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How to Balance Your Life
Practical ways to achieve work/life balance
By James O'Loghlin
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 James O'Loghlin
All rights reserved.
why people don't lead balanced lives
BEFORE we discuss strategies you can use to rebalance your life, it's worth trying to work out why people are so quick to notice that their work/life balance is not as they would like it to be, but so slow in acting to try to change it. What holds us back? Lack of motivation? Fear? Insecurity? A sense that there is nothing that can be done?
the whinge/action discrepancy
In most areas of life, once a problem is identified, action is taken to fix it. If you open the fridge and find the ice-cream has melted, you ring the fridge fixer. At work whenever a problem is identified — 'a client says their truckload of widgets didn't arrive' — steps are immediately taken to rectify it. If you had a sore tooth and the pain was diminishing your quality of life, you would be in the dentist's waiting room reading last century's magazines as soon as you could get an appointment. Why, then, do we allow work/life balance problems, which also diminish our quality of life, to persist year after year?
There are many reasons why the idea of addressing work/life balance may not initially be attractive. You may love your job, and enjoy spending lots of time doing it. You may believe that all this talk of work/life balance is all very nice, but you damn well need the money that only working long hours can provide. You may believe that it is impossible to do your job properly unless you work long hours. You may even think that the hours you work are, all things considered, quite reasonable, given that in return you get a decent whack of money.
Let's deal firstly with some of the perceived obstacles that prevent people from examining and adjusting their work/life balance and how to overcome them. Then we'll examine the benefits of embarking on an in-depth examination of your circumstances, and discuss how making some changes to your life could actually make it better. After that, we'll go on to discuss some of the changes you can make that could improve your work/life balance.
obstacles to achieving work/life balance (and how to overcome them)
there's nothing i can do
One reason many people continue to lead unbalanced lives is that they believe that there is nothing they can do to change their circumstances. They may feel trapped by the demands of their job, or by their employer's attitude, or by the financial demands on them to support themselves and their family.
If someone says their work hours are out of their control and they are completely unable to do anything, it allows them to take on the longsuffering air of the hard-working martyr and to feel good about themselves for being a noble, self-sacrificing provider. But it's very rarely the case that things have to be this way. If, for example, you are employed in a factory working fixed-term shifts set by a machine, and you need all the money you earn to support yourself and your family, and it is impossible to find another job with different conditions, then yes, the whole thing may be out of your control. But landscape gardeners, lawyers, doctors, sales executives, plumbers, real estate agents, public servants and IT professionals who say their work hours are completely out of their control are being disingenuous. If you really want to change, there is usually a way. That may sound glib, but later we will look at ways you can introduce work/life balance strategies into even workplaces that look like they have set, rigid conditions. Even if reducing your income is completely non-negotiable, there are still many things you can do to improve your work/life balance.
The idea that there is nothing you can do to change your work/life balance is rarely correct.
it's not my fault i'm important
Another objection to examining balance is the belief that if you worked fewer hours it would be impossible to do your job properly. Some believe that, given the type of job they have, the number of hours they work is inevitable and unchangeable. They think, 'Yes, ideally I would like to work fewer hours but because I am a doctor/mechanic/IT person/hang-gliding instructor, unfortunately it's just not possible. The fact is that in my job, you just have to work a 45-/55-/65hour week and that, tragically, is just the way the world is.'
Again, there are some jobs for which this is true. If your productivity is fixed by forces outside your control — for example, if you work on a production line where you can only work as fast as the machine lets you, or if your job has fixed-term shifts such as waitressing or nursing — then, yes, it may be difficult to reduce the hours you work and still do the job. All you may be able to do is to drop a shift and consequently reduce your income. Unfortunately for those in this situation the whole work/life balance equation may come down to the fact that you can only work fewer hours if you forgo some income.
However, most jobs are not that rigid. Most jobs give employees some control over their own productivity and enforce less than utterly rigid work hours. If you are in a job where you have some control over your productivity — that is, where if you work more efficiently and intensely you can get more done in an hour than if you slack off and take it easy — and you are not on a rigidly enforced shift system, then there are strategies you can adopt that can improve your work/life balance without affecting your income.
Many people say that their job is a demanding one with many responsibilities and that it would not be possible to do it in less than a nine- or 10-hour day. To deny even the possibility that by becoming more efficient and productive you could get the same amount done in less time (and hence go home earlier) is foolish and usually wrong. When a company calls in management consultants, they conduct a rigorous and thorough examination of the way everything is done, analyse the results and inevitably find ways that things could be done more efficiently. If you can rigorously analyse the way you spend your own work time, it is almost inevitable that you will find ways in which you can do more in less time, and so reduce your work hours without this having any negative effect on your job or income.
