Is work-life balance even possible right now?

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Not too long ago, the business day stopped at 5:00 pm. The receptionist went home and the office phones were turned off. Anything after 5pm was handled the next business day. There were no mobile phones and our email was not in the palm of our hand stream 24 hours a day. Back in the good ol’ days, the boundaries between your work life and personal life were clearer. Today, for many of us, the overlap between work and personal life is a blurred line.

Now, you add the pandemic. Suddenly, people’s work and personal lives were merged into one in less than a week. Most thought it would be great to work from home and felt it would be the ultimate in work-life balance. Some have figured out that balance. But, for most, we are struggling with these blurred lines of home and work life. It is a little bit harder to stop working and set boundaries when your work is on your kitchen table.

With most school districts announcing the fall sessions will be online learning, at least in California, working parents are panicked. There have been some hilarious memes on social media about it. Needless to say, this adds an even bigger glitch in the current work-life balance dilemma many are facing. Not to mention a high level of stress this will cause for parents.  In the last few months, we have coached hundreds of great leaders that are struggling with the current working situation. Know, you are not alone.

While achieving the perfect equilibrium of work and personal time is a noble goal to strive for, the reality is that few can achieve and sustain it. Jack Welch caused a controversy when he said “There is no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices.” I agree. You are responsible for your own work-life balance. Knowing that you can never sustain work-life balance indefinitely helps you redefine success in ways that can positively impact both your career and quality of life. Read on for strategies to help you proactively make important choices about your work and life, instead of striving for that ever-elusive work-life balance.

