working for or how you're working the next article is especially for you!
Stay tuned for that, and in the meantime, answer this question what does balance mean to you?