Scheduled breaks and mitigated time can provide a better transition from work to real life duties.
A tightrope walker’s balancing act has much to teach the misguided soul who’s trying to achieve work-life balance. From one end of the high wire to the other, the performer is never truly balanced but rather adjusts constantly to his true state, which is imbalance, in order not to fall. That’s what makes his act exciting.
Let’s take the concept of balance to the playground. Kids who achieve perfect balance on a seesaw stop moving and stay parallel to the ground. On the other hand, when one kid outweighs the other and the imbalance is such that the heavier kid can’t get off the ground, there’s a problem.
The takeaway is that work-life balance is really about negotiating imbalance, and it’s a continual process as opposed to something we master. But we can see why a serious imbalance is to be avoided.
Mark A. Worthington, a group manager at the engineering firm T&M Associates based in Middletown, N.J., tries to achieve some semblance of balance by using contrasting colors on his calendar so he can see at a glance which work and life activities need attention.
Many successful professionals have systems in place to keep any one area from getting out of whack.
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner “grays out” parts of his calendar, periodically “scheduling nothing.” He started it to avoid workdays packed with back-to-back meetings and leave himself time to “just think,” but people can schedule what he calls “buffers” during off hours, too, and use the time for whatever strikes their fancy or calls out for their attention. “Make sure you make that time for yourself, every day and in a systematic way, and don’t leave unscheduled moments to chance,” Weiner advises.
Before marking up their calendars, folks may want to sit down first to determine what their priorities are, as well as an ideal and minimum amount of time to spend on each. For example, how many workouts per week would be ideal, and what’s the acceptable minimum? How many date nights with your spouse? How much quality time with the kids?
“Your ideal will not happen all the time,” says system creator Bob Wright, founder and CEO of The Wright Graduate University in Chicago. “If your ideal becomes a must, then you’ll feel like a failure. Life ebbs and flows, and there are going to be times when you go below your minimum.”
But folks can readjust, and that’s what balance is all about.
If scheduling an occasional long lunch is permissible, block off some personal time. It may seem indulgent but can pay off for employees and companies where a 9-to-5 schedule just doesn’t cut it. “I try to go to yoga at lunch at least once a week. Then I don’t mind staying late if I have to,” says Morgan Perry, vice president of the New York-based communications agency The Thomas Collective. “Or sometimes I’ll leave on time, then work from home after having dinner, or leave during the week at normal hours then work a little on weekends.”
Commuting rituals or cut-off points can help employees leave work at work. For example, a driver can mull the events of the day up to a certain landmark or intersection, and then mentally shift gears so as not to bring job-related stress home to the family, says Steve Moore, whose colleague practices just such a ritual.
As for Moore, he leaves work behind when he takes a vacation, scheduling weeklong breaks from Wednesday to Wednesday instead of Monday through Friday. “That way, I’m in the office Monday and Tuesday to take care of things, wrap up loose ends, and prepare people who will be covering for me,” says Moore, human resources manager for the HR firm Insperity, headquartered in Houston. “And then when I get back to the office on a Wednesday, I only have two days until the weekend break.”
Perhaps nothing upsets a sense of balance more than being physically present but mentally elsewhere. Friends and families can sense this, especially when the offender makes it obvious by checking their devices for emails and texts, says John Greene, president of CSB Training and chief operating officer of Collaborative Consulting in Massachusetts.
“What do you think your co-worker or boss would think about you interrupting the conversation you were having with them?” he asks. So why do it to friends and family?
“They will tolerate only if you are responding to an urgent work issue and you explain why you are doing it,” Greene says.
Lastly, when setting and maintaining boundaries, allow them to “give” when truly necessary. “Being rigid messes up the whole concept of work-life balance,” Moore says. “It’s all about flexibility.”
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