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Six obstacles to a balanced work life Add to ...

If you’re unsatisfied with aspects of your work life balance – not spending enough time with the family, or finding adequate personal time, for instance – the coming days are an opportune time to begin to change. The holiday season usually brings to a halt the unrelenting pace of work and a chance to savour the value of a different pace of life. New Year’s, of course, is a traditional time to resolve to improve in the coming year, and what better than attaining better work-life balance?

But the difficulty is making any such resolutions stick, since behavioural change is so difficult. Wolfgang Linden, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, warns that you must be alert to whether the proposed change is one-shot or ongoing. Quitting smoking is effectively one shot – difficult, but when accomplished, you can move on. Flossing your teeth and eating well, by comparison, are activities that are far more difficult to hold to because every day you are assaulted with pressures and temptations.

Janet Polivy, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, says success starts by setting realistic goals. Don’t set your sights so high that you are discouraged when the progress is slow, and thus discount the small improvements you are making. “Don’t expect the moon and get upset when you get to the top of the trees,” she says.

In one of her studies, 80 female students on a diet lost, on average, a pound after two weeks, but they all still gave up on the regimen because that seemed insufficient. “They were losing weight but they didn’t care. They had an unrealistic expectation and so didn’t see success as success,” she observes. Indeed, often individuals don’t have a clear sense of the outcome they are chasing in behavioural change. They just want to, vaguely, get better. But she says your goal should be clear, and, of course, achievable.

Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and often when you start the process you starkly realize it interferes with other aspects of your life you prize. Individuals who want to lose weight find out that means changing their eating patterns and exercising more, but they may be perfectly happy with what they eat and their current lack of exercise. Similarly, choosing to spend more time at home may reduce some of the recognition and rewards you enjoy at work. “You need to recognize what the change entails and what it will cost you. You may not want to give up the seven-layer chocolate cake,” she says. “Or you may be able to keep the cake, but accept you will reduce your weight more slowly.”

Similarly, if there are several things you need to change at once, make sure they support one another. Changing eating and your exercise patterns can be realistic, because they can be interrelated. But trying to change eating, exercise, smoking and spending all at once will likely confound you.

Joseph Grenny, co-author of the book Change Anything, says we fail at change because life is affected by a series of forces we don’t see. “If you want to beat the one in 20 odds of fulfilling a resolution, the issue isn’t that you didn’t want the goal enough. It’s you were naive about the invisible forces holding you back,” he says.

Here’s what he says you need to do instead:

Impulses: We often are derailed by momentary impulses. You might be in a meeting and impulsively commit to help out on a big project that will thwart your intent to be home more this month with your family. To counter those impulses, you need a crystal clear goal. If you intend to spend more time with loved ones, set clear expectations, write it out, and make it emotionally salient, perhaps by placing a picture of the family in a prominent position on your desk. “Keep it present and active in your brain,” he says.

Skills: We can lack the skills to make the change happen. We might not know how to sidestep some work obligations, for example, while still showing everyone we are dedicated to work. Learning such skills requires practice.

Social forces: With many social forces at work pulling you away from family, you need contrary social forces to help attain the right balance. Get family and workmates to help you keep your commitment to better balance. Make sure you see the comments from family as “support” and not “nagging.”

Teamwork: Look at the people around you, determine whether they are enabling or hurting your change effort, and figure out how to get the team fully onside. That may involve some negotiation with your boss, to help him see the advantage to your performance if you have more family time. Keep a distance from workmates who have been accomplices to you not having work-life balance.

Rewards: The paycheque you receive may scare you from changes that take you out of the office more. Counter that by clearly stating the values – the other rewards – that drive you. Mr. Grenny says it can also be helpful in the early stages of change to give yourself small rewards for success, like celebrating if you keep your goal for a month. The goals should be tangible, and near term.

The environment: If you have a cellphone constantly on your hip, it may be difficult to get away from work. Look at what changes you need to make in your environment for better work-life balance.

The more of those six invisible forces you have working in your favour, he says, the more likely you will be to make behavioural change at New Year’s.

Good luck.


Becky Robinson, a consultant and blogger in Toledo, Ohio, has a simple, 12-minute approach to changing work-life balance. It started when she tried to find more time for her family by giving herself a 12-minute deadline for writing her blog posts. Now she applies that concept more broadly. Before American Thanksgiving, for example, she spent 12 minutes calling people to express gratitude. “Maybe it’s not 12 minutes for the task. Maybe it’s 30 minutes or an hour. But that sets a limit. Otherwise work expands to fill the time,” she says. So she recommends committing to these limited bursts in the New Year.

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 balance column.

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