There's a psychological hurdle we need to clear here.
Part of the reason we believe that we couldn't possibly spend less time at work without the whole place falling apart is that we like to feel important.
That's why people ring work when they go on holidays. The idea that we are not indispensable can be horrifying. Well, get used to it. You're not indispensable. No one is. High-up important people in multi-million-dollar companies sometimes die and when they do, does the company collapse? Almost never. The most powerful person in the world was killed in 1963. Was there chaos? Did America fall apart? No, they calmly installed the vice-president as the new president, and off they went. None of us are as important as we think we are.
There is, luckily, some consolation for this terrifying piece of news. If you do manage to reduce your work hours and reconnect, or improve your connection, with your family and other non-work parts of your life, any feelings of irrelevance you may have felt as a result of accepting that you are not quite as important at work as you thought you were are likely to be more than compensated for in other ways.
show me the money
The next reason people may be reluctant to enthusiastically examine their work/life balance is that while they may believe that talk of work/life balance is all very well, the bottom line is brutally simple: they need the money, and only working long hours can provide it. Part-time work and reducing working hours sounds great, but who can afford it?
There are two responses to this. The first is that there is plenty you can do to improve your work/life balance that does not involve even entertaining the idea of lowering income. There are many strategies I will discuss that do not contemplate the notion of a pay cut, and which you can implement without reducing your potential to achieve future pay rises, or without being perceived by employers as being any less worthy of promotion.
The second response is to ask you to pause for a moment and think about how much money you want, and how much money you actually need. And also to think about how much time you want. Sacrificing some income to gain more free time is an option for some people and not for others. One of the ironies of modern life is that the time at which many people start to really want more free time is when they have children, but this is also often the time when their finances are tightest. Kids bring a sudden increase in expenses. There are more mouths to feed and new parents have often just rented or bought a larger home to fit everyone in. Many have taken on a big mortgage. And at the time they have children most people have not been in the workforce long enough to achieve as much seniority and income as they will have later in their career. The flipside is that when the kids have moved out, 15 or 20 years later (or, increasingly frequently, 25 or 30 years later), the parents may well be earning a lot more, but actually need a lot less. How many empty-nesters going on South Pacific cruises wish that they could trade the money they now have for an extra two hours a day at home with the kids 20 years ago? Perhaps the thought never crosses their minds. Maybe it should.
what does your life cost?
Many people feel they are trapped in a life of long work hours because they require a certain income to meet their expenses. Yet when asked to do some simple trade-offs between expenses and time, they often answer quickly and definitively. Here are some questions you may want to start thinking about.
If it meant you could work fewer hours and spend more time with your kids or doing other things would you ...
drive a cheaper car?
go on cheaper holidays?
spend 10 per cent less on groceries?
use your car less?
buy appliances that work but aren't fancy?
spend a bit less on going out?
The instinctive answer for many is that yes, they would reduce their expenses on non-essentials if it meant they could have more free time. While many people need every cent they earn to get by, others could reduce their expenses by 10 per cent without too much pain. It's worth having a think about which category you are in, and whether your income really is completely non-negotiable.
whatever you say, guv'nor
Some are reluctant to examine their work/life balance because they think the hours they work are, all things considered, quite reasonable, given that in return they get the key that opens almost all doors, money. Employees feel a lot of guilt. We feel guilty if we go home leaving something unfinished, guilty if we go outside and walk around the block for 10 minutes to get some fresh air after two hours of solid work, guilty when there is work that needs to be done by Monday and we ignore it over the weekend and go on a picnic with our family. Get over it. Service is a noble thing and providing good service to an employer can be very satisfying. But if the cost of providing it is that you do not have enough time for yourself, your family or other things that are important to you, then your life is unbalanced.
If you are serious about adjusting your work/life balance you need to get over the serf mentality.
Serfs had virtually no bargaining power and if they didn't accept what their landlord demanded of them, they were cactus. You are not a serf. You are not beholden to one employer, your fate does not rest in their hands, and you do not need to accept whatever they demand of you. You are a valuable member of the workforce who could at any moment decide to take their labour elsewhere. Employers have always desperately needed good workers. Without them their businesses will fail. At present there is still relatively low unemployment and, in many areas, a shortage of skilled labour. Both factors improve the bargaining position of employees. You do not need to offer an employer everything you have in order to get and hold a decent job and generate an income. You simply need to efficiently complete various tasks. You do not owe them your life. And you do not need to apologise for having one.
