How much does your work interfere with your life? How often do you work late or through your lunch hour because there’s just too much to do? How long does it take you to switch off from work? An evening? Or a weekend? Or do you need a week’s holiday?
When I first started work I think I had a pretty good balance – I was a junior member of staff, so had few responsibilities and the company flexi-time policy meant if I’d done my hours I could go to the pub on a Friday lunchtime and then take the afternoon off – heaven! My weekends were full of friends and living life to the full – and I came back to work on a Monday needing the week to recover! Skip forward 10 years and I found myself as a manager, working long hours, needing the weekend to relax and recover from the efforts of the working week. By the end of a weeks holiday, I could just about let go of the stresses and forget about work. My “life” – and here I mean my personal life – all the out of work stuff that I really wanted to do – had been sacrificed for the needs of the company.
Somehow the company culture had taken over. The expectation was that you show your commitment by work long hours – that’s what everyone else did. Once one thing was complete there was always more to do – more business to win, more reports to write, more people to speak to. Somehow I’d been led to believe that if I didn’t do these things the company would fall apart! But by doing all these things and taking on that level of responsibility – I was the one actually falling apart!
By working long and hard I wasn’t giving myself time to recover, and over time the stresses took a toll on my mental health – leading to days where I wanted to stay in bed and hide under the covers rather than face the world. From what I can see this is becoming more and more common. The stress levels of my friends, colleagues and customers are high, and often their response is to just put their head down and focus on getting their tasks done. They’ll step back when they deliver the report, put the bid in – or whatever their current focus is… but they don’t because by then the next thing has hit them. We aren’t built to keep pushing ourselves like this. The mental health foundation estimates that work-related stress costs the Britain 10.4 million work-days per year.
So what can we do to start to make space and reclaim our balance? Many people think that a big holiday or long break is the answer – but while it can help provide some relief, wouldn’t it be nice to get to the point where we have the ability to enjoy a good work-life balance all the time? A small shift in mindset about how you approach your work can make a big difference in freeing up time for you.
Here are my top 5 suggestions:
1. Realise that you are in control.
You may not like to hear this, but you have full choice over what you do and don’t do in your life. You don’t “have” to do anything. There are things that you are employed to do (for example) which you may get sacked if you don’t do them – but realise you are making a choice about everything to do e.g. (not to get sacked). When you work the extra hours or sacrifice your lunch hour to get something done then that is your choice. It is worth stopping and considering what the other options are – and what the real implications of not doing them are. The SUMO guy suggests measuring things on a severity scale from 0-10, where 0 is no implications and 10 is death. Whilst in some professions the implications may be a level 10, very often we find ourselves acting as if a task is at level 10, when actually it’s a 2 or a 3.
If you don’t put the extra hours in then how severe are the outcomes? Is it worth sacrificing your “life” for?
2. Work smarter, not longer.
How do you judge how productive you are? Is it by how busy you’ve been or how much you’ve achieved? It’s so easy to get caught up in measuring productivity with busy-ness, without questioning whether the activities you’re doing are the important ones or whether you’re doing them in the most efficient way. In companies, it seems to be much more easily accepted that you’re doing your job well if you’re busy and working long hours. Does this mindset really encourage people to find the most efficient and effective way to do something? If I can find a way to do a job to the same quality level in half the time and then spend the rest of my time enjoying “life” then I won’t look busy and people will assume I’m slacking. But if I’m achieving as much as everyone else in an intelligent way then I can do more of the things I want to do.
A very personal example of improved effectiveness is email. Putting aside the time we take responding to things which are urgent, but not really that important, the format email comes in means that we are constantly context switching from one task or context to another – which burns brain power and makes us less effective. A few years ago when I analysed where my time went at work I very quickly realised how much time I spent “managing” my inbox, and it was still full and out of control. When I came across a coaching programme, offering to streamline the way I managed email (see my previous blog post), I knew this could be a fantastic way to reclaim my time. I’m still using this approach several years later – and I estimate it must save me 3-4 hours each week, if not more (and my emails are under control). Just think what you could do an extra half-day of “life”?
