One of my recent coaching client had all of the usual senior manager productivity problems. Three hundred emails per day. Back to back meetings most days. Large teams to manage and massive, high profile projects to deliver on. The additional challenge was that this woman had to do it all in a four day week. Inevitably, her work spilled over into her time with the family, and she ended up virtually working on the fifth day, or working back ridiculously late during the week to protect her non-work days.
Most of us face the same problem with work/life balance. Too much to do, too little time. For some people, throwing more hours at the issue is an acceptable solution. In fact, some relish working the long hours because they can, and they love the work. For many, there are certain times in our career where this is possible, and we believe that by putting in the hours now we will climb the ladder and reach a point where we can have a family, slow down a bit and reduce our crazy work-hours. But the reality is that most of the middle to senior managers I work with in this supposedly more balanced phase of their careers, male and female, are working long hours to stay on top. Even if they are not staying in the office late, they are bring the laptop home, or are glued to their mobile device instead of their kids and families.
While some of the causes of work/life imbalance are out of our control – the culture of the organisations we work for; the unrealistic expectations of our managers; the unrealistic expectations of our clients, there are some simple mistakes I see many people make all by themselves that feeds the problems that are within our control and can be fixed.
I believe there are four different things that need to be balanced if we want to achieve a better overall work/life balance. If these factors are slightly out of balance, they have a compounding effect and throw your balance right off.
Reactive / Proactive
The first thing that we need to get in balance is the amount of time we spend reacting versus pro-acting. I reckon email is to blame for the massive increase in reactiveness in the modern workplace. We are constantly distracted by interruptions that fragment our work and stop us from focusing on the mission critical tasks we need to get done. If your day is spent reacting to one issue after another, then you are likely to spend your night catching up on your real priorities. Structure your day so that you have set times where you process emails, and turn your email alerts off so you don’t get distracted when trying to focus on important work. I process emails for about 45 minutes both in the morning and afternoon, and have a 5 minute quick check about once per hour. Other than that, my focus is on my meetings and my priorities.
Meetings / Tasks
One of the biggest challenges I see at the managerial level is too many meetings. Meetings are very public, and we don’t like to let others down, so we say yes to far too many. If your week is full of meetings your will not leave enough time during core working hours to get your tasks done, which are often just as important as your meetings. The difference is that tasks are private – you do them by yourself, and nobody really knows or cares until your have missed the deadline. Therefore you put them off until later, and eventually the deadline means you have to do it tonight (even though you promised yourself that you would have a romantic evening with your partner).
The solution to this is easy and hard. Less meetings! Think about how much of your core working week, whether it be 5 days or 3 days, should be available to meetings, and how much should be protected for doing your other priorities. A good balance would be 50% meetings and 50% tasks. The reality for many of my clients is more like 80% meetings and 20% tasks! It is hard to hold the line on this in the face of the onslaught, but worth the effort.
Important / Urgent
Stephen Covey wrote extensively about the balance between importance and urgency in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Everything has an element of importance, and an element of urgency. The problem today, again fuelled by our instant email, is that most organisations are driven by urgency, yet they measure your performance on how well you execute on the important. Even when you are clear about your priorities, it can be a challenge to get to them when everything that comes to you in the day is urgent, and everyone is screaming for it now.
We need to manage expectations better, and not get sucked into the urgency trap. There are actually four types of urgency, and only one worth reacting to. Some urgency is real, some urgency is false. Learn to test if something is really urgent or just a squeaky wheel. Some urgency is reasonable but much is unreasonable. Things come to you as urgent usually because someone has not done their work when they should have. Work is complex, and most people have good intentions, but don’t support poor work practices by rolling over every time someone comes to you with an urgent ‘crises’. Ask the question “Why is everything you come to me with urgent?”, and set the expectation that that work gets delivered in a timely way rather than last minute. This is not easy sometimes, and requires a consistent approach, but over time people learn to work with you in a more proactive way.
Role 1 / Role 2
The final balance to get right is between your different roles. You have a job title, but within that are probably several different roles, or key areas of focus. You may be a manager of a team, but also have a role in a key project, as well as having a business development focus. These different aspects of your job can sometimes get out of balance, and you end up ignoring a role for too long and then have to react to it. I often see law firm partners who spend most of their time managing their team and doing client matter work, but leaving the business development behind. Sit down and clarify what your roles are, both inside and outside of work, and try to get some balance with the time you spend on this across your week. Take time to plan your week within the context of these roles.
Just like a tight-rope walker trying to maintain balance on the wire, these different variables require constant adjustments to stay in balance. But when you get it right you begin to see an overall balance begin to emerge – a calmer, more relaxed and more productive balance.