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Getting the Work Life Balance Right: Is it an Impossible Dream?

Updated on April 22, 2017

When we think of creating work-life balance, Steven R Covey is the name that comes to mind first. Author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ and its spin-off books, he’s the go-to guy for effective work-life balance information.

One of the first things Covey says is that there are no quick fixes to achieving work life balance and that it takes courage to say ‘no’ to activities that, for whatever reason, you think you should participate in.

In this hub we’re going to look at a few simple ideas around work and life balance. Take them and practise.

What is work life balance?

Perhaps the simplest way to look at work life balance is to decide whether you work to live or live to work.

If you live to work then the chances are that your job and career are most important to you. And that’s fine (but don’t neglect your health, family and friends – you’ll need them if your career takes a dip and you need support). More about that in a moment, so do read on.

If you work to live then decide whether you control your job/career or it controls you.

Often though we’re in the middle – we love our work and career but love our families too.

Ultimately the point is that balance is different to each of us and it’s a very personal thing.

How do we get the balance right?

The key to balance is one word: prioritise.

Decide what’s important in both the short and long term. Then make decisions and take action accordingly.

Steven Covey sums it up in this diagram:

Steven Covey's Time Management Matrix

What happens in Quadrant 1 is urgent and important and it’s right that our attention is there when it needs to be. Call this Quadrant ‘fire fighting’.

What happens in Quadrant 2 is not urgent (no one’s on fire) but it is important. It’s your health, your family relationships, relationships with friends, personal development and planning. You can see that if non-urgent but important things are left untended they can end up in the fire-fighting quadrant.

  • Neglected health becomes a heart attack, diabetes or mental ill health
  • Neglected family becomes divorce, children estranged from you or having behaviour problems
  • Neglected friendships are friends lost when you need them most
  • Lack of planning means missing opportunities (remember the definition of ‘luck’ is where preparation meets opportunity)
  • Lack of personal development can mean not reaching your potential and a life half lived.

These are just examples and you may be able to think about others in your own life.

The activities and distractions in Quadrants 3 and 4 are the ones that often prevent us from living in Quadrant 2.

The activities in Quadrant 1 also do this. The difference is that often they are simply tasks that need to be done. And when we become addicted to getting tasks done everything becomes a task. Not only that though: when we’re acting with urgency all the time it’s easy to feel important and that you’re getting a lot done. But actually you may be doing a lot but not achieving a great deal. This is something that anyone who’s a typical multi-tasker may recognise.

How do I prioritise?

A comment that’s often made, especially if you love your work and your family and want to put them both first, is ‘If I make time for all the Quadrant 2 stuff I might miss out on a promotion.’

Steven Covey suggests the opposite is likely to happen. The reasoning is that, because if you’ve included personal development and planning in your Quadrant 2 activities, and said ‘no’ to a lot of fire-fighting tasks or time-sapping Quadrant 3 and 4 activities, you are able to go further in helping your co-workers, making the best of the projects you work on, mentor or coach others or be mentored or coached yourself.

You’ll be able to look up and see opportunities coming because your nose isn’t stuck to the grindstone. He says ‘you are able to anticipate needs ling before they come up because you’re not so urgency-addicted.’

Some employers may not share your view and see you as a beast of burden to be worked until you drop. If you fear this is your employer or manager, it may be time to pop back in to Quadrant 2 and re-assess who you want to work for.

When we find ourselves saying ‘yes, but I want this AND that’ when ‘this’ and ‘that’ seem to be mutually exclusive. The answer comes in 2 forms:

  1. AND is a great word, so think creatively about how you could have both
  2. If the 2 options really are mutually exclusive decide which fits your goals and mission and which will benefit you in the longer term. What will matter in 5, 10 or 20 years?

As we said in the beginning, there are no quick fixes to getting the work life balance right and it takes constant practice and self-questioning. But, in the words of the great Henry Ford: ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, either way you’re right.’


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