Beyond Work-Life Balance

As I wrote this week on CBS MoneyWatch, work-life balance is a crock.  Once people come to this conclusion, the question is, what should people do to plan their work and life?  This task isn’t easy, but hopefully this blog post will get you started.[br]

Probably like you, I’m beyond busy, with every day filled with items I couldn’t possibly reschedule.  That all started changing in August, when my sister called to say that my mother had blacked out and collapsed, and was in an ambulance on her way to the hospital.  I grabbed my car keys and my computer bag that I hoped still had a power bar in it, and drove on the 405 like the public service commercials tell you not to drive.  By the time I parked and ran to the hospital entrance, her ambulance pulled up.  She was awake, but the most pale I had ever seen her, and confused.  In the next 12 hours, she would pass out and come to dozens of times, always confused about where she was and why I was there.  “Dave?  What are you doing here?”  Each time, I’d explain she was in the hospital, and each time, she asked the same question: “but don’t you have to work?”  The first time she asked, it stung.  By the 100th, it seemed like God or the universe was trying to send a message: my priorities sucked.  The scene replayed over the next six weeks, when my mother got weaker and weaker, and eventually passed away from complications of pneumonia.[br]

What I’m writing here is what I wish I had read before this episode, in the hopes that you’ll learn sooner what I learned too late.  Unfortunately, our real priorities lurk in the darkness far too long.[br]

Step One: Start with what’s scarce: time.  You only get so much, and you can’t hit “undo.”  Some things are abundant.  Time is not one of them.  The goal is to get so focused on what’s vital, that you get in the regular habit of saying “I don’t have time for that” to anything that doesn’t serve what really matters.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s “work” and “life.”  There’s only life.[br]

Step Two: See what you have going on right now, in both your work and personal life.  Most of us don’t know how busy we are (or aren’t) because everything is scattered.  Post-it notes, emails, texts, notes written on the backs of meeting agendas, and perhaps stacks of stuff anywhere we look.  Before you can make any decisions on priorities, see what you have going on right now.  If you want the gold standard version of getting a handle on everything, schedule a life repair day.[br]

Step Three: Assess your core values, and those of the people around you.  Values aren’t warm fuzzy platitudes, they are hard-core decision making tools.  The most important decisions come down to how we spend our time.  If you haven’t assessed your values in the last year, take a few minutes to do so now.  We developed a free tool to help, called Mountains and Valleys.[br]

Step Four: Schedule some time with the people closest to you—your significant other, and then the people in your business life.  Discuss what’s important, and what will drive your scheduling.  If something directly expresses your values—like writing this blog post for me (gets to “learning” and “impact”)—then it’s “vital.”  Time at home is vital, but let’s be honest—there are some things you can hand off.  Cleaning the House, picking up the dry cleaning, doing the laundry, even picking up groceries and paying bills can be handed off to someone else.  The question is, what are you doing that expresses your values?  Those tasks are vital, and they must be done whether someone else would call them “work” or “life.”[br]

If it serves the community, it’s “important.”  If it focuses on getting things done, but adds little value, it’s “useful.”  If it has no values connection at all, it’s “ineffective.”  Destructive actions like harsh gossip are “undermining.”  The rule is: 70% of your time should be focused on “vital” and “important” tasks.  The “useful” items, catching up on email, handling routine items that don’t express your values should get no more than 30% of your time.  Immediately stop all “ineffective” and “undermining” tasks, whether you do them at home or the workplace.[br]

Step Five: Use “1/10 time game,” in which you ask: “If I had 1/10 the available work time, what would I do?”  A coaching client of mine who is one of those people works 14 hours a day, often six or seven days a week, is convinced that if he stepped away for a day, everything would turn to dust.  His wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t take three weeks off and travel overseas.  The deal they struck was that he could spend one hour a day on the phone during this time, and that was it.  At the end of the three weeks, instead of returning to a business that was a smoldering ash heap, it was pretty much the same as it would have been if he hadn’t left.  It stunned him to realize most of what he spent his time on wasn’t as valuable as he thought.  The 1/10 time game encourages you to focus on these tasks before your spouse threatens to leave you.  You realize that the relationship side of work is important, and doing what no one else can do is critical.  Most everything else can be renegotiated.[br]

Step Six: Act as if you worked for a 2050 company.  In 2050, we’ll look back and wonder how anything got done in 2011.  People were in rigid job roles, expected to work mostly in the office and spend their time using skills that weren’t their best.  People work in departments, and 75% of company cultures are mediocre.  In 2050, this will all be different (we hope).  What if you worked in such a place today?  What agreements could you make with your boss?  What tasks could you simply stop doing?  I know this is hard, because so much of what companies do is pointless, and yet, according to someone, still needs to get done.[br]

One last thing.  After my mother passed away in September, I’ve thrown myself into work, both because I’d let some things slide and felt I needed to catch up and, as psychologists would say, as a coping mechanism.  As a result, I’ve been sick more than I’ve been well, am on the verge of losing my voice after 2:00 pm most days.  I’m writing this blog post as much to me as anyone.  I’m resolving that 2012 will focus on those things matter, and leave behind much of the useful and ineffective.  I hope you’ll join me in this effort.[br]

If you found this blog post interesting, you might want to hear a conversation I had with David Allen, who was named the “guru of personal productivity” by Fast Company. [br]

Have any more ideas?  If so, I hope you’ll post a comment below.[br]

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