Practical Steps to Take Control of Your Life
One of the most pervasive issues in my coaching practice is the struggle leaders have to achieve work-life integration. I choose those words deliberately instead of using the typical phrase “work-life balance” as balance implies giving up some of one thing in order to get more of something else. The “balance” mindset can inhibit the kind of creative thinking needed to construct a “whole life” approach to optimize all of the elements that bring joy and fulfillment.
At the outset, my response to leaders who struggle with this issue is that the struggle is, itself, a good sign. Building one’s best life isn’t easy and requires thoughtful, deliberate and ongoing attention. While the job is never “done,” I have observed a few common patterns in those who seem to be more effective in the effort.
- Begin by envisioning “the ideal”: Too often, leaders work from the assumption that the nature and structure of the work and the work environment are parameters within which they need to adapt in their efforts to find work-life integration. It is important to test those assumptions to determine how those things assumed to be “givens” might be reshaped to open up new possibilities for integration.One simple way to start is to honestly quantify how one currently apportions her waking hours among the various domains of her life: significant other and immediate family, other family and friends, work, community, personal development, exercise and self-care. It is important to not only quantify the hours but rate the level of satisfaction, as quality of the time is as important as quantity. The next step is to develop a picture of the ideal allocation of time, considering not only how many hours but also how that time might be differently spent. The final step, then, is to ask a series of questions: “What would it take for me to close the gap between where I am today and the ideal? What would I need to adjust about how I define my role, how I prioritize my time, the structure of my team, the way in which I lead, the expectations of those around me (inside and outside of work)?” Often times, with creative inquiry, leaders find strategies that enable them to not only find more life outside of work but ways to improve their impact on the job as well.
- Critically evaluate and manage your calendar: Another simple exercise that can have a dramatic impact on this struggle is a disciplined critical evaluation of the makeup of one’s calendar. Leaders can fall into the habit of managing in a reactive mode, taking what comes to them and attempting to respond with equal attention to everything that crosses their desk. Stephen Covey’s simple 2×2 matrix apportions work along the dimensions of urgency and importance. Upon critical review, leaders are often shocked at how much time is given to the urgent and unimportant and how little is apportioned to the non-urgent but vital work of leadership.
In my work with leaders, I suggest they do a “lookback” at their calendar over a representative period of time, say 4 weeks, and for each item ask themselves a set of critical questions:
- Is this something that should have received any attention at all from anyone?
- If it is something that deserved attention, did it require my personal involvement or could it have been handled effectively by someone on my team?
- If it needed my personal involvement, what was the appropriate level of that involvement? Frame the effort, initiate the process and periodically check in? Or personal, in depth involvement throughout?
- What criteria can I glean from this review that my administrative support person and I might use to prospectively construct my calendar to optimize the use of my time (and dispatch those items that should not belong to me)?
There is one other important insight I have gotten from this exercise. It is surprising how often leaders fail to prioritize what my colleagues and I refer to as “heads up” time, time to step out of the day to day demands to take the larger and longer view. For some, it requires them to change their mindset about what they define as “productive time.” If they are not engaged in a specific task they do not feel “productive.” This is especially true among first-time executives who have moved from “doing” to “leading.” Strong leaders recognize that taking “heads up” time is not only productive, it is perhaps the most important work they do.
- Work to build personal and team resilience: The reality is that in most organizations the pace of change and the complexity of the work will continue to be relentless. That means that no matter how deliberate one is in working to optimize the structure of their life at work and beyond, the demands and pressures will be intense for them and for their teams. To thrive within this reality, it is essential that leaders develop for themselves and for their team’s deliberate strategies for periodic renewal and ongoing self-care. There are numerous practical techniques that have been found to be effective in promoting personal and team resilience. No one technique works for everyone so it is worth experimenting with various approaches to find one that works for you and fits within the culture of your team.Once again, I have found that building this discipline often requires a mindset shift. For some leaders, self-care is seen as “self-ish”. It is critical for leaders to recognize the vital business interest, and ethical responsibility, to take steps to be at their best. The quality of one’s leadership depends on our ability to sustain peak physical and emotional capacity. It is an essential business investment, not a luxury.
- Periodically revisit the question: As in many parts of life, it is easy to fall back into familiar patterns of behavior. The work of creating work-life integration is hard and not a “one and done.” Strong leaders revisit these simple steps from time to time, recalibrating to face this challenge head on to strive to live their best lives.