ICMA Publications / PM Magazine / Archives

April 2012 · Volume 94 · Number 3

Cover Story

Appreciate the Moment: 7 Ways to Rethink Work-Life Balance

by Jon Gordon

In a perfect world, work and home would balance out neatly. We’d work from 8 to 5 each day, take an hour-long lunch, and then come home and spend uninterrupted time with our families. But for people working in the wake of the recession, firmly entrenched in an “always on” society, this notion seems hopelessly outdated.

Managers and all local government staff members continue to work long, stressful hours, and that work extends into evenings and weekends, including council and other organizational meetings that managers usually attend. Perhaps there are even more meetings now—financial and otherwise.

No wonder a 2011 survey of North American employees by Captivate Network1 found that 87 percent of respondents say their work-life balance (or lack thereof) is negatively affecting their health! With so many people suffering from this problem, you would think the natural solution would be to encourage organizations to help their stressed-out employees find more balance in their lives. But this isn’t so.

Work-life balance, at least in the sense that most of us think about it, is a myth. It does not exist. For many people, it never has. Personally, I have never been able to balance the scales of work and life on a day-to-day basis. Rather, I’ve come to realize that the dance between work and life is more about rhythm than balance.

I compare the rhythms of work and life with the rhythms of nature. There’s a time and a “season” for everything.

For most people, there are seasons when hard work and extra hours are necessary, and seasons when there is more time for rest. And guess what? When you love what you do—and I truly believe there is meaning and even joy to be found in every job, especially for a local government manager who is trying to create a better life and community for residents—you’ll thrive during the busy seasons and fully appreciate the down time.

This sense of purpose is the natural remedy for the crushing guilt that many working parents in particular experience. (You know the drill: when you’re working late, you feel guilty that you’re not home with your partner or the kids; when you’re at home, you feel guilty about all the work not getting done.)

When you believe your job has no meaning, of course you’re going to feel guilty for spending so much time there. It’s the realization that you are making a difference in the lives of others that lets you let go of the guilt and truly immerse yourself in what you’re doing during both seasons.

Here are the ways to rethink the concept of work-life balance and find passion and purpose in both arenas:

1. Let go of the work-life balance notion. Instead, think purpose and passion. It’s true that work-life balance is a topic that seems to be on people’s minds. But in many ways a perfectly balanced life is a perfectly tepid life. How much balance do you think Bono has when U2 is on tour? What about an Olympic athlete preparing for a competition? Or the leadership team at Facebook? Probably not much, but their passion and purpose fuel them to work harder and longer with more joy and satisfaction in both work and life.

When your goal is to achieve work-life balance, you’ll be constantly disappointed and so will your loved ones. But when you approach every day with passion and purpose, whether you’re working long hours to prepare an important presentation or staying up late with your daughter to work on her science project, you can find joy and happiness in whatever it is you’re pursuing at that moment.

2. Look at your work-life blend over the past year. Consider it as a whole. Rather than thinking of your work and life day to day, think of it as a whole. How many times did you get away with your family last year? Were there particular weeks or months when you worked really, really long hours? Were there times you were less busy? You might find that, when viewed that way, you did have a balanced life. Or you might realize you need to make a change in the way you do things during the upcoming year.

It is going to be virtually impossible to achieve complete balance every day of your life. There will simply be days and weeks when your work requires more time from you. There will also be days when your family requires more of your time. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to achieve a work-life balance every day, look at your life on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Schedule times to work hard, recharge, renew, play, and engage with your family and friends.

3. Identify the seasons in your organization’s work flow. In nature, there’s a season for everything. Spring (planting season) and fall (harvest) are times of extreme work. But there’s a slowdown in the summer when plants are growing; and, of course, winter is when farmers do such other things as repair work on house and equipment.

Most industries and organizations work this way, too. They have busy seasons (when they’re getting ready for major events or budget times, for instance) and not-so-busy seasons. It might be easy for you to plan the flow of your work life and your home life around these times, not just in terms of when you plan vacations but also in terms of daily work hours. During the slow time, it’s okay to leave a little earlier each day if you know you’re going to be working long hours once the busy season arrives.

Everyone’s rhythm is a little different, but when you find the right one for you and your life, you’ll be able to achieve a lot more at work and at home.

4. Keep in mind your family’s seasons, too. Of course, you can’t base everything on work schedules. There are times when your family’s need for you is greater: birth of a new baby, when a child starts school, or when an older parent is having a crisis and needs your care.

At times like these, you will want to put in the family time and make it up when you can be at work. Just as with your work, you can plan for only some of these seasons; other busy seasons—times when a parent is ill, for example—might pop up unexpectedly. You have to be ready to adjust to the season. You have to go where you are needed. If you are worried about work at those times, give some thought to who you might be coaching on the staff to fill in during unexpected absences. But you can take comfort in knowing that there will be a period when you can apply more of yourself to the job.

5. Build up a hard-work bank account with your community. When your community needs you to really push, push hard. (And do it cheerfully.) This way, when you need to slow down the pace or take time off, people will be willing to adjust. Think of it as making deposits into a bank account.

By willingly and happily accepting the challenge of a difficult project or resident or by working long hours to meet an important deadline, you make deposits in the organization’s hard-work bank account. When you need to make a withdrawal, whether it’s for a family emergency or just a much-needed break, you’ll have plenty of goodwill with elected officials, and they won’t begrudge you for taking the time off.

6. When you’re at work, really engage. Fully commit to whatever you’re doing at work. Don’t complain—being positive goes a long way. And don’t feel guilty that you are not at home. Feeling guilty is a recipe for misery and poor performance on the job and unhappiness at home. Commit fully to your season of hard work as you plan for your season of rest and recharging.

When you commit to your season of work, you won’t be tempted to watch the clock, dreading each hour that will pass before you finally get to leave work for the day. You’ll be more successful at work and feel more fulfilled.

7. When you’re at home, really be at home. Throw yourself into those precious family relationships. Don’t spend family time thinking about work or zoning out in front of the television or computer. It’s not about the amount of time we spend with our families. It’s about how engaged we are during the time we do have with them.

When you focus on planning your life around the rhythms of work and home, you have to be fully committed to the demands of the specific season. So when you’re in a family season, don’t constantly check your BlackBerry. Don’t take work calls during dinner. Devote as much of yourself as possible to your family.

Use the time that you wouldn’t get to spend with them if you were in a work season to do something special. Read to your child each night. Take your family on a surprise weekend trip. When you live your nonwork season to the fullest, you’ll be all the more motivated to give 110 percent when you’re at work.

What I’m really talking about is making the most of your time however you spend it—of making each and every moment really count. Understanding your rhythms and planning and committing to the seasons of your life may not help you achieve perfect work-life balance. But you will create a life that is more passionate, more productive, and happier.


ENDNOTES

1 “Captivate Office Pulse Survey Reveals Men Are Happier Than Women With Their Work-Life Balance,” press release, Captivate Network, September 7, 2011, www.marketwatch.com/story/captivate-office-pulse-survey-reveals-men-are-happier-than-women-with-their-work-life-balance-2011-09-07.

Jon Gordon is a consultant, speaker, and author of the book, The Seed: Finding Purpose and Happiness in Life and Work, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The book (Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-470-88856-8, $22.95, www.JonGordon.com) is available at bookstores or direct from the publisher at 800/225-5945. In Canada, call 800/567-4797.