The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Pursuit Of The Ever-Elusive
Work-Life Balance

Is it possible to set better boundaries in your life,
without limiting your potential for success?

Work-life balance is one of those concepts that makes everyone twitch. Very few of us have it. Most of us don't even know what it would look like if we did have it. We just know that our priorities at work and at home are increasingly difficult to balance.

Organizations are more challenged than ever to do more with less. Workloads continue to increase while staffing levels decrease. Employers will take every ounce of energy you're willing to give to your job, especially if you're an overachiever. Your job can become all-consuming, impacting various aspects of your life as a result. This is true for entrepreneurs and business owners as well.

Too often we find ourselves feeling overburdened and stressed. We're torn between responsibilities at work and at home. We feel guilty that neither set of responsibilities is being managed well. We're fearful to pull back, because we can't afford to be seen as less committed than our peers or miss an important opportunity.  

Unfortunately, we can't wait for relief from our employer. It's not that organizations don't want to provide relief. It's simply that even with the best of intentions, they often can't deliver relief to the number of employees who need it. True relief comes only from the conscious and deliberate choices each of us makes for ourselves every day. 
How do you establish boundaries so the burden of work doesn't take over your life?

Work-Life Balance Is Elusive

Finding balance is difficult in all aspects of our lives. We tend to play in the extremes at work and at home. If we start working a little overtime, we usually end up working a lot more overtime later. If we allow ourselves an indulgence in our diet, we often fall off the wagon and eat like there's no tomorrow. If we get a raise, we spend at least as much money, if not more, to improve our lifestyle, all the while creating new stresses and obligations for ourselves. It all creeps up on us. Most people are just not great at balance, as a general rule. Myself included.

When you consider all the elements of your life together and try to find work-life balance, of course it feels elusive. How can you find balance when you're overextended? How can you find balance when there aren't enough hours in the day to do all you need to do? How can you find balance when your boss keeps assigning work with full knowledge that you're buried?

One of the reasons work-life balance is so elusive is because we don't always think about it in realistic terms. We think in broad terms, as if massive changes will be required to find better balance. It often stops us in our tracks, keeping us from even trying to pursue a more balanced life.

Today, I ask you to consider resetting your expectation. Leading a well-rounded life is actually less about balance, and more about harmony. Balance is like having to keep ten balls in the air, without letting any of them hit the ground. It's chaos, even if you do it well. Harmony is like having ten balls on the ground around you, but only picking up one or two at a time. It's managed chaos.

Bringing all the elements of your life into harmony is a powerful concept as you strive for work-life balance. When you have too many things competing for your attention, you have to make choices about how you invest your time. You have to be thoughtful about where you direct your attention at any given moment. If you can master this idea conceptually, it's easier to find the balance you crave. 

Balance, Harmony, and Choice 

There are days when it's impossible do everything we want or need to do. Our choices as to how we spend our time are often made for us, because we don’t consciously limit one activity and prioritize another. We’re not comfortable saying no, because we believe that we should be able to do it all. Work represents the biggest challenge in this regard.

Maybe work is like a runaway train for you, impossible to keep up without working overtime. Maybe you over-invest time at work because you love your job. Or maybe your ambition compels you to spend too much time at work, creating an imbalance in your life. Whatever your situation, the key to finding balance is knowing that it all comes down to choice. What matters... and what doesn't? 

1. Start at the beginning. What competes for my time?

To understand any story, you have to start at the beginning. In the case of work-life balance, that means understanding the time pressures you face. You can't make choices and find balance, if you don't know what's creating the imbalance in the first place. This is about an honest inventory of how you spend your time. It isn't about proving that every moment of your time is well spent. This is for your eyes only, so be brutally honest with yourself.

Ask yourself the following questions. Trust your instinctive answers. You may be surprised by what you find. 
  • What activities take up most of my time? What do I spend too much time doing?  
  • What activities bring me the most pleasure? What activities do I dread? Why?  
  • What could I do less of, that would benefit me, my work, or my family?  
  • What activities are truly just a complete waste of my time?  
  • How much time do I spend doing things someone else should've already done?
  • How often do I invest too much time trying to be "perfect" or impress others?   
  • How often am I unconscious of my time, letting it slip through my fingers?  
  • What do I do that could be done by someone else? 
  • What throws me off-balance the most? 
  • Am I giving my best time and attention to the things that matter most to me?
As you ponder these questions, make some notes. Don't try to solve world hunger, just identify a couple of areas where you might want to consider a change.

2.  Edit yourself. What can I choose to do differently?

Now that you know how your time is spent, both good and bad, it’s time to change it up. This is where you think about what you can do differently. Even small changes in how you spend your time can have a profound impact on your life, especially at work. Don't fool yourself into believing you're a victim. Everyone has choices.

