Take heart! … The war on Work Life Balance (WLB) is not lost, but an increasing number of people are becoming painfully aware that they are in a knock-down, drag-out battle. Even though the latest statistics and recent trends don’t provide us much re-assurance, I encourage you to have faith as I do still believe that victory is still in sight.
Let’s face it; we are all working against very powerful forces in professional and personal lives that are making the achievement of Work Life Balance increasingly difficult. In our work life, organizational trends such as downsizing, flattening has resulted in ever greater workloads, and it is reflected in the average number of hours worked, which according to Stats Canada spiked upwards in 2008 reversing a long-term downward trend with no sign of relenting.
There are some disturbing recent trends indicating we are losing valuable ground in the WLB battle. In 2005 the electronic retailer ”Best Buy” implemented a new workplace policy called “ROWE” (“Results Only Workplace) which gave the employee complete autonomy to achieve specified results however and whenever the employees. This move was hailed as a great victory for the WLB advocates; however, given competitive pressures demanding ever greater responsiveness and increased workplace complexity driving greater interdependence, many organizations are reversing their policies on telecommuting and flex hours. In 2013 the new CEO of Best Buy said they are now moving to an “AHOD” (All Hands On Deck) policy. Also, in 2013 Hewlett Packard did an about-face on their telecommuting policy implementing the same “AHOD” policy.
The most obvious culprit are technological advancements that have created a 24 / 7 “electronic leash” for many people, which mean they are never (even on so called vacations) out of touch or reach… one glimmer of hope is many organizations are attempting to limit their employee’s access to email after hours.
The pressures in many of our personal lives have also taken a toll on WLB. Over the last few decades the number of dual-income and single-parent families has increased. As has the number of formal activities we enroll our kids in creating real calendar pressures. Commuting time in major centres such as Vancouver (worst traffic congestion in North America) has also been on the rise.
All of these factors have combined to diminish our personal leisure / recuperation time leaving many people feeling like they are trapped on the tiresome treadmill of the preverbal “rat-race”. We all know that a rat race is not a good place to be, but I think Lily Tomlin put it best when she said, “The biggest problem with the rat-race is even if you win you are still a rat!”
So now what? The internet abounds with articles and books that offer quick-fix tips, tactics and techniques, However I suggest that the challenges we face are different in kind not just degree and thus require deeper and more demanding solutions. I am not saying that tactics and technique are of no value, I am saying that to achieve true and sustainable WLB requires holistic and strategic solutions.
Please allow me to offer a simple four step sequential strategic solution that if you implement will guarantee to enhance your WLB. Remember I said it is simple, but this does not mean easy. I am not promising you wealth-without-work, band-aid and aspirin solutions here. Sorry, no short-cuts on this one … Truth is that the degree of success that you will enjoy in achieving better WLB will be directly related to the amount of time, thought, energy and effort you are willing to put into the implementation of the following strategies …
Step 1. Gain and Maintain a Holistic Perspective
I recommend the following self-assessment exercises that are designed to help you gain a holistic view of the big picture of your life. The key outcome of these exercises are to provide you with a frame of reference to best identify and clarify your core values or what is truly most important to you. To achieve balance requires a pro-active approach to living and most people require clarity of values to provide the power and strength to live proactively. To the degree that you fail to clarify what is really important to you; you are going to be reactive and governed by environmental forces and the demands of others. Estimate how much time you currently spend in the “Four Categories” of time – Sleep, personal care, work, and leisure. It is a fascinating exercise to estimate (and ideally track) how much time you spend in each. Then break down how you currently are spending your leisure time if you have any.
- Take inventory in each of the different Dimensions of Self – physical, mental / intellectual, emotional / psychological and for many people the four dimensions. Then assess (out of 10) what degree of success are you currently achieving in each dimension. Next determine how you want the future to be different in each dimension?
