Work Life Balance

First appeared in ‘Fitness Life’ (N.Z.)

“We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet.” – Anon.

I bet you wish you had more time. I guess there’s been at least one occasion in the past week where you wish you had more time to go to the gym, spend time with someone you really wanted to, read a book, write that novel. What I’m hoping to do in this article is to encourage you to think again about the way you spend your time. I’ll try to explain why we often unconsciously make the decisions we do and give you a few ideas on how to take a little more control of your time.

There has been a phrase that has crept into the language in recent years that people listen to, nod sagely and then dismiss – “work-life balance”. People know it’s a good idea – it’s sensible and people will agree that it would be a brilliant idea – yet still find it incredibly difficult to implement any changes.

OK. I know we need to earn money to live. We need money to spend on those nice things we do when we’re not in work. However, I’m not convinced that people think about this carefully enough. I know a lot of individuals who work far too many hours than they’re paid for. I also have some ideas why they find it incredibly difficult to change.

A recent study looked at people who had undergone bypass heart surgery. By changing their lifestyle after the surgery the patients could avoid pain and the risk of further surgery or even death. The study found that only 1 in 10 people changed their lifestyle for more than 2 years. So, it’s apparent that change is incredibly difficult to implement. Changing the behaviour of people is the biggest challenge facing the health industry, business and life in general today. Time management is a key example of this.

As a management consultant I frequently work with teams that have ‘time management issues’. I ask them to solve a problem. Invariably they will all be working away on their own scribbling circles, lines, formulae and getting quite frustrated and not performing particularly well. I ask them what would be the most effective way of solving this problem? Eventually I get the answer that if they all worked together as a team they would get a better answer. I ask them why they didn’t.

This usually produces an interesting response. After blaming me, others and themselves the discussion invariably comes down to conditioning. For twenty, thirty, forty years they’ve been rewarded for individual effort. In fact we’re frequently punished for co-operating, or cheating, as it was known in my school. This behaviour becomes part of us and we find it very difficult to change. When the discussion reaches this point I ask them to continue working as a group. They always have far more energy at this point and usually come up with the answer.

For me this is the essential element in changing your life and achieving a better time – life balance. You need to accept that change is difficult. Often it’s difficult because you’ve had years and years of conditioning. The first step is to acknowledge and identify as many barriers as you can that will stop you. A great many of these barriers are imprinted in your formative years.

For example as a child brought up in Wales in the 60s I was never allowed to miss a day’s school (even if I were really ill and infected everyone else). I always ate all my food or else I couldn’t have sweet. I was told to ‘work hard – play hard’ (with the emphasise on work first), plus another few hundred conditioning behaviours I’m not aware of that I guess are still affecting me.

This conditioning process can be overcome and if you know the reason it will be a lot easier. A simple illustration of this would be ‘tea drinking’. For a long time I would drink tea and leave half an inch of liquid at the bottom of my cup. It was only after someone pointed this out to me that I started thinking about this. When I was young I used to leave a little tea in my cup because there were always the dregs and tealeaves at the bottom and it would taste horrible. When teabags came along I continued that practice without realising.

There are similar thoughts about work being good and having to be completed fully before you’re allowed to enjoy any leisure time. Perhaps it’s part of the protestant work ethic or catholic guilt but I found it difficult to enjoy a day off work in the week. This came to the fore when I worked in a betting office every Saturday and had a weekday off. No doubt there was a barrier somewhere in my head stopping me enjoying my leisure time on a ‘school day’. Having identified this obstruction it became so much easier to enjoy myself.

To help identify your own barriers the first thing you need to do is to work out what really is important in your life. To do this you can borrow a technique from Stephen Covey called ‘big rocks’. You need to imagine your life as a bucket. Now work out the 3 or 4 things that are the fundamental parts of your life. These will be the things you care deeply about – these often, but not always, tend to be related with people – partners, children, yourself, friends. Having identified these ‘big rocks’ imagine the bucket. Imagine putting these rocks in. Then adding small stones. Then add some sand and finally some water until the bucket is full.

Still with me? OK. Now imagine putting all these elements into the bucket in a different order – water first, then sand, stones, then finally your big rocks. What would happen is that the bucket would overflow and there wouldn’t be any room for your big rocks to fit comfortably.

So, the learning is about the order of things. Deal with the most important aspects first – manage your ‘big rocks’. This means make time for the important things in your life. The other aspects of your life – stones, sand, water will fit around them.

Having completed this exercise a number of years ago I sat down and scheduled the coming month in a different way. I scheduled my big rocks first – My daughter was 2 years old at the time and I booked time to be with her, made time and arrangements to take my partner out and found a few days for myself. I then scheduled my work around these. It really helped that I was aware of some of the barriers that would get in the way. I made a conscious effort to accept that I had to change my way of thinking. I realised that it would be difficult initially to walk away from the office with tasks not completed. However I felt it was important enough to go through that initial uncomfortable feeling. At the time I was a management trainer in the Civil Service and frequently used to work 50 hours a week. I scheduled my 38 hours around my big rocks and sat back to wait for the fallout. No-one noticed. The office didn’t fall apart. The only people who noticed were friends who said that I looked happier, more enthusiastic.

It helped that I had a supportive manager and some degree of autonomy in my actions but having worked with many people over the years the vast majority of them have done something. For a few there really has been a life change. Try it. Who knows you may find that time to write that novel you’ve always promised yourself.

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