Employees often feel a disproportionate sense of obligation to their employers.
They are so grateful that they were given a job, taught how to do it properly and then, every few years, given a promotion that they make the mistake of thinking that these things happened because their employer wanted to be nice to them. Their employer may well have wanted to be nice to them, but that is not why these things happen. The main reason that recruitment, training and promotion happen is not to benefit the employee. It is to benefit the employer. If an employer takes a punt on someone and gives them a big promotion and a lot of seniority quickly, it is because they think the person has skills that will benefit the company and help it to make a profit.
If you want to tackle your work/life balance, you have to stop thinking about what you owe your employer, and start thinking about what you owe yourself and your family. And you have to start negotiating with your employer as an equal, not as a serf.
it's the twenty-first century, stupid
Most employees underestimate their negotiating power. At some deep level most of us believe that we are lucky to have a job, that we are easily replaceable and that we need our employers more than they need us. Accordingly, we feel that if we were to be so presumptuous as to ask for working conditions that suited us better it would be seen as ingratitude.
In the old days the choice was simple. You either worked as much as you were told to, or you got sacked and you and your family starved. Now the world has changed. Technology allows us to work at home, on the bus or even at the beach, and employers are beginning to understand that concepts like 'part-time work' and 'flexible working hours' are not inherently evil but are things they must understand and embrace if they want to maximise the benefit they get from their most precious resource, their people.
They also understand that the days of employees signing up with a company at age 20 and retiring 45 years later with a gold watch are gone. The workforce is more fluid, and people are more willing to change jobs, even careers. As a result, if an employer finds someone they want to keep, they can no longer just assume that as long as they keep paying the person, the person will want to stay. Employers know that their most valuable resource is not their technology or the client base or their assets, but their people. It is people who run the technology, deal with the clients and utilise the assets. It is people who are responsible for doing the thing that every organisation needs more than anything else — the thinking. Employers need employees to come up with new ideas, to think of better ways of running the business, to innovate, and to use their intellect, energy, charm, intelligence and other skills to make their business work.
There are now more opportunities and more technological aids that can help us to balance our lives than there have ever been before.
No longer are the dice loaded in the favour of employers. You have something that your employer wants, and that thing is you. More and more employers are realising that they have to move away from the traditional 'this is the job, take it or leave it' approach to a more flexible model where, in order to find and keep employees, they need to listen to what they want and be more responsive to their needs.
I'm not saying that the corporate world has gone all touchy feely. It is still motivated by what corporations have always been motivated by: the desire to maximise profit. But often a win-win solution is possible. When business is slow, employers may be more willing to allow an employee to reduce their working hours. They may even encourage it. For example, some firms get through tough economic times without redundancies by getting employees to work less than a 10day fortnight. Then, when business picks up, employees may find that the demand for their skills, and therefore their bargaining power, has increased, allowing them to negotiate conditions that will help them achieve a good work/life balance. Ultimately, regardless of economic circumstance, employers need good employees.
Some people think that, in theory, the idea of rebalancing their life is a good one, but they are not quite sure how to go about it. As a result, they may put the problem aside, or consign it to the 'do later' pile where it may languish for years or even decades, along with fixing the laundry cupboard and sorting out the superannuation. Or they may not act to rectify a work/life balance problem because they don't give it enough priority. We spend our lives prioritising. 'I'd love to sit on the couch, but it is more important to make dinner', 'I want to keep reading this book, but I need to go to sleep.' Every day, every hour, we mentally prioritise many different things. We do the task we have identified as the most important first, then work our way down the list until the point when another event intervenes and brings in new priorities. For example, on the train to work I want to look at the people, read the paper, read my book, and think about what I am going to say in a meeting this morning. I prioritise preparing for the meeting as number 1, reading the paper as 2, reading my book as 3 and looking at the people as 4. I start mentally preparing for the meeting and just as I finish and am about to turn to priority 2 the train arrives at my stop. Now there is a new priority number 1. Get off the train. The newspaper must wait.
Excerpted from How to Balance Your Life by James O'Loghlin. Copyright © 2009 James O'Loghlin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
part 1: why you should balance your life,
1 Why people don't lead balanced lives,
2 'Let's go bowling!' — the creeping growth of the workplace,
3 The benefits of balance,
part 2: how to balance your life,
4 What do you want?,
5 How to reduce your working hours without reducing your income,
6 Is your income negotiable?,
7 Rebalancing when your income may be negotiable,
8 What if nothing works?,
9 Why employers should encourage work/life balance,
10 Rebalancing for the self-employed,
11 Making the most of your time,
The end, or the beginning,
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