The myth of work life balance

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In June, I was invited to lead a session on ‘work life balance’ for the department in which I work. This was prompted by the results of an organisation-wide staff survey, which showed that this theme was something that staff felt was an area for improvement.

It was great to be able to draw on some of the learning I’d done in my own time – as part of my own journey towards greater simplicity – to help others.

This week, I delivered a further session for colleagues in another part of the organisation.

As the lead up to Christmas is a particularly busy time of year, I thought I’d share my insights here. You may not have time to read the whole post now, but why not pick it up over the holidays, as you reflect on the year that’s just gone by?

Work life balance: Myth or Reality?

In this week’s presentation, I began by asserting that the idea of balance is actually somewhat unhelpful. Achieving perfect equilibrium suggests (in fact) stagnation or stasis. It could be argued that if you’re existing in a state of perfect balance, how will you ever move forward?

In our discussion, I drew on the Marcus Buckingham’s 2009 research in which thousands of women* were polled with the following 5 questions:

1.  How often do you get to do things you really like to do?

2.  How often do you find yourself actively looking forward to the day ahead

3.  How often do you get so involved in what you’re doing you lose track of time

4.  How often do you feel invigorated at the end of a long, busy day

5.  How often do you feel an emotional high in your life?

In depth interviews then followed with those who could respond “every day” to four of the five.

The answers

Instead of some magic formulae, the women in Buckingham’s study who were happiest didn’t aim to achieve balance at all. Rather, they intentionally focussed on the areas of their life that mattered most at any particular time.

These women deliberately threw things out of balance, giving whatever needed their attention their full focus. This reminded me of one of Greg McKeown’s key messages in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:

“What’s important now?”

What this means in reality

So, what does this mean in reality?

Think back to a time when you were planning some really important event, such as a wedding, a work event or some other significant occasion. The chances are, you’ll have naturally ’tilted’ towards that particular activity, allowing other things to take a back seat (even if only in your head). This is a perfect example of tilting or ‘leaning in’ to whatever is important in the present moment.

Tilting can work, even on a day-to-day basis. Imagine you’re leaving work to go to two events (one after the other), as I did on Monday evening. This means cutting yourself some slack when it comes to what you’re going to eat when you get home. Here’s where my 5 Ingredients recipes come in.

Perhaps there are times when you’re needed more by family members such as children or elderly parents (or both)? Again, when this happens, you’ll tilt towards family life more during that period, perhaps putting career development aspirations or even work itself on hold. At the very least, you might make ‘work’ less prominent in your life.

Strategies and Mindsets

As the intentional removal of anything that doesn’t add value to your life, minimalism can help this mental shift.

Back in summer 2016, I was working full-time; still running my teenager to school every morning in the car; had significant non-work commitments and was feeling a strong sense of obligation, as I was pulled in all directions.

18 months on, I have significantly simplified my life, which included systematizing how things run at home; decluttering and paring back my personal space; and reconsidering with my family how we wanted to spend our time.

I now enjoy monthly commitments, rather than myriad ones each week. And our teen now gets the bus to and from school (I can’t tell you what a different that has made to my morning commute).

The biggest single benefit?

In my presentation this week, one of the participants asked me what I felt was the biggest single benefit of doing all of this.

My answer was this: adopting a minimalist mindset has enabled me to have a greater amount of flexibility.

In the last month, my family hosted two Chinese homestay students (visiting PhD students from Capital Normal University in Beijing). This enriching experience was really enjoyable and I would never have been able to do this had my weekly routine not changed.

You’d think this would be difficult in the run up to Christmas, but we involved our guests in the small things we enjoyed during the last few weeks and we were all the better for it.

How do you respond to expectations?

One area I brought up in my presentation was a word about how we respond to expectations, both inner and outer.

This key question, as you will be aware, is the focus of Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, The Four Tendencies.

I think this is a very good question to ask when you’re considering the thorny question of work life balance.

To draw on Rubin’s work, I spoke about the four main personality types, which are as follows:

Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.

They find it easy to meet deadlines and, for example, keep New Years resolutions. Task oriented, they like to meet expectations (either their own or those of others). This is great if you need someone who’ll follow the rules. Whilst at times they might be too driven by the ‘gold star’, they find it easy to create and maintain good habits.

Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense. I have two questioners in my team. They make fantastic colleagues, because their natural curiosity means that you need a clear and strong rationale when explaining something or when asking them to deliver on a particular task.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. Rebels, Rubin says, are motivated by present desire. But they are likely to resist outer expectations. Rebels thrive when they can be disruptive.

Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

As the biggest group in Rubin’s study, Obligers are the people who volunteer, who help, and who deliver for others. People pleasers, they inevitably make time for others but not always for themselves. The secret is external accountability; if someone else expects it, they show up. The risk? They feel overwhelmed and may experience ‘Obliger rebellion’.

So, it helps to understand yourself when it comes to your own tendency. Are you more likely to say yes to an external expecatation? If so, how will this impact on your sense of equilibrium?

Take Rubin’s quiz here.

Technology has to come into it

When was the last time you assessed your technology habits, unplugged or a while or allowed your creativity to be ‘jump started’?

In the first podcast of the new season of their By the Book Podcast, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer discussed an interesting book, whose key thesis is that our relationship with distraction is stopping us from living our fullest life.

Bored

In Bored and Brilliant: How time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything, Manoush Zomorodi reminds us to “Take a Fake-ation” to give ourselves time away from digital devices.

Here’s where we create space in our lives to enable us to feel less busy, less stressed, less overwhelmed.

A digital detox can be a useful way to help us find a sense of perspective, if not absolute balance. Your best ideas can come to you when you allow your brain a chance to do its own thing.

That said, certain tools can help avoid a sense of overwhelm and I use them frequently. Evernote is my ‘go to’ external brain whilst Producteev helps me remember what I don’t want to forget….

Twitter friends weigh in!

Earlier this week, Twitter friends joined the conversation when I asked, “What’s your trick to ensure work life balance or do you prefer ‘tilting’ and deliberately throwing things off balance?”

Rachel from The Daisy Pages said, “For me it’s spending less money, then I don’t have to work so hard and can spend more time doing things that I really enjoy 😊.”

Shaun replied, “Rationing device use in this 24/7 officeless age!” Good point, Shaun!

Nick suggested that, “… balancing is what you try to do when your work is not compatible with your life.” Uh oh. Recognise that one, anyone?

And Rae (raeritchie.com) provided her perspective that chimed very well with my own thinking. She said, “I think balance is okay if we think about it over a period of time. It’s unlikely to be continually in equilibrium – more shifting between different points.”

What about you?

So, what about you? Do you agree that the idea of work life balance is unhelpful? Or do you try to achieve a sense of equilibrium by closely guarding your time? By saying no? Or by deploying other techniques?

Do let me know by replying to this post, below!

(*On the Buckingham study, I am unclear as to why this study focussed on women only, but I would wager that the very same questions could also be posed to men.)


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