Work-life balance starts with mindset

A Japanese government survey, endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, recently claimed that one fifth of the Japanese workforce risked death by overworking (karoshi). Hundreds of cases are reported each year of young people dying from stroke, heart attack and suicide – influenced by extreme workloads, sometimes reaching a hundred hours per week.

In certain sectors in other countries, the work pressure can be just as demanding. I regularly come across people who boast of pulling an “all-nighter” or who stumble into bed in a stupor after a 16-hour workday. While a crisis may call for this kind of effort, in many environments it has become the regular pattern. The culture is that in order to demonstrate your commitment, you have to put in the hours. One quip that illustrates this was addressed scathingly to an associate who chose to recover on Saturday and ‘only’ work on Sunday: “If you can’t be bothered to come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday!”

There is ample research that demonstrates that extreme working hours kills productivity. (See for example David Rock’s overview in The Brain at Work). Still, it takes more than mere facts to break an unhealthy pattern. You may be in a less extreme situation than the ones sketched above, but you may still be at risk of burn-out or, simply, at risk of experiencing declining engagement. As the proverb goes: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Here, ‘dull’ refers to both boring and bored.

Many of my coaching clients request support to tackle the need for better work-life balance. From working with hundreds of people on this topic, here is what I have learned:

1: Achieving a sustainably healthy balance often requires a mindset change

2: There are some valuable techniques, and they make a big difference once the mindset is right

3: An external shock or external support can be extremely helpful.

1: The need for a mindset change

If we don’t have a clear perspective on our work contribution, we will be buffeted by external forces. We are liable to say yes to any request to help out, any request to put in extra effort, any request to work overtime. In some environments, there are bound to be many such requests. They may be dressed up nicely, for example: “This is a real step-up opportunity for you!” or “You are going to have a chance to work with some important people and extend your network in a valuable way” or “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … and an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment”.

Without a clear perspective, it is hard to turn down such requests. So what are some useful perspectives?

First: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you saw someone starting a marathon as if they were doing a 100-meter dash, you’d think they had misunderstood, or that they were trying to be funny, or that they were deeply deranged. Starting out at such a pace is clearly not a sound strategy. Guess what – the same consideration applies at work. You may have decades of productive work years ahead of you, yet sometimes run as if your work life was going to be over in a year or two. You may strive to please your current boss or to impress people around you to secure the next promotion. When you look back, ten, twenty or thirty years from now, that promotion is likely to not stand out as being quite as critical as you think right now. When you make your next decision that is going to affect your work-life balance, think about what it will take to go the distance.

Second: You are a valuable asset to your organization, and you have a responsibility for stewarding this asset. Your organization hired you for a reason. The people who made the decision very likely wanted to benefit from your skills and talents for an extended period – rather than seeing you flame out after an intensive sprint. Now, the organization at large and your leadership, in particular, have a responsibility for supporting and nurturing this asset that is YOU. But you also have a responsibility. In fact, you have a unique responsibility. Only you know the details of your current workload. Only you know the details of your physical and mental health. Only you know what else is going on in your life right now, which might affect your energy level and your productivity. Therefore, you have a particular responsibility for setting sane boundaries, so you get the sleep you need, the exercise you require, the social interaction that will sustain you.

Third: It is likely that you are good enough. Many people live in constant fear that they may not be quite good enough. An inner voice may be saying: “Look at the people around you – they are truly impressive. You don’t really stack up. Looks like you are a hiring mistake”. When this anxiety grips a person, it is easy to compensate by working more hours: “At least I’ll show them that I am totally committed. I may not be as smart as the others, but I will make up for it.” Some environments even make a point of hiring “insecure overachievers,” as such people are bound to work very hard. If you find yourself in this trap, take a step back, breath deeply and reflect. You may or may not be “good enough” for this environment. One way to find out is to cut back the hours to a sane level and see what happens. Chances are very high that it will work out just fine, provided you are strategic about where you focus your efforts. And if it doesn’t work out, think about it: do you really want to work in an environment where you are such a marginal performer that you need to work insane hours to get ahead? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for a fulfilling, meaningful life that will bring happiness… If you continue to struggle with the work-life balance, you may have to do some deep thinking – perhaps with support from someone you trust. Questions to ponder may include: “Am I driven to perform in order to combat insecurity?” “Do I have an exaggerated sense of responsibility, so I cannot let go?” “Do I fear standing out from the crowd?” Clear answers to these questions tend to be helpful.

