I have always struggled to balance work and life. Many years ago I realized I wasn’t so much struggling to achieve an effective balance, rather I was struggling to achieve what I thought was the ideal balance. What I was trying to do, and failing miserably at, was the impossible task of making work and life live in harmony every day - constantly.
Here are some suggestions based on how I turned this around in my own way and some revelation of what I still struggle with. You’ll have your own approaches and your own challenges, to misquote Tolstoy: each story of work and life balance unhappiness is unhappy in its own way. Hopefully this will at least give you some food for thought.
We’re going to cover:
Work and life distinction
How to think about balance
Wake up and smell the roses
Embrace the suck
1. Work and Life Distinction
Part of my struggle with all of this was the notion that I should keep a distinct partition between “work” and “life”. The reality is there is no actual boundary. For a long time work has given a significant meaning to a large part of my life, whether it’s my paid role, my voluntary work or other public service in which I use my expertise. This is not to say I love all of this. In fact, I have a huge disdain for the phrase “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I don’t know anyone who strives for meaning by delivering challenging results who actually loves every bit of what they do. In many respects I think a big part of the purpose of life is about pursuing meaningful goals while trying to make that effort as enjoyable as you can.
In other words, don’t focus so much on doing what you love but, rather, find ways to love or at least enjoy most of what you do while focusing on your chosen mission. This requires effort but is often achievable.
Work and life are not as divided as they might seem and when you realize this you don’t feel the need to arbitrarily balance them equally all the time. For example, I don’t really have many classic hobbies. However, I do class as my hobbies things which others might describe as work, such as writing this blog, spending a lot of personal time on the various aspects of the public service I do. This is as much life as it is work.
2. How to Think About Balance
My other constant mistake was to think of balance as something that had to be equal and consistently maintained rather than varying and episodic. Don’t think that every day needs to be partitioned consistently with some fixed schedule across the week days, evenings and weekends. Some conventional wisdom would assert you’re failing in work/life balance if you’re working more than 9 to 5 and not keeping weekends free. Yes, you can do this in some jobs, but the reality is that it’s not as simple as this. It might be that some days you need to do crazy hours, some weekend days might need to be worked but the balance part is to not do this regularly.
Indeed, I used to be terrible at one aspect of balance and that was working on weekends - actual paid-job working on weekends. I still do a little bit of that but it is now mostly clearing the decks (e.g. calendar and to-do list review) for an hour or so vs. a few years ago when I would routinely work all of Sunday morning and perhaps even a chunk of the afternoon. The paradox of this, once you’re in the habit of doing it, is that it becomes part of the standard work week and so ultimately it ends up not helping your workload. When you start to discipline yourself to not do this you find you have to optimize your regular week. You find the efficiency and discipline to not waste time so you have less need to make up with weekend work.
However, there are times when there is a workload crunch, because rarely does inbound work follow a predictable queue. This might need you to either put in the longer hours during a weekday or even do a full weekend of work. When this happens it is important to claw back some of that in some way. For example, for the past few weeks I’ve been under various crunches with both paid work and public service work that has had me working long weekday hours and most weekends - which has also been compounded with travel consuming further personal time. This coming weekend I’m making up for that by essentially doing nothing and also cutting my Friday short to have some extra family time to make up for the imbalance.
So, balance is balance over the long run, not a precise day to day act. In fact, trying to maintain that balance day to day in the face of unevenly distributed work commitments will simply compound your stress.
3. Balancing Techniques
Achieving some form of balance requires distinct practices as opposed to simply wishing or willing it to be so. Here are some techniques:
Discipline. As they say: easy choices, hard life; hard choices, easy life. A big part of maintaining balance is the discipline to design your life. How many times in a week do you say to yourself, when looking at a 10+ hour scheduled day with no breaks and think: what the hell was I thinking when I let all this happen? Your future self is going to hate your current self at some point. So each day for every commitment, for every meeting, for everything you’re unwilling to say no to, talk to your future self and ask if they will be happy with the decision you are about to make. Recognize as well that many of these moments are because we’re too reluctant to say no to something. Someone I used to work gave me a weirdly succinct reminder that “No thanks.” is a sufficient sentence for most purposes. I say that a lot more and I now have more productive time as a result. Naturally, in some work contexts you need to provide a bit of an explanation rather than just saying no, but for many other things you don’t.
