Remember the first time you saw the tightrope walker at the circus?
Starting at one end, he took a confident step onto the rope. After a few paces, he teetered left, to the crowd’s collective “ooooh.” He regained his balance and took a few more steps. Then, he teetered right, to another round of “aaaaah.” To the collective sigh of relief and cheers from the crowd, he safely landed on the perch on the other side. With great pride, he took a bow.
Balancing acts at the circus are entertaining. It’s easy to enjoy the drama — and victory — from your secure chair in the audience.
Balancing acts in life take on a different flavor. It’s difficult to manage the drama — not to mention the stress and anxiety — when you’re the one in center stage.
The quest to achieve work-life balance is one of the most frustrating challenges for leaders. Pulled in more directions than they can count, executives who fail to create and maintain work-life balance are frequently overwhelmed, exhausted and often unable to perform at their best in any arena.
Why is work-life balance so elusive?
It’s easy to blame technology, rendering us connected to our offices 24/7. It’s easy to blame a demanding workload. It’s easy to blame time.
“The real reason many executives find it impossible to achieve work-life balance is that they fail to prioritize it,” according to Jody Michael, CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates. “Overcommitted at work, overcommitted at home, they fail to recognize the importance of committing to balance.
“Think about the way most people talk about work-life balance. Saying ‘I wish I had more work-life balance’ is akin to saying you want to lose 20 pounds, earn an advanced degree or make a career change. The first — and perhaps most critical — step in working toward any goal is making a commitment to it. That pledge will empower you to make decisions and take actions with intention.”
8 STEPS TO MAKE WORK-LIFE BALANCE A PRIORITY
Energy management — mental fitness — is integral to effective leadership. Simply put, if you’re depleted, you can’t lead others with impact and influence.
CREATING WORK-LIFE BALANCE: 3 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
Asking yourself these questions in your quest to create work-life balance will help ensure success:
1. What does work-life balance mean to me?
2. How can I lighten my load? What can I delegate, eliminate or do differently?
3. Do I have the most efficient systems in place?
People often experience an energy drain as a result of noise around constantly making work-life balance decisions. This decision fatigue creates mental clutter and interferes with your ability to perform at your best, either at home or at work.
The first step in making — and honoring — the commitment to work-life balance is to remove the obstacles that tend to get in the way.
These 8 steps are essential to achieving work-life balance:
Define it — You can’t map out a journey without identifying the destination. Lack of clarity in your definition of work-life balance will boomerang you back to square one every time you face a conflict. Work-life balance means different things to different people. What does it mean to you, your leadership and your lifestyle?
Commit to it — You are far more likely to read, philosophize, fantasize or even complain about work-life balance than to actually optimize your life using work-life balance strategies. Why is that? As Jody explains, “Most people fail to commit to creating an intention, developing an action plan and repeating the daily small steps that will lead to success.” Committing to making work-life balance a priority is key.
Manage expectations — Once you decide to prioritize work-life balance, you need to bring all key stakeholders on board. Clearly communicate your expectations to your spouse, your kids, your parents, your friends, your boss, your colleagues, your direct reports — and anyone else whose life intersects with yours.
Part of managing expectations is learning how to make an effective request. Equally important is following through on the promises you make, not only to others, but also to yourself.
Confirm alignment — Certain company cultures allow for flextime, others do not. Does your company value work-life balance? When your external environment doesn’t align with your needs, it can cause internal friction.
Learn to say no — In our culture, women — who tend to be the nurturers and caretakers — struggle with saying “no” more than men. And yet the inability to say “no” is the reason many leaders (both men and women) struggle to achieve work-life balance. Learning to say “no” involves mindfulness. It’s OK to say “yes” to others’ requests so long as it’s intentional.
Women typically tend to take care of their spouses and children first and, if there’s time, take care of themselves. At work, they tend to take care of their team members — and often their bosses and colleagues. As a result, many find themselves on the fast track to burnout.
The trick is to ensure self-care on a consistent basis. The better you feel and more rested you are, the more available you will be for others.
Plan ahead — It’s not enough to say you want something, or even to say you’ll go to the gym. When, where and how will you do what you intend to do? How will you handle a request from one of your team members as you’re walking out the door?
Have systems in place to help you manage your time and your energy. Schedule your daily activities in alignment with your energy peaks and valleys.
THE “MAGIC” OF HABITS
When you do anything out of habit, you eliminate the need to make a decision.
If, every morning, you are in the habit of eating oatmeal for breakfast, you don’t have to peruse the refrigerator for something to eat. You already know; you’re having oatmeal.
Decisions, big or small, can be energy depleting — even the “fun” ones, like which car to buy. For each option you choose, you forego others.
To kick off your new commitment to work-life balance, create one micro habit per week. Start small.
Set your alarm for getting up 15 minutes earlier. You start looking forward to those extra 15 minutes. You might find that “15 minutes earlier” turns into “an hour earlier” when you realize what you can do with that “found” time.
Manage your mindset — People often fail to recognize the enormous energetic weight caused by negative self-talk and rumination that they carry around every day. Are you really tired, or do you feel tired because that’s the message cycling through your head? Do you really have “too much” to do, or are you telling yourself your to-do list is overwhelming? When you manage the thoughts that create your moods, you achieve greater results.
Ditch the guilt — A lot of leaders express feeling guilty about not being in two places at once. When they work late, they feel badly about missing dinner with the family. When they’re at home, they’re plagued by thoughts about what they’re not doing for work.
As Jody points out, “In actuality, this type of thinking is very ineffective because you’re not present. Whatever it is you choose to do with your time, be present in that moment. Focus. Give it your complete attention — and experience it to its fullest.”
Jody emphasizes the importance of developing an awareness of the inner dialogue that pulls you away from what you’re doing. Catch yourself when you notice this nonproductive self-talk.
Then reframe the thought.
Instead of saying to yourself, “Oh no, it’s already 6:45; I really need to leave so I can get home in time to have dinner with the kids,” honestly acknowledge the fact that you will miss tonight’s family dinner. Tell yourself that’s just how it is — today. See if you can find 15 minutes to Facetime with your kids to hear about their day, and let your spouse take over for the evening. Then, tomorrow night, make it a point to leave the office on time.
Or, make a different decision. Leave the office, go home, spend time with the kids — being completely present with them — and then find a quiet hour to complete the work in your study after they go to bed.
“It doesn’t matter what you choose. What matters is that you are not ruminating about what you’re not doing,” Jody says.
THE ULTIMATE BALANCING ACT
Honoring your commitment to work-life balance can be tricky when unforeseen circumstances arise. And they always do.
“There will always be ‘pop-up emergencies’ — both at home and at work — that will cause you, like the tightrope walker, to veer a little to the left or a little to the right,” as Jody reminds clients.
“And that’s when you need to master the most pivotal balancing act of all: remaining firm in your commitment to work-life balance — with the just-right amount of flexibility.”
The tightrope walker in the circus won’t be able to master the delicate dance across the rope if he maintains a rigid stance. Rather, he needs to remain fluid in his movement.
The same holds true for you.
Adjusting to the “pulls” of your reality with that same fluidity — while retaining a firm focus on your commitment to work-life balance — will allow you to live a life that truly aligns with your priorities.