Leaders have a particular responsibility when it comes to role modelling these mindsets, to help people around them make wise choices.

2: Valuable tools and techniques

Mindset, which we just covered, is important, but not sufficient. In addition, we need practical tools and techniques that help us manage workload to we achieve a healthy balance. However, applying these tools tends to have marginal, short-lived effect unless the mindset is right.

A few classical tools and techniques should be second nature for you. Here are some examples that have worked well for leaders that I have coached:

a) Keep a to-do list and regularly classify the items in your list into a simple 2×2 matrix with axes urgent/not-urgent and important/not-important. Track where you spend your time. Think critically and eliminate the less important points. Build skills and habits (including robust estimating and planning skills) so you bring down the number of urgent tasks. Over time, shift your focus to the important/not-urgent quadrant.

b) Spend quality time up front defining and structuring the problems and challenges you are tackling. Much time is wasted on poorly defined problems. Think hard up front about the essence of the problem. Test your understanding with people around you. Refine your understanding by gathering diverse perspectives. Once you have a sharp problem definition and a good structure, you are in a great position to arrive at a quality solution with half the effort.

c) Aim for 80/20. Eighty percent of the value may come from twenty percent of the work, and eighty percent may be good enough. This requires a deep understanding of the quality criteria and the expectations of those you serve – be they users, customers, colleagues or some other set of stakeholders. And this understanding needs to be fleshed out in the problem definition (see point b).

d) Delegate more. Once you have a good problem structure, you are in a much better position to delegate. Be clear about the outcome you require. Spend time up front validating that the task you are delegating is well understood. Agree key milestones and how you will provide support.

e) Finally, very tactically, make an appointment with someone after work. Make sure you have something meaningful to go to. This helps you to avoid lingering in the office for vague reasons.

3: An external shock or external support may be helpful

Sometimes, even the combination of the right mindset and the knowledge of good tools and techniques is not sufficient. It can be hard to break out of old habits. If this is your challenge, an external shock or external support may help.

I have seen a couple of external shocks that truly helped people get into a new rhythm. One friend of mine had been working extremely hard for several weeks. One day when was walking down the corridor in the office he fainted and keeled over. His colleagues got him to hospital, where he regained consciousness. This experience gave him the motivation he needed to apply his theoretical knowledge and build new, healthy habits.

Another friend of mine had a pattern of working late. The pattern had lasted several years. At the end of the work week he was so tired that he spent much of the weekend catching up on sleep. His wife had made it clear that this was not the relationship she had pictured when they got married. The couple had, as you can understand, very little quality time together. In spite of the wife’s encouragement and her admonitions, my friend continued in the same pattern. His wife turned up the temperature and indicated that this marriage would not last unless my friend changed his working habits. Still, the working habits did not change. One day, very late, my friend came home – and found that his wife had packed all her personal stuff and moved out. Then it hit him. This slap in the face got him to wake up and re-assess his priorities. He loved his wife and was prepared to do anything for the two to get back together again – including quitting his job. His new perspective was convincing enough that the couple did get back together. I worked with this friend and colleague after the event, and observed his iron discipline when it came to managing his workload.

Let us hope that you will not need this kind of external shock to build new, healthy habits. Still, you may benefit from external support – e.g. someone to call you at the designated hour and ask: “What are you doing now – still in the office?” Someone to hold you accountable. Someone to remind you of the commitments you made. Find a friend or a coach who can walk with you through the transition.

Life here on earth is short. There is no time to waste. Be clear on your identity and establish the right mindset. Practice the tools and techniques that will make you highly productive. Build healthy habits – with support, if required. In this way, you can invest yourself in a deeply meaningful portfolio of activities that will bring you balance and fulfilment. Chances are, your impact on the world around you will grow. Who knows what effect the ripples will have.

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.