Time Audits. Despite my attempts at discipline I’m actually not always that good at it. I keep getting better but I’m not where I want to be. So, every quarter I do a time audit. That is, I look back at my prior quarter of what I did and look to see how much of that was spent on my priorities which includes my home and other non-work priorities. Then I check whether my schedule actually conformed to my priorities. This is often a disappointing exercise in that I’ve usually accumulated many things and spent much time on things that aren’t a fit. This causes me to make adjustments. While disappointing in the sense that I’m far from perfect it does, however, mean each quarter I self correct and this self correction compounds year on year to deliver meaningful improvements.
Schedule Time - All the Time. If you want to get something done then schedule it - actually put it on your calendar and do it. This means not just putting blocks of “Keep Free” and then attempting to do your to do list in that time (although I do that), no it’s to actually block the time for a particular piece of work. But, remember, be honest with yourself. If you have on your calendar something like “Write Amazing Project Proposal for Changing the World” in a 30 min block, triple booked with something else then you’re an idiot (I’m talking to me here). Schedule your personal time as well. I have personal blocks on my calendar to make sure I do non-work things. Yes, you might look at this and say: what kind of bad parent or spouse am I that I need to put blocks on my calendar for family time that should be so evidently important so that I would naturally do such things? Then you think, what is preferable, doing this so that you do prioritize family time or not doing that and letting it all slide away? I choose the outcome irrespective of the technique because the outcome is what counts.
Take Your Vacation. That’s it. Oh, and when you’re on vacation don’t try and keep on top of work. Yes, in many roles you will have to stay reachable for emergencies, but leave instructions with your team on how to do so in a way that doesn’t involve you checking email constantly. I used to be terrible at this. I had a misguided logic that if I just checked email for 30 mins each morning when I was on vacation it would be less stressful when I got back to work to not have to clear the backlog. But, remember that 30 mins of e-mail clearing will not just take 30 mins. On most occasions it will blow up your day as you’ll sit there dwelling on some issue you can’t resolve because you’re on vacation or you’ll break and do hours of work instead. Anyway, it’s easy enough to clear the backlog of email by scheduling the morning of your first day back after vacation to do that. The clearing can often be done by sorting your inbox by thread and deleting all the things that were likely resolved by your team in your absence.
Live By Your Own Rules. What works for you works for you. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For example, if you don’t like work related dinners that erode family time then don’t do them, I turn most down. If you want to do things a certain way, as long as you're not so idiosyncratic to not be a viable team member, then do things your way. Whether it’s work patterns, meetings, approaches to work, speaking engagements or a myriad of other things that turn up in life or work. I find that the way people ask you to set things up is totally adjustable. In many cases they either work better or are indifferent, but to you it's transformational and makes your life so much better. Yes, I’m aware I have a certain role power now where I can dictate terms a bit, but I’ve always done this. For example, many years ago in one of my early engineering roles I was asked to present to a leadership meeting in what I found was quite a fixed and boring way of simply reading out bullets on a slide. I decided I was uncomfortable doing that and instead added a few graphics, made things more like a story and oriented the material so it could be covered more conversationally. I got some push back of the form: “that’s not how we do things” but I went ahead with it anyway. Everyone liked it and then slowly but surely that became the new way of doing things. Also, we all have our own quirks, and that’s ok too. I’m an introvert, quite sociable and outgoing at times, but essentially after a day of interacting with a lot of people I need to be alone for some time so I schedule breaks to go for a walk or skip conference dinners and get a take-out and eat in my room. Remember that a lot of people in social or work-social occasions are not that comfortable and we should cut people some slack and try and inquire what environments would make them more comfortable so they can be more themselves.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Another thing I used to be terrible at, and if I’m brutally honest I still struggle with, is over-committing myself because of a fear of missing out. This might be work projects, meetings, conferences or other external events. The best way, I find, to deal with this is to remind myself that there are plenty of other people you work with or know who will be at these things if you need to know what happened and it’s also helpful to actually spend some time researching and really understanding what the event or project is all about. There’s been a ton of occasions on some external events/conferences where I think I really must be at that because it will be really interesting or amazingly important - at least according to how it is being pitched. Then, you dig a bit deeper, ask for the real agenda, check with the other people who are claimed to be going and find out none of it is true anyway.
