What comes to mind when you think of a work/life balance? It’s a question I’m sure you’ve asked yourself more than once.
I have some good news for you. I’m going to:
- Answer the question, “what does it mean when we say we want a work life balance?”
- Provide some examples of the good things that happen when we’re in balance and the bad things when we’re out of balance.
- Share three strategies for getting and maintaining a work-life balance.
What Do We Mean When We Say, “Work/Life Balance?”
When we think of the work-life balance we typically see it as a 50-50 split, an even split between the two. Which makes a lot of sense because when we think about a balance the whole point is that it’s even on both sides. It’s equal.
But, in reality, it’s much more like a pendulum or a set of waves than it is a solid set of scales. There’s always movement, always change going on. Our priorities need to change, our focus needs to change.
Consider a pendulum, for example, where we have family on one side and work on the other. Let’s just say we’ve got a big project with some tight deadlines and if we we succeed we’re up for a promotion. Well, that means that our focus here is going to be very heavily on work and less on family.
Let’s look at this from a wave standpoint. We’ve got friends who need our help so our focus is going to be on our friends at the top of the wave, while our own needs are lower. At the times we need to focus on ourselves, to recharge our batteries so that we can help and work with other people, we’re higher on the wave and our friends are lower.
The balance isn’t about that even split. What the balance is really about is making sure that everybody involved understands why our focus is where it is at the time.
Why Do We Want to Have Balance in Our Lives?
Let’s consider a tightrope walker. They’re going across the Grand Canyon, there’s a lot of expectation, the tight rope is set up and it’s nice and tight, the crowd’s waiting with bated breath.
The walker steps up onto the platform, and they stride out across the wire.
Balance is pretty important for them!
Another thing to consider with balance is making sure we’re not focused on something for too long. Coffee is a great example. Our first couple of cups of coffee usually taste pretty good, but if we drink too much we’re going to start getting the jitters, getting anxious, and we’re going to feel sick.
When we focus on something for too long it becomes detrimental. We lose any enjoyment out of it and it’s going to be bad for us.
Being Balanced Makes Us Someone Others Want to Be Around
Having balance sets us up for having a positive and healthy mindset. At work we’re organized, effective, personable. People want to be around us at home. Again, because we’re personable, we’re happy and laughing. Family want to spend time with us.
There is of course, one caveat to this. Life isn’t always about small movements of the waves or the pendulum. Sometimes in our lives that pendulum is going to swing quite strongly one way or the other.
Because we’ve got that positive and healthy mindset (we’re energized, personable, and effective) we are able to focus on that one area for a while. Not to the detriment, like drinking too much coffee, and losing motivation because we’re also able to swing back and spend time with family and re-energize.
What Happened When All My Focus Was on Work and None on Family
A few years ago, the company I was working for had a lot of
potential and there were some really good people there. It was easy to be motivated and give a lot to the company.
I put a lot of my time and energy in to my role. In fact, “a lot” would be an understatement. It would be fair to say that I put all of my time and energy into this company. Not only was I having problems with my family because I wasn’t there but I also ended up getting very stressed, leading to burnout.
Then with the big economic collapse in 2008 I lost my job. But it had a positive effect because I was able to see just how out of whack my balance was.
What Happened When I Listened to a Diverse Range of Opinions at Work
At the large university where I was working, one of the things I was tasked with was to gather their supervisory organization data. This is the university’s structure, who reports to whom.
For the last 35 years this had been distributed all across the colleges and the departments, so nobody really knew what the structure was. It was written on bits of paper, or was entered in a spreadsheet or in PowerPoint.
I had to gather all of that and centralize the data.
I had a lot of people who were like, “Yes, this is cool! That’s a great idea. We can do x y and z.” But I also had another group of people that were like, “I don’t know about this…”
They started off being critical of what we needed to do and how to do it. And you know what? That’s absolutely okay because it gave me both sets of arguments there.
In a short period of time I was able to build trust enabling them to go from critical to constructive, and that makes a big difference. Now, when I said, “What if we add this to the spreadsheet, or have these timelines?” They were able to come back and go, “Okay, I understand why you need to do it but you’ve got to be aware of the following things… Or you know what, if you change this column heading or you remove that column then you’re actually going to get a better data set.”
