There was a time, New Jersey-based flexible work strategist Cali Williams Yost recalls, when our life was neatly demarcated, with the hours from 9 to 5 devoted, fully, to work, and the remainder left to allocate to our family and other interests.
That's rosier than this workaholic remembers, but certainly, over the years, the hours devoted to career have swelled, with work and me-time becoming more intertwined, as we, for example, shop online from the office and answer client e-mails at home.
That means we have to manage the complications of what she calls our "work+life fit" in a way that people two or three decades ago didn't have to. And she says we lack the skills. "Managing your work+life fit is a skill nobody taught us," she says in an interview.
She has studied people who are considered work+life fit "naturals" by their associates, the 15 per cent of the population who seem to sail through life, calmly getting things done. From them, she has drawn many lessons, including:
Scrub the term work-life balance. Nobody has balance. What we need is to figure out how to fit our various interests together in a comfortable way. Hence "work+life fit."
In trying to get our life in order, we often seek big changes. We make bold New Year's resolutions that fizzle out because they demand too much from us. So another route is necessary, and it's summed up in the title of her new book: Tweak It: Small Changes, Big Impact. "I ultimately found from my research you have a lot of power in the small changes you make intentionally. But you have to make them part of your regular routine," she says in the interview.
Make small commitments
Those small actions are the tweaks of her book's titles. Instead of transforming our lives so that we have healthy family meals every night, we might commit to two such dinners a week. Instead of buying a gym membership, we might walk the stairs more at work. Instead of trying to devise an overarching new policy for handling our communications devices, we commit to leaving the mobile on our desk during client lunches. They're such small behavioural changes that we dismiss them as trivial. Indeed, when researching the book, people would share their tweaks with the words, "this may sound silly," or "this might not sound like much." But rigorously pursuing those tweaks, and bringing them into our everyday lives, can be momentous, she argues.
Put everything on one calendar
The work-life naturals had planning processes that brought all the aspects of their lives together. The same wasn't true for the majority of people who attend her presentations, when she sampled them for comparison. While 75 per cent of those attendees said that they manage their work and personal goals and responsibilities daily or weekly, she found only 40 per cent always keep a calendar with their work and personal to-dos in one place, which is critical for making good decisions. Further, only 26 per cent set aside time weekly or daily to check in with themselves and ask "What do I want?" as they grappled with the possible activities before them. And only 15 per cent said that when they see a mismatch between what they want and what's happening, they always make adjustments.
Her Tweak-It approach sets you on the right path. Start by developing a simple priority list and calendar that allows you to see the full sweep of your life at a glance, and make adjustments. She's agnostic between the alternatives – whether it's Outlook, Google Calendar, iCalendar, a paper notebook, or an Excel spreadsheet, just pick something that works for you. But somehow it must show your life in one snapshot. She has, for example, two different Google calendars, one for work and one for life, which she can also see in a combined view.
Then spend some time deciding what success would look like – how your work and life might fit together better. That gives you something to measure your progress against as you tweak your life.
Catalogue the actions that you take regularly to give you a better work+life fit and want to continue, such as family meals, exercise, meditation, and evenings out with friends. Now add to them some unique tweaks that you will try in the coming week to improve your work-life fit. In the book, a woman named Lisa decides for the first week on three family-focus tweaks: Turn off technology and spend 30 minutes focused time with her husband twice a week; spend 10 minutes each day having one-on-one time with her daughter; and talk less and listen more with her son. For "me" time, she settles on: Do nothing for one hour at least twice a week, and drink more water.
At the end of the week, the routine is to check how you fared, turn tweaks that worked into standard tweaks that you will continue, and set out some new tweaks for the coming week, perhaps including goals that you failed to hit previously. Don't get hung up on trying to fulfill all the tweaks you pledged to meet every week – 70 per cent would be a nice target to hit. "Don't expect perfection. Celebrate success, whatever it is. We get way too concerned with what we don't do and don't celebrate what we have done," she says in the interview.
Sound too simple – as if nothing much has happened? Probably nothing much is happening now, as you stew about your work-life imbalance. Perhaps tweaking it will take you on a new course.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter