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Balance is a dynamic state

We're told regularly that we need to find work/life balance, but what does that actually mean? In my experience, the concept of work/life balance is rather ethereal - something most of us are chasing but have very little idea as to how we might accomplish it.

In an attempt to try and make sense of this slippery eel, I've broken it down into three keys areas for our collective exploration:

1. The energy that drives our work

Why is it that for long periods of time I can work extremely hard and still feel energised at the end of every day, and yet at other times, work the same hours and feel completely shattered?

There are obviously a plethora of inputs here, but the one I believe has an outsized impact on my sense of vitality is the energy/mindset that's driving my work.

At certain stages of my career, I've worked 14-hour days, every day, for months on end, but the energy that was driving my frenetic work schedule was that of lack. Fundamentally, I didn't believe I was enough, and I needed to prove to myself and others that I was worthy by working really hard. The result of this sort of work, as you might predict, is that by the end of every day I was shattered.

Conversely, I've had other times in my career, and now happens to be one of those times, where the energy driving my work is that of creative exploration. Right now I'm compelled by a deep calling to effect change in the education sector, which, when we get it right, will impact hundreds of thousands of students for the better. Right now I'm working my butt off, but rather than feeling depleted at the end of every day, I feel energised by the challenge. I come home to my wife with a smile on my face, and plenty of energy to play with my son and create awesome memories.

When the energy that drives our behaviour is based on fear or lack, our body is in a fight or flight state, and the predictable impact this has on our stress levels follows. On the other hand, when the energy driving our work is that of creative problem solving while exploring an area we feel compelled by, the predictable impact is a sense of invigoration.

It's not as simple as balancing the hours of work and chill time in your life, but the segmentation of our life into its component parts does matter:

2. The intentional allocation of our time

How often do you feel like you've hardly blinked, and it's been 3 months since you saw a friend you really like? How often do you berate yourself for not contributing time to a cause you care about, because you've just been too busy with other stuff?

There's a lovely saying I have in the front of my diary right now:

"You can do anything, but you can't do everything."

Time is our most precious resource, and yet somehow, most of us are blown by the winds of how other people want us to spend our time. The alternative, which is available to all of us, is to get hyper intentional about how we spend our time. Here are a few practical suggestions to get you started:

- Write down the list of the friends and family you want to see every year, and then place them into a daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual category. This is brutally hard, but it forces you to really decide who fits in what category. The truth is, there are some people you might like, but seeing them once a year is more than sufficient. Be honest about that, and then you can plan accordingly. Off the back of this exercise, start placing people into your calendar according to their category. This might sound clinical, but the truth is, we do this less systematically anyway. Taking back control of your time allocation is one of the most empowering things you can do.

- If you have any form of spiritual or religious practice, include the activities in your diary very intentionally. Allocate the time for it.

- For your sports, exercise and physical wellbeing activities, the same principle applies - allocate time for it.

- For your holidays and chill time... yip, the same principle applies - allocate time for it.

In addition to the above, I suggest that you sit with your partner every Sunday to plan the week ahead together. For those of you in some form of partnership, many issues can be avoided by collaboratively planning the allocation of your time on a weekly basis, and ensuring that you make your expectations of each other clear.

3. The correct unit of analysis:

I think we can all agree that finding balance in our lives is important. The more interesting question, at least for me, is what level of analysis to use when assessing balance? Said plainly, should we seek to find balance in our lives on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis? Should the objective be to get to the end of every day and say, “today was a well balanced day across all spheres of my life.” Or, should we seek to make the same statement at the end of every week, or month, or quarter, or year?

If I worked really hard for 6 months, and then chilled out entirely for the next six months, then, using the annual length of analysis, one could say that I had a balanced year. The issue here is that, for me, burning myself into the ground for six months straight results in unacceptable issues with health, family and friends.

It’s a hard question to answer for anyone else, but for me, I’ve found that asking this question on a monthly basis works very well, and seems to be the right level of analysis to balance short, medium and long-term objectives in my life. In my opinion, there are days and even weeks where you might need or want to work your butt off. There are opportunities which you want to run after, or deadlines which need to be met, and the way to get there is to work really hard for periods of time. For me, it’s unrealistic to achieve a state of balance every day, or every week, but over the course of a month I seem to be able to do it.

It’s normal, and even expected, to work really hard for periods of time in your life. That said, when this became my perpetual state for years on end, the cracks started to show in other areas of my life. Using the monthly level of analysis, I know that I can work extremely hard for days and weeks at a time, but I force myself to balance the scale over the period of one month.

Personally, I'm playing the long game here, and I want to be able to sustain my energy levels across multiple dimensions of my life for decades to come.

In closing:

If at the end of the day/week/month/quarter/year, you feel energised, and a sense of satisfaction that you have allocated your time intentionally to the areas of your life that you want to, then I believe you have achieved work/life balance.

For some, this might mean significant work hours, for others, this might mean a lot of time with family. There is no right way to do life, and whilst we might take some inspiration from how others live their lives, ultimately we all need to set sail according to our own compass


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