Since the financial crisis in 2007/8 there has been a gradual erosion of our boundaries between work and our personal lives. I rarely these days meet a senior leader in an organisation these days who is happy to report that they’ve got their work/life balance sorted, in fact I’d go as far as to say I’ve not met ANYONE in the last year in a senior position who felt they’d got that any kind of balance at all!
The simple fact is, that with the flattening of structures within organisations and the year on year reduction in head-count in most organisations, we’re all feeling that increased pressure to work harder and get the almost impossible workloads completed. That means working longer hours in the attempt to get more done, it also means going beyond our natural limits, and letting the overwhelming pressure of work dictate the pattern of our lives.
Almost everyone I meet is a hard-worker; they want to give of their best and they try their utmost to get everything done, but it’s getting harder and harder to do that within the normal working day. So, we do a little extra work on the train home, a few things off our to-do list after dinner; check our emails on Sunday evening, just to make sure we’re ahead of the curve come Monday morning. Which is fine, I guess, IF (and this is a BIG IF) we got that time back, if we got those hours that we don’t spend with our friends, families and loved ones back in lieu! As one of our favourite authors Ricardo Semler writes in his excellent book ‘The Seven Day Weekend’:
“..If we’re expected to answer emails on a Sunday, why can’t we leave work and go watch the tennis on a Wednesday afternoon?”
He’s absolutely right of course, but the tide of work is one that has gradually seeped in over the last 8 or so years since the last financial crisis, and it’s a tide that doesn’t ever seem to go out!
So what can we do about this lack of balance in our lives? What can we do to stem the tide and get work back into the right place, as a PART of our life, not the whole of our lives?
The first thing is to set what I call the HARD BOUNDARIES – the NON-NEGOTIABLES. To use the sea/tide analogy these are the sea walls that protect from the extreme tide incursions. Stop and think for a moment. Where has the tide of work seeped in over the years that affect your personal/family life? Is it that working on a weekend has become normal? Is it that you’re no longer home in time to put your son or daughter to bed? Is it that you spend some evenings doing an hour or two of work? Is that you’ve lost some of the quality time that you used to have with your family? Is it that you no longer have time to go to the gym or exercise? Or that you no longer have any breaks during the day?
Whatever the things that occur to you write them down now and make sure that these hard boundaries are enforced and kept to. I know that is easier said than done, but if you diary them in for the next three-six months (go on, do it now) you’ll be ensuring that you begin to change the habits of working you’ve gotten into and started to create a more healthy one. Seriously you don’t want to end up in the place of one senior director I was working with who told me whilst working with him –
One evening he’d gone home at his new ‘usual time’ of around 730pm and his young daughter was already in bed. He’d missed her bedtime again. It had become a pattern, not one he was proud of, but it was just the demands of his position, he felt he needed to be at work to get everything done. The following morning his daughter (aged 6 or so at the time) said:
‘Daddy why don’t you read me stories anymore? Where are you? I miss you when you’re not here, I wish you were here to help me get to sleep at night’
BOOM. How’s that for a dose of honest feedback? Doesn’t that cut straight to the heart of this? – Rest assured that particular executive made being home in time to put his daughter to bed one of HIS non-negotiables, and do you want to know the interesting thing? He told me that going home that extra half-hour or so early made NO DIFFERENCE to how much work he actually got done.
This is the delicious irony. Working harder, working longer hours doesn’t mean that we get more done. In fact there is a lot of research out there (don’t just take my word for it, do your own research) that says that those that work longer hours are not being effective, and the quality of the work done severely decreases the longer you work without breaks.
Back to that idea of balance, back to that tide that always seems to be coming in and never going out. Now you’ve put in your non-negotiables, your hard boundaries now come the soft boundaries. Soft boundaries are those that are more flexible, once you have got into the habit of making sure the tide stops overwhelming you, then you can begin to peg it back further, so that you can start to work at a more sustainable pace.
This might mean that you go home early on a Tuesday so that you can pick the kids up from school or from their post-school sports club. It may mean that Monday morning you give yourself an extra 15 minutes in bed and turn up 15 minutes later to work. It might mean that every Wednesday and Friday you go to the gym before work or that on Thursdays that you bike into work for a change. It’s about making sure that you take your breaks at work, ensuring that not only do you take your 30 minute lunch break but that you also take it away from your desk and maybe even get a breath of fresh air! You won’t get these things ALL the time, but once you see the benefit to them (e.g.: you’re feeling better, feeling more productive, more in balance) you’ll do what you can to diary them in. Of course flexibility is the key to the soft boundaries, sometimes the tide of work dictates we must work a little later but we are more in control of that tide than we think. Balance isn’t just about work and life, it’s about work and rest whilst at work.
We forget that actually simple things can make a big difference to how ‘in balance’ we feel. Listening to our favourite piece of music, flicking through some photos of our loved ones, getting out in the fresh air and having a walk, choosing something different and tasty to have for lunch, having a natter with our dearest friend on the phone, making sure we end the day with something that makes us laugh.
It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense when we stop and take the time to think about this isn’t it? So I’d encourage all of you to look at your life and how big a part work has become. Isn’t it time to stem the tide? To push back and get your life back in balance? It’s important, not just for you, but for those around you too! When you are happier, when you feel like your life is in better balance, then that happiness spreads and infects those around you, those people you love. So don’t just do this for you, do it for your son or daughter, your mother or father, your sister, your brother, your work colleague, and yes, even your organisation! – You’ll be more effective, productive, creative, positive and just a nicer person to be around.
At Meta we’re on a mission to change the world of work. We think it’s about time we all started working at a sustainable pace, working in a smarter more effective way. We write these blogs to help start to shine a light on current outdated working practices and invite you into a more enlightened way of working. It’s our job, our mission to help and support leaders and organisations that want to work in a smarter way, so if you’d like to find out more about us, please feel free to contact us.