Editing yourself is about giving up one thing to gain another. It’s not easy to edit. Superman and Wonder Woman are ever-present, pushing us to believe we can do it all. That we should do it all. People around you appear to be doing it all. Why can't you? Two thoughts. First, know that most people struggle to find work-life balance, whether they show it or not. Second, it's impossible to do it all... and do it all well.

You'll do your best work, and bring more value to those around you, if you focus on what matters most. You'll be more productive, more satisfied, and much more pleasant. Focusing on what matters most, in work and in life, is what brings balance and harmony. Here are two ways to edit for greater balance.
a. Identify one thing you can give up, do differently, or have someone else do.   
Giving things up is hard to do sometimes. Start small. One example might be asking a colleague to attend a particular meeting in your place, so you can spend an extra thirty minutes with your kids in the morning. Or maybe you don't need to participate in a company initiative or project. That time can be spent getting your work done during normal business hours instead. 
In the moment, it feels as if everything is terribly important. What will people think if you don't attend that meeting? How will you be perceived if you don't volunteer for an important initiative? In most cases, people either don't care or forget quickly. What matters most - always - is how you perform your direct job responsibilities. We assume that everything is important or an obligation; often, that's just not the case. Ask your manager for guidance about priorities and your time investments. When it's important, do it. When it's not, don't. Doing less will allow you to do better.
If you want balance, you have to eliminate some activities that are less important than others. You'd be surprised how many choices you have when you set your mind to this. Start with just one thing you can "not do" moving forward. You may find that the process is addictive and incredibly freeing.
b. Identify one time-waster that makes you feel better in the moment, but, well, wastes time.  
This is a tough one. Sometimes wasting a little time is our only source of relief in a long or stressful work day. Consider taking a serious look at this anyway. The short-term relief you find may not be worth it in the broader scheme of work-life balance. 
As an example, maybe you lose time by allowing, or even encouraging, interruptions. Chatting with co-workers can be a refreshing distraction. It can also be highly productive if you're talking business. It's important to build relationships in the workplace. But too many interruptions can add a lot of hours to the work week. The change here might be asking for quiet time during specific intervals so you can be more productive.
Another example might be getting on Facebook or checking your email frequently. It feels productive because you're actually doing something. As much as you may love the real-time gratification, limiting constant distractions can make a huge difference in your true productivity. This isn't about elimination of the distractions you love. It's just about managing them so they don't steal too much time.  
Be thoughtful about things you can give up. Analyze your time wasters and see if you can minimize them. With small steps, come big rewards.

3.  Indulge in one thing at a time. What matters most right now?

People often talk about their multi-tasking skills with great pride. It's true that getting multiple things done at the same time can be productive. But there's a downside to multi-tasking. We've all become quite adept at giving things half of our attention. On the surface, it seems positive, particularly as a method to achieve work-life balance. In reality, it isn't always positive.

Think back to the earlier analogy about balance vs. harmony, and the ten balls that represent your competing priorities. You can certainly juggle the ten balls and hope none drop. Frankly, it's not very gratifying, except maybe in the exhausting "wow-I-didn't-let-anything-drop" kind of way. Most people don't feel balanced when they juggle too many things at once. They feel tired and a little overwhelmed. It's easy to become overtaxed, mentally and physically. By giving only a portion of our attention to activities, we also miss a lot of the gratification that comes from any one of them.

Something to consider as you look for more balance and harmony among the competing priorities of your life is to focus less on multi-tasking, and more on giving your full attention to one thing at a time. When we give things our full attention, we perform better. This is true whether we're talking about specific work assignments, or one of the many interactions we have in a given day. Let's consider an example.

Example:  Think of a time that you "listened" to your co-worker or family member share something they were excited about, all the while reading an email or working on the computer or your smartphone. You may not have even realized in the moment that you weren't giving either activity your full attention. First, you weren't completely productive at what you were trying to do, because of the distraction of someone talking to you and your attention being pulled away. And second, you failed to be a supportive co-worker or family member because you weren't fully engaged in the discussion. This, without a doubt, was apparent to the other person, by the way.  
This example may seem harmless on the surface. But consider this: You probably do this all day long, to varying degrees. You split your attention among multiple activities at once. No one thing gets the best of what you have to offer, and you don't get the best in return. It might feel like multi-tasking, but it's actually multi-failing in many cases. We're all guilty of this.

You may feel more balanced in your life if, at least some of the time, you stop doing one thing before you start another. Acknowledge that many things need your attention, both at work and at home. Give each thing your full attention and you'll be amazed at how you move from an overwhelming sense of imbalance, to a more harmonious view of your chaos. If you thrive in each moment, you'll thrive even more as the moments add up. This is true even if nothing else in your life changes materially.

4.  Eliminate vampires.  What activities and people take more than they give?

At various times in your life, you'll encounter people and circumstances that take more than they give. I call these vampires. They pull energy from you and drain you by their very nature. It may be that the drama in a co-worker's life is all-consuming, and he or she is compelled to share it with you on a daily basis. It may be that your manager or co-worker is toxic and filled with discontent. He or she may be unable to treat you with respect or show kindness in any form. Those who gossip and speak negatively about others in the office definitely fall into the category of vampire.