What things do you do that other people do faster and more efficiently than you? What can you learn from them? What best practice can you invest in to free-up more of your time?
3. Give yourself a set time for completing your tasks.
Have you ever had what you thought was an impossible deadline, and then amazed yourself by achieving it? Ok so you might have cut a few corners, it might not quite be as perfect as you want it to be – but very often it is done – and it’s ok. Alternatively, have you ever found yourself with a task that just keeps on going? You keep finding more to do to polish and hone – and before long hours of your life have disappeared. My website is a fantastic example of this – having started tweaking it to get this blog up and running, I suddenly found I needed a new theme – and then I found myself adding bells and whistles all over the place. By the end of the weekend, something that was supposed to take a couple of hours suddenly expanded into 2 days. (Fortunately, it was raining and I did enjoy it – but its amazing how easily these things creep up on us when we’re not looking!) Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fit the time available” and is well worth observing how it affects your life.
How much time do you really need to complete a task? Could you actually do it in half the time? Think about all the other “life” stuff you can do with that other half of the time… wouldn’t that be lovely! Use this to motivate yourself to be strict and to stick to the time you set yourself.
4. Be conscious of what you commit to.
How often do you say No? And how often do you consciously consider how you what you’re being asked to do fits into your commitments before you actively say “Yes”? Do you ever take a look at all the things you’ve said you’ll do, and, realising there are more than its humanly possible to do, decommit from those that won’t serve you? Or are those the ones you let slide, hoping no-one will notice?
Knowing that you’ll do something when you say you will gives you power and builds trust, both in yourself and from others. But very often we overcommit – especially on work – and then either deliver late or need to work extra hours. Ideally, we’d manage our commitments to a level where they balance the time we have available – but this isn’t always possible. Negotiating on our commitments, or being upfront and de-committing from them can give us the time and space so we don’t have to go out of balance. Commitment to tasks isn’t just to others though – the most important stakeholder here is yourself. If you consistently let yourself down, then it’s de-motivating and erodes your self-belief.
Step back and consider – what are your commitments right now? For any that are draining or demotivating to you, either consciously de-commit (if you can) or if you choose to commit (see 1), then find your positive reason for doing it and then re-commit with your own motivating agenda. Notice the sense of relief you get as you let go.
5. Have concrete plans for your “life” time.
Do you know what you want to do with all this time you’re creating for yourself? It’s all very well talking about work-life balance – but if you’ve spent the last few years focused on work, you might find that quite a lot of your “life” has disappeared? If you’ve been nothing but busy, then switching off can be scary and quite an alien feeling. In the 4 hour work week, Tim Ferris emphasises the importance of developing a vision of what you’ll do once you reclaim your time – otherwise, you’ll too easily be sucked back into work tasks without realising it.
So what would you do with “life” time if you had it? Is there something you’d like to learn? Spend more time with family or friends? Exercise? A hobby? Is there something you used to love doing that you’d really like to pick up again? Keep a list handy that you can update as and when you get inspiration, and as your time starts to free up, put some of these into action. Allow them to grow – and then you won’t have time to work long hours anymore!
A final Thought…
Over the years I’ve realised that work-life balance is something which is in constant flux. It’s not static like balancing scales – you can’t judge the perfect amount to allocate to “life” to balance the “work” on the other side and it stays like this forever. It’s more like the balance of riding a bike. As you cycle along you are constantly shifting and adjusting, avoiding the potholes. Sometimes you’re cycling up the hills and sometimes you’re coasting down. Most importantly is to learn to figure out what’s signifies a wobble for you so that you can take action early. For me when I’m starting to feel negative about myself, snap at people a little, be a bit more controlling and bossy, “needing” a glass of wine or chocolate – these are all signs that things are a heading off balance and I need to take a fresh look at my mindset. At that stage, I make some space, review these questions and make some small changes to shift things back in the right direction.
What works for you? What insights can you share on work-life balance? Please do comment on what you’ve found useful here and any other suggestions you have. I’m always looking for new ideas!