That constructive feedback helped make the process better. The result was I gathered all of the data on time, and do what other people previously had failed to.
I was prepared, and wanted, both sets of opinions. I wanted that diverse range. When you have that balance, that range of opinions, you can do stuff that other people can’t.
Strategy #1: Are You Using Your Time Wisely?
I’m in the middle of reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and I came across a sentence where he says, “…treat your time with respect…” I think that’s great because if we are being respectful, not only to the people that we’re working with or involved with at home, but we’re also treating our time with respect then that’s core to the balance we’re seeking.
If other people understand how we’re spending our time and why we’re spending our time where we are, it helps them accept why we’re not spending it with them.
Can we be more productive and more efficient with our time at work to give us more time or more energy at home?
If we’re using our time at work more wisely, when we come home we’re going to have more energy and be in a more positive frame of mind to enjoy our time with family.
This thoughtfulness is going to help them understand why our focus maybe more on work than on them, at that given time.
Survey Results for How We Typically Spend Our Time at Home and Work
American Time Use Survey From the Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Visit NexaLearning’s overview of the survey.
McKinsey & Company
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Strategy #2: Does Everyone Understand Why Your Focus Is Where It Is?
Do the people involved understand why your focus is where it is?
Sometimes it’s very obvious why you need to spend so much time in one particular area. Other times it isn’t. If we go back to my example where I was putting all of my time into work and none at all to family, they couldn’t see what I could see. At the beginning I thought the company had a lot of potential, but in time that potential was lost and it became this expectation that I needed to give every moment to the company which was extremely stressful to keep up that workload.
My family couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing.
How to Check If Your Focus Is Balanced
Start with making sure everyone knows we’re making good use of our time.
Now ask yourself these two questions:
- Am I short changing anyone?
- Am I spending too much time with people?
If we think about that balance, as it moves around there’s a finite amount of time available to us. As we’re giving to one group of people we’re taking away from somebody else.
So, am I short changing family when I’m focused so much at work?
At work, and I’m focused on one group of people, am I short changing another group ? Do they need my attention and some of my help?
This group that I’m spending all of my time with are they thinking, “You know what? If Paul just left us alone to do our own thing, we’d be all right.”
Potentially, I’m spending too much time with this one group when they’d really rather that I didn’t.
Strategy #3: How Diverse Are the Opinions in Your Network?
This is the easiest one to check because it’s pretty obvious if everybody’s very open and agreeable to the things that you come up with. But it’s the hardest one to follow through with. We don’t always want to hear opinions that are different to our own.
Why Do We Want to Take the Time to Listen to People That Aren’t Going to Tell Us What We Want to Hear?
It’s quite simple really. The more information we get, the more feedback we receive, that’s going to help us really understand the problems people are facing. Which means we can provide the solution that’s going to physically solve their problems.
We’re not just putting a band-aid on their problem. We’re not just giving them something that isn’t going to work. We’re giving them something that does work, that does solve their problems. Makes their life easier and helps them move forward.
That also builds our reputation as someone who can deliver because we are open to hearing both the good and the bad. We’re open to that range of opinions and feedback. This means we’re able to work with a lot of people.
How Do We Listen to Opinions That Are Very Different to Our Own?
Listen Without Reacting
Be calm and take on board what what we’re hearing. Because we’re not reacting and not jumping immediately to conclusions, we’re able to think through the words that are being spoken and understand their meaning.
It’s Not Personal
A lot of the time, and when I say “a lot” I really mean 99.999% of the time, when someone is against an idea that we have they’re resistant to the idea and not us. There’s typically something else going on behind the scenes that we haven’t yet got to which explains why the are being argumentative.
Find the Golden Nugget
If someone we’re working with is hesitant, by listening calmly and without judgement we can pick up on the cues they give us as to why they are reticent and negative.
When we jump to conclusions we miss the subtle signs and exacerbate the situation.
Three strategies to get and maintain a balance at work and in life:
- Use your time wisely.
- People understand why your focus is where it is.
- Listen to a diverse range of opinions.
These three things not only bring us balance but they are also fundamental in helping us become a well-rounded person. And well-rounded people make the world a better place.