Is achieving “work-life balance” really possible in an always-on, constantly connected world? When telecommuting and flextime were introduced, the thinking was that busy professionals could adjust their working hours to accommodate other important aspects of their lives. (“It’s great – I can coach my kids’ soccer games and then hop onto my late-night con calls.”)
And, as long as employees worked agreed-upon hours and got their work done, this arrangement usually worked out well for everyone. Enter the world of always-on, increasingly invasive and dangerously addictive technology. (“Hey, my boss bought me a smartphone just in time for my vacation. Now I don’t have to come back to a mountain of emails!”) Ironically, it turns out that virtual workers are in fact working more hours than their office-bound colleagues.
In this issue of Communiqué, I offer some observations and practical tips for those who want to reclaim more of the “life” in that elusive work-life balance equation.
- First, define what work-life balance means for you. One member of our Big Bold Shift community describes it like this: “I know I am out of balance when I am not able to find the time, context or opportunity to reflect and then, to formulate a response, recollection, a reframing, a contribution that connects me to a larger community and purpose. I.e., I find that the matter is not about work and life in their relative balance, but about ideas, contributions and purpose, which seem to make time and place irrelevant, but which make living rich.”
- Managing transitions key to achieving the right balance. In theory, location-independence helps make the transition between work and the rest of life easy and smooth. Trouble is, the transition is a little too easy for many people. Establish ground rules for yourself about which activities constitute work and which don’t. Take actions to help you establish clear boundaries and stick to them. E.g., reading email from your colleagues is work. But if you have one inbox for all of your email, it’s hard to resist the temptation to scan a few pressing work emails during what’s supposed to be your downtime. Set up separate accounts for work and personal emails. Try letting colleagues know you will not be responding to messages from 6 PM Friday through 7 PM on Sunday. Ask the important people in your life to call out transgressions as often as they need to, until this boundary-setting becomes second nature.
- Learn to just say no. Many people seem to regard people who work from home to be fair game for all manner of interruptions and impositions. Friends stop by or call to chat. Someone needs a ride somewhere, or maybe their sick kid needs to be picked up at school. A charitable organization could really use your know-how in planning their next big event. Your professional association wonders where you’ve been. The more latitude we have in making our own hours, the harder it is to say no. Before accepting an invitation to add something else to your overflowing plate, determine what you will have to give up. Maybe it’s an hour or two of sleep, time to unwind after dinner, or rushing through an important project. Resist the temptation to respond to requests for your time until you’ve carefully assessed the consequences. If pressed, default to “Sorry, not this time.”
- Live life, unplugged. Can you really be fully engaged in life when you’re constantly plugged in, networked, and always on? Your family and friends will assure you that you can’t. Decide where you want to be fully engaged at any given time, and turn off the rest. For example, if you must respond to your boss’s urgent message in the middle of dinner, apologize for the intrusion to your family, leave the table and then spend no more than a minute or two responding, letting your boss know you are out of bounds for the rest of the evening. (Better yet, unplug before dinner!) Going on vacation? Take the meaning of “vacation” seriously and hand off responsibilities in advance. Set up an auto response to set expectations that you will be out of touch while away. And for heaven’s sake, leave your “electronic leashes” behind. Remember that you have the power to control how and when you use your tools, including the most important tool of all – the off-switch.
- Question authority. Does your organization expect you to be wired around the clock, answering email within minutes, or texts within seconds? Are you afraid to declare a “no connection” zone for yourself, for fear of the possible ramifications? Time for a frank discussion with your team to agree on norms that allow all team members to achieve a reasonable work-life fit, while getting needed work done. What difference does it really make if you respond to email at 5 PM vs. 7 AM the next day? Is it that critical that your report be in within 24 hours, given the impact on your personal life? Chances are, this is a conversation people have longed to have (maybe even your boss!), especially if your team lives in a nonstop pressure cooker.
- Give yourself a real choice. A satisfying life is built around things we choose to do. The choices we make along the way, whether conscious or not, have a profound influence on our lives. One of the primary outcomes of work is money, which enables us to make different kinds of choices in our lives. Other factors enable choice as well: Our mental and physical fitness, support system, tools, self-confidence, etc. Within our work, we have a series of choices (to a greater or lesser extent) about where our time and energy is best spent. Next time you imagine that you have no choice (“But I have to work late tonight” or “I’m too busy to work out today” or “I wish I had the time to make a healthy dinner”), challenge your assumptions. What can you shift, eliminate, or change to make room for the things you choose to do?
- Allocate your energy wisely. If you’re facing a bunch of activities or tasks (be they work-related or personal) that are daunting, draining, boring or otherwise uninspiring, you won’t have energy to spare for the kind of stuff you really love doing. Arrange your time so you can apply your best energy and brightest ideas to the work (or play!) that matters most in your life. This might mean doing your best thinking work early in the morning or late at night, or working out at mid-day to restore energy reserves for a big afternoon meeting. Think in terms of a 24 x 7 weekly calendar and plot your events accordingly. In an increasingly wired world where people work from wherever and whenever, the old 9-5 constraints no longer apply for many of us.
It’s up to each of us, not our employers, to manage our own stress levels and our workloads. Employers do owe their employees challenging, useful work that takes advantage of their skills and experience, which can be done within a reasonable period of time, for fair compensation. Within this framework, it’s in more of our control than we may imagine as to how we want to allocate our time and expend our energy to achieve “life balance,” of which work is just one part.
See related Guided Insights ezine articles: Drive out Distractions and Reclaim your Time
Work Sucks and How to Fix It by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson