Three Keys to Managing Work + Life: Strategy, Structure, and Space
“Work/life balance” is a steady concern for many people in the Western world, as we all struggle to balance the lofty notion of doing versus being, and the practical one of building a career while building a fulfilling life. I’ve never liked the term balance. For me, balance conjures up two sides of a scale, representing a world in which choices are binary – a world far simpler than the one in which we live. Regardless of what we call it, we’re all looking for the same thing – a way to manage competing priorities and make peace with the active tradeoffs we make every day.
There is no one-size-fits-all way to approach this modern day challenge. The solutions we find are as unique as our individual lives are, and sometimes, as quick to change as the circumstances they’re solving for. This is a highly personal issue that starts with deep self-awareness. There are, however, a few simple changes I believe can help us all increase of chances of successfully building fulfilling careers while building lives we’re proud of. Here’s a simple framework that has worked for me.
1. Craft a Strategy (Link the present with the future)
The art of strategy is about being intentional about the choices you make today and the future state you’re trying to achieve. In business, this might be about how to prepare to enter a new market; in life, a strategy may be about how to live abroad with your family someday. It’s about having some semblance of where you’re heading, who you’re heading there with, and how your future destination relates to where you are today. Here are three cornerstones of a great strategy for managing work and life:
- Find the connective tissue: Actively look for the overlaps in your life. Managing competing dreams and needs is easier when they somehow relate to one another. For example, if you place a huge value physical fitness, can you somehow make fitness part of your work, or your time with friends and family? This isn’t necessarily about efficiency – it’s about synergy; identifying where synergy exists and focusing a disproportionate amount of your energy there.
- Let your boss know you: If you’re going to work in a job with a boss, it’s really important that the person managing you really knows you – not just the “work” you, but the whole you. If your boss understands what makes you tick, what competing demands you’re carrying around every day, and what dreams make your heart sing, they’ll be in a better position to support you as you build not just your career, but your life.
- Get clear about impact: Get clear about what impact you want to make on the world, and how you’re designing a life that helps you make that impact. For example, if your mission is to “leave the planet in better shape than you found it,” how does your work support this mission? How does your family support this mission? What are you doing in your free time to do support this mission? And as I heard someone say last week, “don’t just have a mission; BE ON A MISSION.”
2. Create Structure (Plot your days)
- Don’t commute: Disclaimer – this is not a truth for everyone. There are a ton of trade-offs linked with if, and for how long, you choose to commute, and this decision is a very personal one. But we have a finite amount of time in our days, and it’s up to each of us to decide whether the way we’re spending it is serving us well. For better or for worse, commute has always played a huge factor in decisions about where I work and where I live because I’m not willing to give up the precious pre- and post-work hours.
- Commit to a realistic to do list: When I first started working a “real” job, in my early twenties, I started each day with a comprehensive to-do list, including everything I needed to do that day, week, month and year. This led to constantly feeling behind – never being quite sure when my day’s work was done. Over the years, I’ve evolved to keep four lists – a long-term work list, a long-term personal list, a daily work list, and a daily personal list. It makes it a lot easier to recognize — and celebrate — what “done” really means.
- Craft your life every single day (not just on the weekends): I often talk to people who cram their workdays and leave leisure for the precious weekends. If you’re bought into the idea that the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, shouldn’t we be building in time for work, play and rest every day? Building a life happens every single day; not just on the weekends.
3. Make Space (Make room for what matters most)
- Find something that sets for mind free and do it most days: For me, this thing is running, or more broadly exercise. Running isn’t just my time to work out my body; it’s the time I use to “work things out” in my mind. It’s a time when ideas come freely and possibilities open up. I am better at work, at home, and in between when I make time for exercise, so I do that. Every single day. As you think about how to stay in alignment, find your equivalent of a daily run – be it painting or singing or dancing or cooking – and make it a non-negotiable every single day.
- Focus on quality, not quantity: This isn’t to say that quantity isn’t an issue, because to be honest, think there are some situations (children being one) where we need to have some sense of quantity to get to quality. But generally, I think we grow up thinking more about duration of activities than the quality of them. One of the biggest influences I’ve experienced related to quality is the idea of working in 90-minute increments followed by periods of rest. Building in intentional downtime results in overall less hours worked, but the output of the time spent in the 90-minute blocks far exceeds what might be achieved in an endlessly long day.
- Sleep/rest: Sleep is the foundation of well-being, and for most of us, our ability to deal with life’s complexity is directly tied to whether are mentally, emotionally, and physically rested. Unless you’re one of the 2% of humans who can thrive without much shut-eye, make it a priority.
The world around us is steadily shifting, and so are our lives. Even in periods of stasis, there is movement. So rather than searching for balance amidst inevitable chaos, let’s strive for dynamic equilibrium – a sense of peace that the trade-offs we are making every minute, every day, every week, and every year – are the best ones for us.
And let’s measure our success with a daily question that sits far above balance: Are we proud of the lives we’re living?