So let's talk about over-used terms for a minute.
If you've been in the business world since the mid-1990s, you've likely heard your management espouse the desire for employees to achieve greater work/life balance. Many U.S. companies have adopted programs to help employees strike a better life balance by providing health club benefits, entertainment discount programs and additional time off for events such as the birth of a child. Despite all this, Americans are the most overworked and flat-out busy people on earth, recently surpassing the Japanese and long surpassing the Europeans. With all this discussion of work/life balance, how can we in the U.S. also be the most overworked people in the world? The answer is pretty simple; many of us talk work/life balance, but don't live work/life balance primarily because we don't know how to do it.
First, let's get clear on the primary purpose of achieving work/life balance. It's about minimizing stress in your life. Much of the stress in a typical person's life is derived from work. Stress comes from non-work activities as well. You can say you've got work/life balance, but in addition to working full-time, you might participate in many activities with the kids, volunteer at the local homeless shelter and exercise 5 days a week. If you're feeling stressed and tired, you haven't achieved the primary intent of work/life balance, which is to reduce stress. All you have done is balanced the degree of stress you have in your work life with the stress you have in your non-work life. But at least the stress is balanced.
To realize a practical work/life balance, consider the following tips:
- Consciously (and honestly) decide what is really important - Saying that work/life balance is important is one thing; truly meaning it is a different game altogether. You may want to believe you place other things above work, but wanting to believe it simply doesn't mean it's so. Make a conscious, realistic declaration on where your priorities lie, then examine your behaviors or ask a friend, relative, significant other or spouse. Taking the first step toward the quest for work/life balance means eliminating the gap between what you desire and what you do.
- Make your calendar a life thing, not just a work thing - Integrate important personal activities into your calendar. Examples of things to schedule include exercise, being home at a specific time for dinner and kids' activities. Also include items such as important meetings that your spouse or significant other needs to attend which require you to be at home with the kids or to take junior to the dentist.
- Measure success in results, not hours - Those who measure success based on hours worked will prioritize hours over results and tend to be less motivated to figure out how to get more work done in less time. Those who measure success based on results are more likely to figure out better ways to do things, prioritize their work and get home in time for dinner. Don't use the clock as your gauge of success; use the results you deliver as your success yardstick.
- Don't succumb to peer pressure - From our earliest years, we are exposed to peer pressure. The "I dare you's" from our youth become "Who's got a bigger house?" or "Who drives a nicer car?" as adults. Look, just because a peer works 18 hours a day doesn't mean he or she gets more done or is more effective. It just means that your peer chooses to run the hours race because he or she feels it is the best means to get ahead. Don't let your peers' actions pressure you to run the wrong race. Just stay focused on providing meaningful results that provide value to the organization.
- Don't take on too much "life" in work/life balance - Achieving work/life balance doesn't mean you cram more and more stuff into the life side of the equation to balance out a high-octane work life. Achieving good work/life balance means doing both in moderation and minimizing the stress in your life. You could be working a 40-hour work week and still be stressed out because of the non-work activities you've committed to. Doing too much life can be just as stressful to you and your loved ones as doing too much work. Don't feel obligated or pressured to fill up every hour of your week with life activities. Doing both in moderation helps you attain the key benefit of work/life balance: a low-stress life.
Realizing the quest for work/life balance means first doing some serious soul searching and coming to grips with your true life priorities. If you acknowledge you are a workaholic and don't want to change, then by all means work 18-hour days. If you do want to change, though, you need to accept the challenge head-on and get on the road to a more balanced lifestyle. You may be surprised at how your quality of life increases and how little it truly impacts your career aspirations.
Lonnie Pacelli has over 20 years experience at both Accenture and Microsoft, is the creator of "Leading on the Edge" Action Guides (http//:www.leadingonedge.comwww.leadingonedge.com) and is the author of The Project Management Advisor 18 Major Project Screw-Ups and How to Cut Them Off at the Pass. You can reach Lonnie at www.lonniepacelli.com.