  1. Take a Break: When we are busy, for some reason, people feel like they don’t have time for a break. This is far from the truth. When we take even 5-minute breathers throughout the day, we can come back more focused and with clarity. Even if you just take a step outside and breath fresh air for a few minutes, the mental break can make a big difference in your productivity, focus and patience. That goes for lunch too. Take the lunch break. Take a quick walk outside. Do an exercise class. Remember, in order to be good leaders, we need to be a role model for good work habits and take care of ourselves too.
  2. Get Calm: When you feel yourself get stressed, take a moment to get calm. Nothing ever good comes out of responding to emails when you are stressed or have heightened anxiety. This is the signal, from your body, that you need a break or need clarity. Take a deep breath, take a step back and analyze the big picture. What are the possible actions and outcomes. When you can see the big picture, you are better equipped to respond to the situation at hand.
  3. Communicate Your Boundaries: It is so easy to get caught up in the long working hours conundrum. Especially when working from home. In work cultures where working 60 – 70 hours per week is the norm, people wear their weekly hours worked as a badge of honor. It is easy to feel guilty if you are logging out before 6:00 pm. Don’t buy into the guilt. Just because people are working those long hours does not mean they are any more productive than someone working fewer hours each week, but working more efficiently. We want to be working smarter, not harder, or longer in this case. Set and communicate your boundaries. Be willing to say “no” to a request if it doesn’t align to your vision and goals. If logging off work on time so that you have enough to spend time with your family is a priority, let coworkers know that they can depend on you to attend an occasional late meeting or evening out with a client, but otherwise, you’ll be leaving on time each day. Good managers measure employees based on their contributions and results, not their hour per week.
  4. Put Margin Back in Your Life: Filling up every minute of your day adds stress. When every moment of your life is scheduled, there is no room for anything to go wrong. If you schedule back-to-back meetings, and the first meeting runs late, you are going to be trying to catch up for the rest of the day. Add a buffer into your calendar – actually block it off your calendar so you don’t get booked all day. Great leaders know that they also need strategic thinking time in their schedule to be successful at accomplishing their vision.
  5. Don’t Email on the Weekends and After Hours: If you feel compelled to check and respond to your email on the weekend, work off-line – then send them the next day or on Monday. When you send an email, many in this world feel compelled to respond to you. There is very little communication in the workplace so critical that it cannot wait until the next day or Monday morning. You can also schedule your emails to be sent the next day during normal business hours. But ask yourself this question: how is working nights and weekends is going to help you accomplish your goal of work-life balance?
  6. Focus on Results – Not Tasks or Activities. Reading your email or surfing the internet is one of the greatest examples of participating in an activity that may have nothing to do with a result. We agree, being responsive to emails is important. What is far more important than the activity is the result that is produced out of the activity in itself. At work, re-designing a new procedure to overcome a problem or developing a new product are both examples of results. Being at home in the evening is an activity. However, listening to your significant other to build an even stronger relationship or helping one of your children with their homework is an activity that produces important results. As well, being on Zoom calls all day is an activity, unless the outcome produces results.
  7. Seek Energy, Not Balance: Happiness and work-life balance are not the same thing. You can have perfect work-life balance and be in a dead end, uninspiring job that leaves you depressed and exhausted. You can also be working incredibly long hours on a complex, challenging project and be happy, because you are spending time in an area of your life that energizes you. Those leaders who are engaged, energized and in charge of their lives have something more than happiness. Because they can make important choices about where they spend their time, and spend their time in pursuits that energize them, they have fulfillment, which no amount of money can buy.
  8. Buy the Tickets: Life is short. It can be over in one heartbeat. I learned this great tactic from Terry Paulson, a fellow faculty member with the Institute of Management Studies. Start by making a few dates with the friends and family who matter most. Buy a few tickets and get those events on your calendar. Don’t worry, when you’ve paid good money for theater, concert or sporting event tickets, you’ll find a way to get everything done so that you can go. The alternative is if you don’t buy them, chances are you won’t go.
  9. Learn to Say “No”: Every day, people ask you to do things. To be successful in accomplishing your vision of living a balanced life, you need to feel good about saying the word, “no.” For the amiables and the high achievers of this world who find it extremely difficult to say “no”, we recommend a “conditional no.” Instead of looking someone in the eye and saying, “No, I am not able to do that.” Instead, tell them, “I don’t have the time in my schedule to honor that request at this time, but if something changes, I’ll let you know.” Saying “no” at the moment is difficult in the short run, but leads to a much happier and more meaningful life in the long run.
  10. Make Choices Ahead of Time: We have heard from countless leaders telling us that they spend all day on zoom calls, then start their work in the evening and work into the night. If this is the case for you, you need to prioritize your life NOW! This schedule leaves no time in your life for you, or what is important to you.  If you don’t change, this choice will be made for you, by way of your health, or eroding the relationships with those that are important to you.
    Know that you cannot be excellent at all things at all times. If you drive yourself to excellence in all areas, you’ll most likely excel in stress and frustration. Instead, think through your current priorities and determine your focus. If you take time to think through your current priorities, and make choices ahead of time, then the right balance and allocation of your time will become more apparent. When you are spending time in areas that are important to you, stress levels are reduced and your satisfaction in both work and life outside of work are enhanced.
  11. Manage Your Mind-Set: Understand that sustained work-life balance will be a continuing challenge. It is never easy. Think of it as a moving target on a long journey with an unclear destination. But, do continue to think about it and take action. Identify what stresses you, and develop a course of action to reduce the stress. In some cases, stress can be reduced by determining your current priorities, focusing your actions and communicating your boundaries. In other cases, significant change may be the answer, as in leaving for an organization that demands long hours over quality of life.
  12. Celebrate Success: There are too many people in this world who are fond of the line, “I will be happy when…” or “I just need to get through…” This life will be over in one heartbeat. Each day, acknowledge what you have accomplished, count your blessings and celebrate your success.
  13. Leave Work at Work: With covid and having to work at home, this sounds impossible. Many years ago, I went to the home of an executive I was advising. As he opened his garage door, there was a 4′ x 8′ plywood sign that said, “Be Here Now!” When I asked him about the meaning of the sign he said, “Without the reminder, I bring my work into my home. The sign is all I need to go home and really enjoy my time with my family.”

Whatever you do daily, the hardest fact to acknowledge is that you have control over the balance in your life. Take ownership, plan ahead and put these tips into practice. We are confident that, when implemented, you will have even more control over leading a successful and happy work-life balance.