Updated: Feb 27
We often talk about work-life balance. Do you go in early/stay late? Do you take work home? Do you answer emails or calls after hours? We talk about work and life as though we can easily separate the two. Life is something that happens when you leave work – provided you’re not just taking the work you’re required to do to a second location (never go to a second location).
The concept of “work-life balance” implies you can somehow separate what happens at work and how it affects us when we’re not at work. Many people have jobs they don’t like or care about (as mentioned in other blogs, engagement in the US is only at 33%). Whenever I’m doing a seminar on Strengths-based interviewing skills, I always talk about finding a good fit based on your talents. Inevitably someone says fit isn’t that important if you need a job. Yes, people need money to survive; I don’t want to minimize that. Unfortunately, if you have a job you hate or even just run tolerate, it negatively impacts your entire life – even when you’re not at work.
I am single. My “child” is an 11lb Pug/Pekingese mix named Sweet Dee, who at best needs a 30-minute walk every day. I don’t have to run around and pick up children, balance spending time with my significant other, and the many things most people juggle on top of their typical work day. In one regard, I nailed “work-life balance.” I rarely took work home – unless it during August before the fall semester started. Despite living on campus, I had a great staff who handled most of the after-hours chaos. Yet as my work environment became more and more negative, I was always exhausted by the end of the day. I did not emit a huge sigh of relief, thinking “Yay! Work is over. Now my life can start!!” Instead I slowly walked my dog and plopped on the couch. Overall, I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. I was sick significantly more often. I gained weight. I was depressed and anxious. (My colleague cleverly multi-tasked by crying on her commute into work.) My health, energy, and attitude suffered and that’s not something you can change depending on whether you’re at work or at life.
Too many people are overwhelmed at work and juggle so many balls/hats/buckets that they’re feel like they’re never going to catch up. If you’re working at an institution with a hiring freeze, you’re probably doing more than one job. If you are lucky enough to be able to hire or rehire for a position, other people probably start adding duties to the job description until the new hire has just as many hats as you do. Do you feel like you’re living life in Covey’s Quadrant I – everything’s urgent and important – even though if you had time to think about it, many of the things you do are neither? Are you working in your Strengths Zone (focusing on the things you do best) or are you so drained from the sheer amount of work that you rarely enjoy even the things you’re good at?
The good news is this blog will solve all of these problems! LOL. That would be amazing but unfortunately, we’re talking about systemic problems. The actual good news is that there are ways to challenge that system and your mindset to create a better work-work balance for yourself and your staff. Here are two of them:
1) Retire “It Is What It Is” | On its surface, there seems to be a zen-like quality to the phrase…maybe even a sense of mindfulness. It certainly sounds wise. In reality it fosters learned hopelessness. This is the situation and there’s nothing I can do but push through. Yes, there are definitely some “it is what it is” situations in life, but not as many as we think. Start asking yourself – and others – what would improve the situation. I’m not talking about complaining, I’m talking about taking the time to reexamine how things function, what could make it better, and what are specific things you could do to change things.
Some talents and people are better suited to this mindset than others. I lead with Strategic Thinking themes. My #1 is Ideation and my #5 is Strategic. That means I don’t want to work harder than I have to in order to be effective #smarternotharder and I can come up with multiple ideas to get there. My #3 Input is super handy here because it’s always taking in useful bits of info and resources that can help me come up with alternatives. Any of your problem solving/maximizing talents like Restorative, Arranger, Maximizer, etc. can easily get on board and find ways to make things run more smoothly.
Even if you don’t know a solution yourself – or don’t think you have time to tackle it – team up with people who are good at solving problems and implementing change. You can straight up ask, “Hey Bob, there’s got to be a better way to _______. I have no idea what it is, but can you help me find it?” Usually, it takes many members of the team to process the problem and create realistic and meaningful change. If you’re a supervisor – make sure your staff knows that they can come to you when there are problems and that you’re open to improving systems. Even large-scale issues that seem money or politically driven can be tweaked at some level to make things better. Advocate for the “ideal fix,” but don’t think it’s your only option. Think about realistic changes you can make within your area in the short term while you plan larger changes as opportunities and resources present themselves.
2) Know Your Values & Set Your Priorities | When you’re overwhelmed with work you start to think, “It all needs to be done, so what difference does it make what I do first?!?” Often its deadlines and who’s standing at our door that drives how we spend our time. Everything becomes “urgent and important.” This process is both demotivating and exhausting.
I once went to my supervisor – Ericka from an earlier blog – with a fantastic idea I knew she’d want to be a part of. She told me, “I’m working on these three things this semester: _______, _______, and _______. If it’s one of those, I have no time.” Damn. I was so impressed I wasn’t even upset she wasn’t going to help me. We all need to prioritize like that.
Our systems get stressed when our actions are not aligned with our beliefs and talents –cognitive dissonance. The first step to making sure you are aligned with your work, is identifying your core values. What are your TWO core values? Find a list of values and go through and see what resonates with you. Keep narrowing things down until you get your two. There may be way more than two that resonate with you, but when you really start to evaluate, you’ll most likely find that some fit within others.
Now that you know your core values, look at everything on your plate. How do they connect with your core values? How do all your tasks fit together? What are the largest concerns or problems you’re facing now? What are your priorities? More specifically, what are your three priorities? Brené Brown says if you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any. Note: Priorities and goals are different. Priorities are focused on the present, while goals are focused on the future. There may be several goals under each of your priorities, but the priorities direct your goals, not the other way around.
Remember that priorities, unlike your values, change. Think about what time-frame makes sense for you. Maybe you set them for the semester. Maybe you’re more flexible and change them as things are resolved. Your priorities aren’t’ meant to restrict you, they’re there to help guide your actions, your time, and your decisions. Yes, time cards still need to be signed and a suicidal student needs to be helped, but otherwise you’re focusing on your priorities. This means some things you do will have to go on the back burner for now. It also means you may have to pass on new opportunities or requests that come your way. One of the greatest gifts this gives you, is making saying “no” easier. This is not about being selfish, or mean, or lazy. It’s about being realistic about the time you have and what you can do in that time, if you want to do more than just struggle to keep from falling further behind. You can’t do quality work when you’re going in too many directions. You can’t give 100% to 100 things.
Share your priorities with your supervisor or even involve them in the decision, so you’re on the same page. It can be terrifying to think of disappointing your boss – or even your employee. Sometimes, there’s a directive from your supervisor and you have to change one of your priorities. That’s perfectly fine as long as you’re replacing, not adding on. (Don’t make me call Brené!) Just be upfront about what will have to take a back seat. What? You don’t play games like that? It’s not a game. It’s your life. Running around unfocused, exhausted, and doing less than your best work isn’t beneficial for you, your supervisor, or your students.
Both of these practices will probably mean a change in how you see yourself in relation to the work you’re doing. That’s a good thing. You do have the power and the talent to change your environment. Just remember that you need the support and talents of the people around you to really make meaningful changes both to your work load and the larger systems that surround you. Work together to change “it is what it is” to how it can be better.