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The Mystery of Work Life Balance

The Mystery of Work Life Balance

Kate is a hard-working manager working at a startup company.  She toils at work but gets that nagging feeling that she’s missing out on living her life. And then perversely, when she’s not working, she tries to switch off ‘work-mode’ to enjoy her passions, friends, family… but eventually she finds that she just doesn’t have the energy.

Many people are like Kate, misunderstanding the true meaning of work life balance. They try to keep ‘work’ and ‘life’ separate, but this brings undesirable results.

Where the Curse of Work Life Balance Begins

Those who are trying to maintain a work life balance only by dividing their time – by driving a sharp wedge between work-mode and life-mode – are inadvertently dividing themselves.

When people juxtapose ‘work’ and ‘life’, they unconsciously think in terms of ‘work’ versus ‘life’ – and are constantly forced to choose one at the expense of the other.  In this framework, a gain on one side is always a loss on the other side.

And so people start to see ‘work’ as the times when they are not living their lives. ‘Work’ is seen as a necessary evil that they must suffer through until it’s time to switch off. But if you encode everything related to work as negativity and suffering, while your ‘life’ strains under the weight of unrealistic expectations of enjoyment, there really is no balance there at all.

Re-balancing work and life is possible by seeking out a new and enjoyable job to a certain extent. But no job is perfect. There are always going to be tedious aspects to any job. And before long you’ll wind up on the same ‘life’ versus ‘work’ see-saw because you haven’t changed the old framework.

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The Only Way to Break the Curse

The true goal is to redistribute the positive (+) and negative (-) evenly across life.

Most people try to make it all positive off work to compensate the negativity at work like this:

    If it’s all negative at work and all positive when the work mode is switched off, the work performance will suffer – creating even more negativity. People will lean heavily on their off-mode life for happiness, but they can’t truly achieve happiness because they are not facing the problems at work.

    Conversely, there are those who do strive to put positivity into their work life. Their work life balance looks like this:

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      Unfortunately, if these people are still stuck in the old on/off framework, all the negativity will shift to their off-mode self, and their relationships and health will suffer.

      Very few lucky people experience positivity on both sides of the equation, their work life balance looks like this:

        If you are one of those who experience positivity in both sides, lucky you! You are one of the less than 5% of the population.

        For the rest of the 95% of the population, here is a cure to having a realistic work life balance.

        The solution is to recover the sense of a unified self. When you do, you’ll dismantle the competing work/life binary, and you’ll stop unconsciously labelling work as ‘suffering’ and life as ‘enjoyment’. Positive energy will begin to flow smoothly and effortlessly through your life.

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        To recover the sense of a unified self, ask yourself: Why do I really do what I do, in life and in work?

        Your answer to this question make up your blueprint of a unified self, charged with meaning that relates directly to who you are and what you care about.

        Use your blueprint now to examine your life at work, your leisure time and your relationships and see if they align with each other. The new framework is no longer ‘balance’, but ‘alignment’.

        This will reveal to you a number of things:

        • There are aspects of your work that are not suffering: Look again and you’ll find many positive aspects that reflect what you care about. For example, you may value creativity, and realize that you get the opportunity to show it at work every day.
        • Things you care about at ‘work’ are the same as what you care about in your ‘life’: For example, you may value friendship in your life, and you also practice this value with your colleagues. Your values exist in all your interactions, and serve your unified self.
        • What you do at work and what you do in your life support and enhance each other: For example, the same generosity you show your friends can forge good client relationships when practiced at work. Your resourcefulness at work can be used to solve obstacles in your personal life.

        Crucially, you never need to use the on/off work model again because you’re constantly acting in accordance with what you truly value. As a result, you’ll find that your positive energy will not be subject to draining or overflowing, off/on, but will instead flow consistently through all your states of being in a perpetual positive feedback loop.

        This is how a realistic work life balance is like:

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          A Life Without the Distressing Curse

          Your renewed conceptualisation from ‘balance’ to ‘alignment’ is an inner transformation that can empower you whatever your current circumstances are.

          For example, it may reveal that you truly are suffering in your current job. But now you can unroll your blueprint to identify the cause of the negativity (i.e. what isn’t aligning with what you value?) and either remind yourself why you’re really doing what you’re doing, or make a tweak… or indeed change your job.

          Even if the latter, you can still be sustained by positivity until you find that new job. You may hate your everyday tasks, but one of things you value is to be a good provider for your family – so you’re spurred on, knowing that you’re doing that every day.

          Or if you’re a workaholic, your blueprint may reveal that what you previously undervalued as ‘off-mode’ (relaxing, having fun, pursuing a passion, spending time with family and friends) actually contain a wealth of values that support – and even enhance – a well-rounded working life.

          A value-rich and optimally tuned work life alignment helps maintain a flow of positive energy and happiness in all aspects of being. So go ahead and make the blueprint of you.

          More by this author

          Leon Ho

          Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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          Last Updated on April 23, 2019

          How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

          How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

          Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

          While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

          For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

          While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

          I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

          Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

          Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

          Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

          The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

          Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

          What Is a Stretch Goal?

          A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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          In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

          For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

          This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

          It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

          The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

          The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

          I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

          Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

          1. Get Outside of Your Head

          If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

          If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

          I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

          Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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          2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

          When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

          I see this in so many areas of life:

          When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

          In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

          “Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

          Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

          3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

          When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

          The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

          For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

          We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

          From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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          When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

          Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

          4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

          S.M.A.R.T.

          is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

          While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

          Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

          For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

          By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

          5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

          I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

          The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

          When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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          One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

          Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

          I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

          A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

          As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

          From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

          The Bottom Line

          These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

          For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

          Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

          Reference

          [1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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