Ego is the Enemy. Recognize how much of your work and life imbalance is due to taking on too much work not just because of FOMO but because your ego won’t let you do otherwise. In other words, how could your ego not let you be in all those projects? How can your ego let those other people or companies have the limelight? And so on. You have to fight this all the time not just for your own sanity but also to protect your time for the things that really do matter. I carry this coin with me all the time.
Essentialism. This a great concept from the title of this book. I like this but I actually don’t find it that useful in its purest form. It’s a bit like those stupid tweets or blogs from people who say the best productivity approach is get up at 4am, work out for an hour, meditate for 1 hour then do 3 hours of “writing”, tweet a picture of a blank Moleskine notebook they are about to write something inspirational in, then go for power-walk with colleagues, etc. and then you think how on earth am I supposed to do that when my job crosses 3 time zones, I have to get my kids to school, walk the dog and do all the things that people with a real life have to do. But to be fair to the author of the book the core of the idea is correct, we all take on too much and spread ourselves too thin and under-estimate the power of some focused attention on certain things. In doing this the real skill is to determine what are the things that need such focus and to learn to distinguish the urgent from the important and not let the former overwhelm the latter.
Mindfulness. Another thing that helps with balance is mindfulness. Now, good on you if you’ve cracked some special level of regular mindfulness meditation. I haven’t. But I do most days manage to do 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation (focus on the breath, return attention to the breath, that kind of thing). Like Dan Harris’s book title, 10% Happier, it hasn’t been transformational to my life (more than 10%) but it has been instrumental in helping me to “respond not react” to many things. These can often be the things that are the crux of work and life imbalance issues. For example, if I’m way past when I committed to finish work and spend time on some family things and I’m getting nagged to finish, I might have reacted in the past with some kind of irritable comment like “can’t you see I’m busy” with all the horrible things that ensue having opened up that path. Now, I can more naturally respond apologetically like, “I’m sorry, I messed up on my timing, I’m going to be another 30 minutes and if I just finish this I’m going to be a lot happier and focused when I do break.”
Avoid the Rushes. Now the corollary of this is to do as much as you can to avoid being in a situation of rushing something. The peaks of my stress and frustration are always at the intersection of 20 minutes before I’m due to break and I’ve overloaded myself, or I mindlessly checked work email during a weekend or evening downtime and got caught up in some dialog and then put myself in a position where a work activity was directly competing with a personal or family activity. Then both sides of my life resent each other.
Put Down the Phone. I generally put my phone somewhere else after 8pm each day as well as setting daily usage limits for social media and other time-sucks. I’m just not self-disciplined enough to not mindlessly pick up the phone and do these things so I just put it out of reach. Little nudges like this can be the scaffolding of a big part of being more present in each thing you do, be it work or life overall - and that, of course, is a big part of balance.
Experiences not Things. Another part of project-managing your life in the name of balance is to skew time and money toward experiences not things. Now, I should say at this point I recognize I am fortunate enough at this time in my life (i.e. on the wrong side of middle-aged) to have enough money to have nice vacations and take spontaneous trips to places. I know some people don’t have that capacity - but when you get to a point where you can then I’d always recommend that spending money on that weekend away to some weird place you haven’t been is infinitely more rewarding in the long run vs. that new computer, phone or fancy car.