- Take inventory in each of the different Dimensions of Life – Family, social, career, financial, community service. Start by writing down each dimension that is meaningful to you. Then assess (out of 10) what degree of success are you currently achieving in each dimension. Next determine how you want the future to be different in each dimension?
- Your Life-Line is the most important values clarification tool. It is a very simple tool that you can make as meaningful as you would like. Its purpose is to elevate to a 50000-foot view of your life for it is from this perspective that what is truly important will be more evident. To complete, simply draw a line length wise on a piece of paper. Then at the left end of the line write your DOB (date of birth) and at the right end of the line write down you COD (check out date … use 80 years old as Life expectancy in Canada is now slightly higher than 80). In between write you age today. Add notes below the line as to what you were doing (education or work) where you were living. On top of the line using arrows of different lengths, indicate the most significant life events. The Life-line tool is also powerful in that it helps us understand that having a balanced life is just that, which means we all must accept that there are going to be times (years and even decades) that we are going to be a little out of balance, for example having children, and that is OK. To have a balanced life means as you look back over the landscape of your life you can say in the end it all balanced out.
Step 2. Clarify your Roles and Goals
Now that you achieved greater clarity of your values and what you want the rest of your life to look like, I recommend that the most practical and complete approach is to way to organize your life in a balanced fashion is to define it in terms of the different roles that you play.
Break both your professional and Personal Life into the Roles that you play. This is a very individual exercise as the Roles one plays could vary dramatically person to person. Some roles possible professional roles could be – Technician, Administrator, Financial manager, Team Player, Leader, Marketer, and Board Member. Some typical Personal roles are – Father, Son, Financial Manager, House maintainer, Spouse.
Once you have clarified the priority roles you play, it provides a practical planning framework to set goals or ideal outcomes in each role and determine how much time you allocated (which can vary dramatically day-to-day and week-to-week).
Step 3. Identify all Stakeholders in each Role and Build Productive Relationships
This process can be self-evident as many times the roles are defined by the stakeholder(s). In this increasingly unpredictable white-water-world we need a lot of flexibility from the people we live and work with. We need the license to say “No” from time to time and have people cut us slack and not holding us prisoner when plans change and you need to adapt in the moment.
What I have learned is the better the relations the more flexibility people will give you and the more spontaneous, effective and efficient your communications will be. Given 80 % of our waking hours are spent in one of the four types of communication this will save a tremendous amount of time and energy
Remember all of life occurs in relationships … when the relationship is right, the details are insignificant; when the relationship is wrong the details are insurmountable.
Step 4. Get Serious about Weekly Planning
This is the “rubber-meets-the-road step. The ever more powerful forces of urgency wreak havoc with our abilities to live proactively as we are constantly driven by external demands. Most people are not working on life; life is working on them … they are not acting on things, they are being acted upon. The single most important practical strategy to live proactively and achieve life balance is to plan weekly. Most people are trapped in the tedious treadmill of daily planning in which they are empowering urgencies (mostly the demands of others). The key is to elevate your perspective to the week which allows you a much more strategic perspective so the truly important things get empowered and you have more flexibility for changes when the need arrives. 30 minutes of planning every Friday afternoon is the lynch-pin on which life balance hinges.
A few closing thoughts on notes on WLB …
The Life-line tool that I strongly encourage you to mess around with is also powerful in that it helps us understand that having a balanced life is just that, which means we all must accept that there are going to be times (years and even decades) that we are going to be a little out of balance, for example having children, and that is OK. To have a balanced life means as you look back over the long-view of your life you can say in the end it all balanced out.
Further I have realized that WLB is a very subjective and individual challenge, in that what balance means to me could be very different than what balance means you to you. Some people live to work and some people work to live, and I’m a big believer in the old adage “to each their own”.
Finally I believe that it is self evident that the only true path to sustainable life success is through balance. Aristotle called balance the primary principle of success and referred to it as the “golden mean” which meant there should be nothing in excess or in deficiency.
I wish you all the best in your journey towards your Golden Mean.