Work-Life Balance… Learning to Like and Live With Chocolate Milk

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Work-Life Balance… Learning to Like and Live With Chocolate Milk

In a presentation last week for a group of healthcare industry managers, I was asked to comment on “work-life balance.” My remarks were prefaced with the admission that I’m fairly certain I no longer know what “work-life balance” means.

At one time, the term implied that there is a point of demarcation where one’s work stops and our private (non-work) life begins, and that there is some reasonable balance between the two.

As anyone who has not been in a cave for the last 20 years knows, we have effectively surrendered that demarcation, if not the ‘balance’ part as well. Yes, surrendered, by virtue of our willing adoption of enabling technology, prolific personal spending that requires ever-greater income, and acquiescence to massive change to the “deal” in the workspace. Almost regardless of what we do for a living, our work follows us home, and everywhere else we go, in some form or fashion. And, to a degree, our personal stuff has always followed us to the workplace.

So, for many (most?) of us, it’s a little like asking for balance in a glass of chocolate milk. We can adjust the ingredients, but we’re going to have to learn to be happy with both milk and chocolate in that glass. The proverbial genie that once separated the two has left the bottle. Witness the fact that this piece was started during a visit to the Mayo clinic and finished at home on a weekend.

That said, there are several things each of us can and should do to practice good self-care and extract a healthy dose of reasonableness in mixing our own version of chocolate milk.

Be a Good Teammate – That’s right, one of the best ways for us to de-stress the workspace and thus create some margin for ourselves is to play nice in the sandbox. Let’s start by remembering that it is an adult sandbox, where grown up behavior is expected from all inhabitants. It’s not the place to act in a needy, self-centered way. Instead, if we take care of business while still respecting the goals, feelings, aspirations, and preferences of others, (and insisting on no less for ourselves) we increase the likelihood of reciprocal behavior, and needless friction is reduced. Win, win, win.

Create/Protect Calendar White Space – Most of us walk around with at least one digital device at hand (if not actively in hand). It has immense capability for myriad functions, not the least of which is helping us order our tasks, priorities, and expenditure of time. Most people don’t use that function at all.

Two of the things that I usually wind up talking with executive coaching clients about are, 1) Those devices really do have a ‘power off’ button, and 2) They can’t yet read your mind. If you want to create some more daily margin in your life, use that calendaring function to help do it. Set aside some time daily (yes, daily) to think, unwind, exercise, or just do nothing but breathe. Trust me, you will be more productive, not less, and you will like yourself more, as will the people around you.

Take Regular “Me-Time” – For too long, many of us have labored under the mistaken notion that if we’re the first to arrive to work, the last to leave, and never take a break in the action, we will be viewed as optimal performers. Yeah, and you can go 100,000 miles on your car without an oil change too – until you can’t.

In a well-written piece, Save Our Vacation, in the June 1, 2015 issue of Time Magazine, author, Jack Dickey notes that, “over the past 30 years, the U.S. has become a no-vacation nation…” and as evidence, makes light of the fact that the average American worker forfeited 4.9 days of earned but unused vacation in 2013. Sure, there are reasons for resisting taking the time off (e.g., the fear that when you return, a week’s worth of backlogged work will be waiting for you), but the fact remains that both you and the people around you need a break. Make it happen. And as for that backlogged work, don’t let that happen to people on your team.

Go Dark Thoughtfully – Introduction of widespread commercial use of the cellphone roughly 20 years ago has, among other things, allowed the workplace to become a much bigger space, since many people no longer need to have their feet screwed to the floor at a fixed jobsite. Though the benefits of this untethering are many, there are downsides.

One of those downsides is the increased tendency to reach out and touch someone anywhere, anytime (the boss, for example). Owing largely to a combination of fear in the workplace coupled with declining engagement levels, it seems that nearly every problem and every decision is bucked to the boss. As a result, managers wind up dealing with matters that others could be handling, and our people are developmentally shortchanged by not having to occasionally think and take responsibility outside their pay grade. Stop cheating them! Make it a point to occasionally go “dark”, as in off the grid for a while. Use that power button and turn the damned thing off. Do it thoughtfully and pre-announced, but do it. You’ll get some peace and quiet, and your staff will get the chance to stretch.

Be on a Mission, Not a Hamster Wheel – Life is tough enough these days when you are fully enrolled in and energized by the journey you are on. It’s de-energizing, no, it’s terrible if, because of the misapplication of your talents, you are emulating a hamster on a wheel. Do what you must to truly understand what energizes you, figure out where that intersects with your talents, and pursue it with all your heart. That same principle applies to those who love their work, but hate their jobs. Move! Getting your talents, desires, and work into a harmonious order will energize you and cause you to be a lot less resentful of any spillage of work into your personal time.

Take Your Development Seriously – One of the casualties of the great recession is that professional development, particularly in the soft-skills area, has become largely a DIY proposition. There are, however, bright spots in this picture. As with healthcare in the U.S., forcing individuals to take greater responsibility for their professional development is yielding a more discerning consumer of learning content. We’re also realizing that when it comes to distributing that content, one size truly fits one. The people who do the best job of sharpening their axe will generally be in the front of the line for “jobs of choice.” Once more, having the skills and savvy to negotiate your way to your job of choice goes a long way toward increasing your work/life satisfaction index. Simply put, it doesn’t feel nearly as much like work when you love what you’re doing, and what you’re good at.

Feed the Opportunities… Starve the Problems – One of the hallmarks of great performers of any ilk is that they have a well-honed habit of swinging at more of the pitches that are in their ‘wheelhouse’. They know what their highest paid priorities are, what their core strengths are, and they try to focus their time and energy into the zone where those two intersect. Projects, like pitches, that are outside that zone are untouched. Sometimes that means you have to negotiate something off of your plate, but it’s worth doing.

Will we ever return to a point when there is clear separation between work and personal pursuits? I don’t think so. If anything, the lines that still exist will continue to blur. But we can get to a point where we are better at blending the milk and the chocolate, yielding a mixture that’s more pleasing to us. Good luck!

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