We often hear the phrase “work/life balance.” The truth about work/life balance, not often implied by the term itself, is that your work and your personal life can’t always be perfectly in balance, and it’s important to recognize that there will be times where one will take priority over the other. It doesn’t mean you are a bad parent, friend, or coworker – it’s just a reality.
So the real question people should be asking is not, “How do I achieve work/life balance,” but: “how do I prioritize my work/life activities – preparing for an imbalance of the two at any given time?” Four small things make a huge difference for me in preparing for imbalance:
1) Proactively manage priorities: Take a look at everything going on in your life and determine where things fall as priorities. Perhaps work is your #1 priority, perhaps family, perhaps something else entirely. Even look at your tasks on a more micro level: Your son’s soccer game, that presentation for your boss’s meeting, volunteering, and so on. One method for doing this is using the Urgent/Important Matrix attributed to both former US President Eisenhower and Dr. Stephen Covey. Keep in mind that this list is not tattooed to you, priorities shift over time, depending on where you are in your life and what’s happening around you. Revisit your list as things change, and don’t be afraid to reprioritize. There is only so much time in the day, so understanding your priorities is the first step to allocating your time properly. Your top priorities (and remember, not everything can be a top priority!) are the things to focus on first and which to dedicate the most energy. These are the things that you clear your calendar for and that take precedence when another demand comes knocking. Those tasks that are not your top priorities require management as well, which brings us to your network.
2) Rely on your network: I know the idea of relinquishing responsibilities can sometimes be challenging, like giving the keys to your new car to your teenage daughter. You said you would do it, but you find yourself still tightly holding the keys as she tries to pry them from your locked fingers. But the thing is, if you don’t give her the keys a couple things will happen: A) She won’t develop into a good driver herself without practice and B) You will be required to continue shuttling her to and from various activities, which I am guessing didn’t make it into your top three priorities. Point is, relying on other people, in and out of work, is both necessary and good. What projects can be delegated to others on your team (how to delegate work and responsibility); can another neighbor host the block party? We sometimes have the tendency to feel guilty for relying on our network, but that’s what they’re there for and when they need you, that’s what you’re there for too.
3) Set boundaries and communicate them: A question to ask yourself: “Why do I have doors on my house, but not in my life?” Doors play an integral role in our homes, they let people in, but they also keep people out, preserving your security and sanity. The problem is that we don’t use the door mentality with our lives; we don’t lockdown time for ourselves to keep people/tasks out and preserve security and sanity in our everyday work life. You must set boundaries, and even more importantly, you must let everyone else know what those boundaries are. If having dinner with your family every night is a priority, then you need to leave the office at a certain time. If finishing that revenue analysis is urgent, then you are going to need uninterrupted time to work on it and you can’t take on additional work until it’s done (or as the Harvard Business Review refers to it: The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time). For each of your priorities, determine the requirements, including the boundaries, and respect them, if you don’t, no one else will either.
4) Continue to perform: The thing to remember is exactly what we said in the beginning: Your priorities are constantly evolving and you need to reassess them continuously in order to do your best work. When we see people getting burned out or failing to meet their goals, it is because they fail to prioritize, utilize their network and/or set the proper boundaries. Work life balance is a process, not a single moment. If you maintain the process, then you can continue to be successful in your tasks – and whether that task is related to work or not, you will see the benefits of high performance.
One final note: Lead by example: The best way to show your coworkers, friends and family how to manage both their jobs and their personal lives is to do it yourself. One of the top questions I get as a leader is how I manage both the rigors of my job and the requirements of being a mom. My answer is, “I’m doing it right now. Follow me in a day and you’ll see how.” It is possible to do all the things that you want to do as long as you are willing to accept that the secret to work life balance is actually about preparing and managing work life imbalance.