A-grades vs. Pass/Fail. Spending time doing amazing work on the wrong things is a common source of over-work and hence imbalance. You need to do a professional job on most things, but most things simply need to be good vs. amazing. If you look at everything and think, does this need to be an A-grade or is a Pass just fine then you will find that you are able to do the A-grade work on the things that need it. Now, the next question is how do you know? First, just ask. I don’t mean ask: do I need to get an A vs. Pass? Most people will say, of course you need to deliver A-grade work to me on the thing I asked for, otherwise why would I ask for it? Instead, enumerate what Pass looks like and what A-grade looks like and then show people the Pass list. I bet a lot of the time people say that’s great. If they don’t then pull out the A-grade list and see how that goes. Also, if you work with British or Australian people then nothing will ever be amazing anyway.
Maximize the Effectiveness of Fixed Commitments. It’s everyone’s favorite cliche to moan about meetings. But perhaps the other way of looking at this is to re-shape the meetings you are in so that their effective operation can be a wider time saver - even a displacer of other activities or other meetings. Keep tuning and making them efficient. Maximizing effectiveness is mostly about actually paying attention. Therefore, close the other browser tabs, don’t look at social media, don’t try working on other things while in a meeting, just pay attention. If you are struggling to pay attention then that’s a signal that something needs to be changed about that meeting (assuming it is indeed a meeting that should exist anyway). In many cases, I’ve found that the meeting you hate is actually your fault and then when you do listen and pay attention and then contribute it does actually become a useful meeting. Besides, a lot of the time your job is to contribute and pay attention to make sure the right things happen. I remember in a prior role we used to have some quite heavy commitment to not look at mobile devices during certain meetings and when people did violate this norm we reminded them of the story when our CFO made one of the biggest risk management calls in the history of the company based on a couple of incongruent and fleeting data points in one meeting. We said, “imagine if he’d have been otherwise preoccupied on his Blackberry (the mobile device de-jour then) and missed that key decision”.
4. Wake Up and Smell the Roses
Over a decade ago I spent a year training myself to notice more of the positive things in life. I have a lot more balance now that I do that. I’m happier in work activities. I’m more present in home activities and I can bridge the two more effectively because I’ve noticed more of the positive in each. Now, what does this training entail?
Framing. Everything can be framed by shifting from “I have to” to “I get to”. For example, “Ugh I have to go do this meeting about this project” becomes, “Great, I get to go discuss this interesting topic with some pretty amazing people.” Or, “Ugh, I have to go get on that plane to travel to this meeting and be away from home for a few days” becomes, “Cool, I get to go on a plane and fly through the sky at over 500 miles an hour to meet and help some good people with their mission and when I get home I might have some interesting stories to tell.”
Enjoy the Moment. The colors of the city, the smell of the trees, the way someone prepared some work so carefully, the tech you get to use. Flick yourself if you’re complaining too much and look for the positives. This doesn’t mean a blithe ignoring of the negative, that needs to be addressed and fixed, but only looking at that is demoralizing.
Gratitude. Every day for a year, at the end of each day, I wrote down 3 things I was grateful for. This could be big things, like Project XYZ finished on time to small things like the weather was nice. What this does, and there’s plenty more learned people than I who have written about this, is to simply train your brain to notice the positive when its natural inclination is to focus on the negative. Do this for a year (more or less) and it seems to rewire your brain to see the positives more naturally.
Congratulations File. Keep a record of all the good things that have happened: the congratulations notes, the activities that went well, the people who you’ve seen flourish from some coaching or mentoring you did, the things you did at home that made a big difference in your family or community - no matter how small. Look at it occasionally. Look at it especially when you’re having a bad day and need a pick up.
Journalling. This, I recall, used to be called “keeping a diary”. I know a lot of people who find a great deal of utility from doing this. Writing down what they did each day, reflecting on it, recording what they might need to adjust. I hate doing this and so I don’t. Perhaps I should. But what I do find immensely rewarding is keeping a photo diary. For over 12 years I have taken at least one photograph of where I am each day. I log it to a journal app and write a description of where I am and what I’m doing. This is pretty equally balanced across work and home life. I often look back at these and each picture sparks a series of memories. Some of those memories are reassuring that I’m actually doing better than I think with respect to balance. Others are more painful where it’s been clear I’d got my priorities wrong and that spurs me to keep on the quest for better, long term, balance.