Someone can be a vampire, all the while being a nice person. It could be that someone is just very high-maintenance, requiring more time and energy and support and guidance and love than you have to give. The common thread in these stories is that you're the recipient of burden, with very little support or joy provided in return.

Vampires are exhausting. They feed on you. They require an investment of energy that you could apply to other areas of your life. With so many competing priorities, it's surprising that we have any tolerance for vampires in our lives. But we do. Generally, we feel trapped by these people and circumstances. Long-term relationships are among the most difficult, as are close working relationships. Sometimes we just feel bad for someone and want to "help," which is admirable until we start to feel negative repercussions in our own lives.

As you look to find work-life balance, identify the vampires in your life. Be honest about which relationships no longer serve you well. Think of ways you can minimize the impact they have on your time and your energy - the two things you need to protect if you want to find balance in your life. Pull back from these relationships in whatever way you can.

Here are a few ideas about what to say to start limiting your interactions:

"John, I wish I could spend a few minutes catching up, but I've got to get moving on an assignment. Let's talk another time."
"Susan, I know you have a ton going on and I wish I could help. But I've got a lot going on too right now, and I need to focus on myself right now. I may not be available to you for a little while. I hope you understand." 
"Bob, I know I normally like to hear about all the stuff going on around the office, but I don't want to hear it today. I'm all filled up. If I change my mind later, I'll come find you."
"Jill, I know you're really unhappy here at work. But it doesn't help me to hear about it. I just want to focus on the positive aspects of my job. No offense, but maybe you can talk to Jeff about it instead." 
You get the point. Say whatever you have to say to make these people go away, without creating even more drama for yourself. Be kind, but be firm. Save your energy for the people and activities that deserve it.

One more note on vampires. Technology is meant to make our lives rich and rewarding, as well as more productive and efficient. It can quickly become a vampire if we let it. I read a quote recently that got my attention: "Technology is a good servant, but a bad master." Don't let technology rule your life. Use it to your advantage. If you reach for your phone every time it chimes, like one of Pavlov's dogs reaching for a treat, consider a reset. Don't let technology be a vampire in your life.

5.  Take advantage of opportunities for relief.  How can I make my life easier?

After you've evaluated how your time is spent and you've eliminated what you can from your list of competing priorities, you may still be left with too much. This is the case for most people. You're down to a shorter list of things that need to be done, and they're all important. You've already eliminated time wasters and backed out of obligations that weren't real obligations. Now what do you do?

Not everyone will have options to make life easier. But for most people, options exist. Let's start with the workplace. Realize that your boss has many of the same challenges you do. He or she will likely understand your situation and may be able to give some guidance about how to find relief. You may be allowed to share certain responsibilities with co-workers, adjust your hours, or gain flexibility in your work schedule. The company may offer the ability to work at home, allowing you to eliminate your commute time and spend it with your family instead.

Many times these possibilities aren't pushed out actively to employees; you have to ask. Sometimes there are criteria that you'll have to meet. The point is that you may not even know relief is available unless you have a direct and honest conversation with your manager about it. Some companies also offer additional conveniences that help you buy-back time, such as dry-cleaning delivery to the office or onsite shoe repair. Find out what options are available to you and take advantage of them. If your boss says you can't have any special treatment, don't respond poorly. You haven't lost anything by asking.

When it comes to work-life balance, you can also try to find balance on the life side. Be creative about how family members or friends can provide relief. I know several people who team up with others to get their kids to and from school and events. The parents take turns in rotation, so every parent has more burden for one week (as they care for all the kids) and less for three weeks (when someone else has the kids). 

You can hire someone to run errands for you. You can have groceries delivered. You can have someone clean your house or mow your yard. Often you can barter these services by trading something that you like to do (baking cookies) for something that you don't (mowing lawns.) Take advantage of any and all opportunities for relief.

Bottom Line

Finding the ever-elusive work-life balance isn't easy. It also isn't impossible. You have the ability to make very conscious and deliberate choices in your life and in your work. With every choice, you either improve or further burden your work-life balance. 

You can't eliminate all chaos from your busy life. Finding work-life balance is about managing the chaos through your choices. Take the time to understand your competing priorities and what creates imbalance in your life. Identify what matters most to you, so you can invest your time and energy in those areas. 

Review your commitments and obligations, by validating what's optional in your life. Don't feel a sense of responsibility to do things that create burden for you, if they aren't absolutely necessary. Eliminate vampires in the form of both people and circumstances. Become intolerant of things that drain you and create distance from them.

When you can, focus on one thing at a time. Allow yourself to thrive in every moment. As the moments add up, you'll find yourself thriving in life with a great deal more balance.

More soon,