If you're struggling to find balance in your life, all you need is to find your one big thing.
That's the advice of Texas realtor and entrepreneur Gary Keller, who actually dismisses the notion of a balanced life as impossible, but says our struggles in that direction stem from not making choices. You will lead a richer and fuller life if you can just narrow down your priorities. He advises you to regularly ask what he calls the focusing question: "What's the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?"
He cites as an example the time you will spend with your family this weekend. Ask yourself: "What is the one thing I can do with my family so that if I do it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?"
He asked the question awhile ago about his mother, who is 83. "The answer was to play dominoes. My mother loves dominoes. If I play dominoes with her once a week, anything else I might give her is unnecessary. I have given her what she most needed," he says in an interview. When his son was struggling in high school, the answer was to give him a tutor – well, not just any tutor, but a cool tutor, with whom he would look forward to spending time.
Mr. Keller, author of a new book The One Thing has been fascinated by quantum physics, and the notion that everything is always in motion. To him, that means we can't have balance, which is a state of equilibrium. "Everyone says they are out of balance. They say it as if it's a problem, as if balance is something we should have. Maybe there is no balance," he says in the interview.
He notes that from 1986 to 1996 only 32 articles on work-life balance appeared in the LexisNexis database. On the other hand, over 7,000 articles were written from 2007 to 2011. So as late as 1996, there wasn't a problem people were noticing. But now it's a top-of-mind burden, as we complain about the impossibility of balancing work and family. "If you have no time for family, I would say your priorities are screwed up," he responds.
At 55, he has been a manager or coach of others for three decades, and right from the start told people to leave work by 5:30 p.m. There are 24 hours in a day, and after taking the eight hours we require for sleep we should divide the remainder equally between work and personal time. People who work more than 50 hours are just wasting time, he insists. The sweet spot, he has found, is 40 to 50 hours, and you can be extremely effective in that time by always asking the focusing question about what is in front of you.
"You have to decide what will drive your career and then work specifically towards it. That means everything else will be out of whack. If you need to spend four hours at the most important thing, that only leaves four hours for everything else. But if you do that one thing well, you'll get your raise. The other 90 things don't matter equally," he says.
He cites the Pareto Principle, which suggests the majority of our success comes from a minority of what we do – often 20 per cent of our effort leads to 80 per cent of the results we seek. But he goes further, arguing for "extreme Pareto," focusing on the vital few of the vital few through the focusing question. "The problem is you think that your role at work is to get everything done. You are paid to do the one important thing better than anybody else," he argues. "When that thing is done, leave work. The others don't really matter."
He says you'll be happier (and more productive) and your boss will be happy. The things that don't get done don't matter – or if they do, someone else can be hired. Similarly at home, you must pare down your choices. We're usually determined to do everything possible with our kids and partner, and as a result frantic because of the limited time available. "You don't have too much to do. You want to do too much. You haven't made hard choices. And because you haven't made hard choices, you have a problem," he says.
He advocates goal setting to the now. Think of your goal for the future, and then work back to today. So imagine what you want your work relationship with your loved one to be in five years time. What would you have to be doing then, for that to be true? What would you have to be doing in a year's time for it to be true? What would you need to be doing in a month's time for it to be true? What would you need to do today for that to be true?
His goal with his son was to ultimately be the son's best friend. So he was delighted recently when they were golfing and the son turned to him and said, "Dad, you know, you're my best friend." There were, however, many rough moments, particularly in the teenage years, when he had to be a tough father and not a best friend. But because he knew the goal, he got there.
Once you have your goals, schedule your time to make sure you are actively working towards them, rather than leaving it to chance and letting your schedule get cluttered with less relevant matters. With such goal setting – and the focusing question – you can find your one big thing.
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