Work-Life Balance

When choosing this industry as your line of work, did you have thoughts that you’d be working a 40-hour work week? Like most people coming into the industry, the rude awakening of working a 60-plus hour week sets in and the preconceived notion you had isn’t so glamorous. Even the senior level managers who have been in their roles for years can’t seem to find personal time away from their busy workloads. We all talk about work-life balance, but are any of us really practicing what we preach?

I was listening to a TED Talk given by author Nigel Marsh, and he made some great points about how to manage your life. First, some career choices are incompatible with the way people want to live their lives. Second, companies aren’t going to manage these issues for you. Only individuals can solve their issues. If you aren’t going to design your life the way you want, someone else will design it for you and you may not like their idea of balance. Third, we have to be careful with the timeframe that we choose to judge our balance. Detail a step-by-step description of a balanced day but be reasonable. Finally, approach balance in a balanced way. Joining a gym is great, but it isn’t going to make you more balanced. It’ll just make you fit and still unbalanced. The small things matter. You don’t have to upheave your life to make a change. The smallest investments in the right places can radically transform the quality of your relationships and your life.

This presentation really resonated with me. As a relatively new father, I came to the realization that I love this industry but I love my family more. How can I structure my day so that I have time to be an accountable leader in my organization, a great husband to my wife, and a dependable father to my daughter? Oh, and did I mention that my hobbies include long-distance races that require me to train for almost two hours a day, five-to-six days a week? So I took Nigel’s advice and started structuring my days.

First, I realized that I needed to map out my priorities and stick to the plan I’ve put together. I live and die by my Outlook Calendar. It starts at 5:30 a.m. with training that usually goes until 7:30 a.m. I grab a bite to eat for breakfast and start my work day at 8 a.m. The myriad of meetings is sprinkled in my calendar based on what’s happening at work. Lunch is from noon – 1 p.m. If I don’t schedule it, someone will book something during this time and I won’t eat. You don’t want me in a meeting when I haven’t had lunch. From 1-5 p.m., I find time to check emails and attend more meetings. At 5 p.m., I finish work and I’m off to pick-up my daughter from child care. Once home, I help with the preparation of dinner and putting my daughter to bed. On most nights around 8 p.m., the computer comes out and I catch up on work.

You may be reading this and say, really Erik? You get out of work at 5 p.m. every day? As much as I would like to say “yes,” there are some days when this isn’t possible. For example, on an event day, I throw all of this out the window and have to start fresh depending on the needs of the event and my involvement. In order for me to be able to handle a schedule like this, I need to make sure that I’m hiring the right people and keeping them engaged. I can’t expect all my managers and staff to work 60-to-70 hours each week. I share my calendar with them as to lead by example. When they need to take the time to balance their lives, they know I’ll approve so long as the event load is covered.

One area of work-life balance that I am currently working on is managing my email. Yesterday, I received 100-plus emails. On top of six hours of meetings, visiting my staff to make sure we were all set for the weekend events, and returning phone calls, the day didn’t leave much time to check emails. In talking to my brother, he mentioned he was reading The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss, and recommended that I read how to check email twice a day. Ferriss talks about using auto-reply in your email to let others know that you will be checking your email twice a day and listing the times. For example, your auto-reply can read, “Thank you for your email. I will be checking and responding to email at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. I will try and respond to email in a timely manner. If you have any time-sensitive issues, please don’t hesitate to call me.” Think your boss will go for this?

I was very reluctant to try this approach so I’ve been doing it for a couple weeks now without using auto-reply. It was difficult at first but the world didn’t end and I was able to get through email in the allotted time. I plan to start using the auto-reply so we’ll see how well it is accepted.

I started researching other tips to managing email and I came across an article by Jacqueline Whitmore titled “4 Tips to Better Manage Your Email Inbox.” Tip one, set aside time to read and respond to email. As mentioned earlier, I dropped in 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on my schedule to respond to emails and I’ve been committed. There are some days where I need to change these times based on important meetings that pop up. Second tip, take action immediately. Don’t procrastinate and let important emails sit in your inbox. When I sit down to answer emails, I sort them. If they are marketing emails, I usually delete them unless there is something that has really caught my attention. Then I look for those from staff that are general FYIs. Once I’ve consolidated down, I get to work on the task specific emails. Tip three, create email folders and file those that are important. I haven’t been able to master this one, but it’s on the list to try. Finally, unsubscribe from unwanted promotional emails. I’ve always just deleted these, hoping they’d stop sending but they never do. Spend the extra time up front to get this done. It’ll save you in the long run.

In most cases, almost half of my days were spent with Microsoft Outlook open and clicking on the notification emails as they came in. It felt like it was taking me forever to get things done, and it was. I was stopping in the middle of everything I was doing to check email. I was doing this in meetings, while I worked on projects, and making calls. I wasn’t focused on what was in front of me and it showed. Have you ever been in a meeting while checking emails? When you tune back in, have you ever asked a question that has already been asked? If not, it is pretty embarrassing when you get the chuckles from the room. I was also leaving work at the end of the day wondering why I had so much left on my to-do list.

Now, I close out my email program except for the two hours that I’m responding to email. I let my phone remind me about meetings. This strategy has kept me more productive and focused on the task at hand. During events, it also keeps my head out of the phone when walking the building and focused on what’s in front of me. Now, when I have to leave work at 5 p.m. to pick-up my daughter and be a family man, I can do it with a sense that I’ve accomplished what is needed at the office.

While this approach is working for me, it may not work for everyone. Work-life balance is a puzzle and your priorities are the pieces. When all the priorities are constructed in the correct manner, it produces an appealing picture. If you try to cram the pieces where they don’t belong, the picture is distorted. As Nigel mentioned in his presentation, only individuals can solve the issue of balance. Keep the lines of communication open with those that are involved with your priorities and you’ll be able to set a schedule that is right for you. FM

(Image: Prabhu B. Doss/Creative Commons)