5. Embrace the Suck
As mentioned, I’m a believer in adjusting work so you can like it if not love it, as opposed to the usually unfulfilling quest of finding something you outright love without question. You can and should “love” or, rather, find purpose in the mission you are doing. This is surprisingly easy for people in security roles. It’s not a stretch to think that our roles are quite simply about defending people's lives and livelihoods, defending the free flow of capital and ideas that are essential for human progress. If you buy into this mission then all else is worthwhile - even the painful aspects of the job.
For those of you in leadership positions, remember also, as a good leader you will typically only get to deal with hard problems because the great team you built takes care of everything else. If you’re tired of dealing with hard problems then reframe and remember that what you're doing is a result of the privilege of either having solved the other work or having a team that is keeping you focused on the challenges worthy of your experience.
There are many anti-patterns for achieving a suitable work/life balance and many of these are the simple opposites of the good practices, like don’t overload your schedule, don’t seek perfect balance each day but rather think over longer week by week or month by month time frames. But when you strip a lot of this away I find that having better balance comes from being a bit more content with things. When you’re more relaxed you will make better prioritization decisions which leads to more contentment. This doesn’t mean you stop ambitious striving, if anything it means you get more focus and more drive on the right things. But, in my experience there are two clear anti-patterns to avoid that let you get going on this flywheel.
Reality vs. the Imagined Ideal. This stretches from your personal life into work life. When reality does not match your current or previously imagined ideal it is a fountain of stress. This could be that your job level is not currently where you thought you might be by now - despite otherwise actually thoroughly enjoying your job. It might be that you think you should be a manager because that’s the way some people say is the way to get ahead, despite that you love being an individual contributor. It might be that you’re not currently getting to spend as much time in your personal life as you’d like despite the fact that your current workload will subside in a few weeks and you will claw back some early finishes and extra days off to spend more time on personal or family things. The relentless frustration of the thing right now not being what you imagined it would be destroys the enjoyment you should be having. I’ve been in plenty of roles over my career where what I thought I was going to be doing was nothing like what it turned out I needed to be doing. This leads to disappointment and frustration until you resolve to deal with the reality you are in, and once you do then you find it is often more enjoyable than what you thought you were getting into. The source of your unhappiness is rarely the situation. The source is actually the disconnect between reality and the imagined ideal. The same goes for business. I’ve been fortunate to work in a few companies who were fundamentally brilliant at adjusting themselves to deal with the reality that was vs. the imagined ideal of their corporate strategies. It’s then intriguing to watch competing organizations hope that reality eventually goes back to conforming to their imagined ideal, which it never does.
Stop Comparing. Incessantly comparing yourself to others, is a variant of comparing to the imagined ideal but this one can be even more insidious. It is another form of dissatisfaction that leads you to work on things you don’t need to which wrecks the balance of your life. Comparing yourself to the imagined, often painstakingly curated, external appearance of some person or some company is the sure path to unhappiness. Focus on your goals and on whether you or your organization are getting better. That’s it.
If only things would slow down then I could perfect my balance, finish this work, enjoy the results of my achievements, and so on. But, no, things are going to keep changing all the time. We’re careering into the future at the speed of light, relax and enjoy the ride. Seriously, we should all lighten up. These jobs of ours are actually a lot of fun even when it’s all very serious and stressful. Every day is an opportunity to change and improve and if you’re in a bit of a hole at work or at home and you’re struggling to find that balance then just remember: every day is another opportunity to turn it all around. An old boss of mine had a good bit of advice, which was to metaphorically fire yourself every 6 months. That is, imagine you were starting your job from day 1 again, what would you do differently? You can do this in many ways, from zeroing your commitments, your calendar, your to-do list and rebuilding it back through to carving whole new days and structure in your home life.
Bottom line: work/life balance is, well, a balancing act that plays out over longer periods than a day at a time. When you recognize this you realize you have a lot more to play with to get it right - or progressively better. This balance doesn’t lead you to be relaxed, rather it is the figuring out ways to be more relaxed in your work and life that leads to the balance. Paradoxically, being relaxed takes work and discipline to organize your life and priorities. Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.