It’s been a few years since hosting as well as speaking at several work-life conferences. The topic continues to get a lot of play and undoubtedly will throughout our lifetimes. It is vitally important to individuals and families not to mention businesses and organizations who depend on productivity from staff.
Typically the presentations and published works on life balance take one of two directions: either you can create work-life balance (by setting priorities and sticking to them) or you can’t (no one ever will, some like to say: there’s no such thing as work life balance). We like our absolutes!
The two opposing views each contain some truth and as usual the truth is it’s not either/or. If there is one point I continually try to make this would be it – both ‘opposites’ can be true and you can still craft a positive solution that fits you in the midst of the paradox, polarity, contradiction or whatever you prefer to call it.
This is my understanding of Zen philosophy talking. The point of Zen koans like ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ is that you are to think about them continually for sometimes as long as several years in your effort to come to an ‘answer.’ The point is to ultimately realize there are so many ways of looking at each challenge that nothing will ever be as simple as ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong’ but that everything has facets of both.
What we need isn’t so much a static, permanent ‘balance,’ which is arguably unattainable, but a process for dealing with life’s challenges, both crises and hum drum duties, seeking a mix that leaves you energized and feeling like you are succeeding and could handle anything more that might come along.
Why we gripe about lack of balance so much is because we quite naturally try to ‘have it all.’ We want to stay up late, read the latest novels and business books, watch TV, go to sports events, hang with the boys or the, get up early to beat the traffic, have children – several, each with different life schedules for feeding, day care, schools, sports and games that we must take them to and more – get promoted, find a new job, make more money, have a side business, go on trips, ski, surf, fix up our homes, build a boat or plane in the basement (yes, I have a relative who does that) and so on and so forth.
In coaching I would often encourage staff to look at their careers in terms of needing to plateau for a time in order to manage the middle child-rearing years without over-stressing. This idea of staging objectives throughout life always seemed to be a revelation. No one had ever suggested before that they should look at it as ‘do X now and then move to Y when time pressures ease from X.’
In other words, yes, the secret is priorities… and seeing those priorities in terms of what’s reasonable and possible now versus later. You can do it all, just not all at once and not all that everyone might want to do, just all YOU want to do: your priorities.
Of course life doesn’t always cooperate with your plan, that is, if you have a plan at all, since most don’t. John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans” and there is much truth in that. A professor in the UBC leadership program we set up used to say, ‘A plan is an outline from which to start making changes.” And Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I’ve always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
The value of planning is that it requires thinking about and into the future, laying out what seems to make sense even though it’s not perfect, not simply grabbing at every opportunity or option that passes by until you are so overloaded with projects you’ve started but haven’t time to finish that you drive yourself crazy. As you move forward you see stuff you can prune away, add on, and opportunities that truly are just too good to pass up. In fact you’ll see a lot more opportunities with a plan than without because you’ll be seeing clearly what is or isn’t addable to your workload.
You’ll see when you have to ditch something to make room for something better and when you should pass on something that isn’t as good as the things you already have going. By doing so you will feel much more in control of where you choose to put your time. That feeling of control is the key to feeling less stressed and happier about what you’ve chosen to do or, more importantly, not to do.
Does this mean you will have achieved work-life balance? Sorry, no. You will always take on just a bit too much at times and start to feel overwhelmed. But, having committed, you’ll see some things through and discover that the sense of being overwhelmed is often a very temporary feeling that passes in a few days at most with some extra sleep or some good fortune that falls your way on some of your projects. You’ll see that for a short time you imagined a project to be much bigger or more hopeless than it was and you’ve now got control again.
The acronym I learned somewhere through various challenges that stuck: SEEDS – Sleep, Eat (right), Exercise, Diversions and Supports – the keys to handling stress. Make sure you fit in some diversions fairly regularly. If you’ve forgotten the last time you took a few hours off, divert! And find someone or a few supportive people with whom you can share frustrations and happy moments and blow off steam as constructively as you can.
In other words the key to work-life balance is to take action – to plan, to say no, to schedule projects, time off, time with others and so forth. I continue to see all too many people who love to tell us how busy they are until they drink all of that wrong koolaid and push themselves to exhaustion and burnout as they come to fear they can’t say no to a boss or to the demands of the job. Oh, they say, I can’t turn off the emails till 8 pm Sunday because the boss might send something or the world might be blowing up in ways only I can solve and I wouldn’t know. As many people can and do say, “Get a life!”
You control the job or it controls you. If it controls you, it will soon burn you out. Those who succeed most are those who push the envelope, but only to the extent they remain in control. Then they start saying, no, I have to leave now. That’s a choice we each have despite how many people insist they have no choice. Those who control their schedules always do better in my experience. If a boss truly won’t accept that, it’s past time to look for a new job. That may take a while, but the sense of control the search provides is helpful in maintaining your sanity until a break comes your way.