By Jim Funk
A lot of attention is given to work/life balance these days. But that term suggests there is some magical place where, if we can find it, we are spending just the right amount of time and energy on our career versus everything else.
Of course there is no magic formula for balance, and leaders often find that their work crosses over into many other aspects of their life—whether that means taking work home, staying late at the office, or even taking the laptop on vacation and getting online while sitting under an umbrella at the beach. Granted, the demands of leadership rarely fit neatly into a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday box. Leaders may spend time thinking about their goals, worrying about a struggling employee, or stressing over an upcoming difficult conversation even as they are drifting off to sleep. That is sometimes the work of leadership—to ruminate over problems and generate ideas when they have time to think.
So what do we mean by “balanced” when it comes to leadership, and how do leaders split their time between work and other aspects of life? I would propose that balance isn’t only a matter of how much time is spent on various activities, but it is also about how much mental energy and focus is given to those activities. For example, when you are sitting at the dinner table with friends or family, where are your thoughts? Are you rehashing a conversation you had at work or are you paying attention to what someone is saying to you in the moment? Maybe you’re jumping back and forth, missing parts of conversations while you mentally replay parts of your day. Research shows that the human brain cannot focus well on more than one thought at a time. That’s why the failure to be mentally present is one way leaders become out of balance. It takes discipline to turn work thoughts off when there is something else we need to focus on in the moment, and it also calls for trust in our own capability to address the issue later and not let it distract us in the meantime.
And what about working while on vacation? I must admit that I have exchanged work emails on my smart phone while watching our kids play tennis at our vacation spot. Sometimes leadership and other professional roles are so demanding that a quick response is called for, and we cannot let something wait until we return or have someone else handle it. And yet I would challenge myself and other leaders to make arrangements so that others know when we are not available, and so that we can trust others whom we have put in charge to use their judgment and abilities.
It’s not that I’m suggesting that leaders can or should completely separate work from the rest of their life, or minimize its importance. Work is an important part of one’s life, livelihood, and contribution of talent and skill. Rather, I am talking about balance and focus. It’s about being present with the people in front of us, rather than being a thousand miles away in our thoughts about work. It is also about regularly engaging in rejuvenating and restorative practices, and caring for ourselves so we have the energy and good health to be attentive to all the important aspects of life. That includes taking vacations and finding “down time” when we can put work aside and engage our minds and hearts—and time—in our other needs, and the needs of others.
A danger sign to watch for is negative “isms” that can creep into our lives. These tend to be extreme, and they can get that way before we are even aware of it. Examples are workaholism, dualism, egoism, and hedonism. But what is the difference between a healthy commitment to working hard in a job that sometimes demands many hours of our time, and workaholism? I think the difference is a question of who is in control. Are we really working because we have to, or because we are addicted to the “high” that amazing accomplishments can give us? Are we able to turn off our thoughts about work issues when we need to pay attention to other obligations and commitments, and turn our minds to other things and to the people we love? I suspect there are times when people put undue pressure on themselves at work because it’s become a habit or a compulsion. Achieving perfection can feel good in the beginning, but it can become addictive and pay diminishing returns, especially when other parts of your life suffer.
As I read back over what I have written so far, I must admit it sounds a bit “preachy,” and perhaps comes off as critical of people who work hard. But I am speaking from my own experience. There were years in my early career when I usually worked many hours a week over 40 because I was motivated to do a good job, and I was just doing what I felt was required. Now as I reflect on those years, I can see I was out of balance. I didn’t know how to reign it in.
What can we do to check our balance? Here are some steps, some of which may take courage and an open mind:
- Track your time for two weeks, in 15-minute intervals, both at work and outside of work. How are you actually spending your time? When you review the results at the end of two weeks, what surprises you? What would you like to change?
- When you are engaging in a project that will take a great deal of your time or cause you to put other important activities aside, ask yourself honestly what will happen if the project doesn’t get done. If it’s a must-do task, explore whether parts or all of it can be delegated. Also check whether the due date is reasonable or negotiable.
- Learn to say “no” to work or time consuming activities that are not as important as someone else thinks they are. Every time you agree to do something, you give up time that could be spent on something else. Time is more fixed than money. If you are crafty, you can figure out ways to earn more money, but you cannot create more than 24 hours in a day or 7 days in a week. You can only use it more wisely.
- Ask close friends and family what they observe about your work/life balance. Do they feel you are mentally present or preoccupied when you’re with them? Tell them you really want their honest feedback, and thank them when they provide it—even if it isn’t what you wanted to hear.
- Do some self-reflection on the aspects in your life that are in balance, and those that aren’t. You can divide them into what could be called the wheel of 8 Fs:
Faithful Companionship (spouse, significant other, etc.)
Which of these could use some improvement? A wheel that is not round is a pretty rough ride. What aspects would you like to get into better balance? You can’t work on everything at once, but pick the top category or two that need the most attention. Remember you may need to pull back on one of the Fs to dedicate more time to an area that’s been neglected. A coach or mentor could help identify some strategies.
Balance is one of the nine attributes of my holistic leadership model. Holistic leaders understand the importance of balance, and are willing to do what it takes to achieve it. These leaders also know the importance of modeling balance, because they know that others—particularly those who report to them—will often emulate their work habits because they think they will be judged in a more favorable light by their boss.
What habits of balance are you modeling? And if this is an area of difficulty for you, what are you willing to do to make some changes? I invite you to reply to this blog or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your story of balance—perhaps a change you were able to make to become better balanced, and what difference it has made in your life.
Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at email@example.com