A client of Vancouver business coach Lauren Bacon was complaining recently about his lack of work-life balance. A musician and full-time caregiver to his children, with his wife immersed in a busy scientific career, he found himself struggling to make time for his creative work.
As a one-time musician herself who still struggles to find time for writing, Ms. Bacon realized that most of us have difficulty carving out time for what we find important and exciting. But whether we feel overwhelmed and out of balance is determined as much by our individual tastes and whose needs are being met as it is whether we do those tasks on the job or outside the workplace.
"My man, for example, would be deeply dismayed if someone forced him to work only 40 hours a week. He loves his work. It feeds him. And he doesn't enjoy many of the activities other people might put in the 'life' category. He's sincerely blissed out reading academic non-fiction, listening to The Economist's audio version, and taking conference calls at 7 a.m.," she wrote on her blog.
"I, on the other hand, enjoy flipping through French decor magazines or browsing Pinterest for fun, but I also find writing blog posts to be a genuinely enjoyable way to while away a couple of hours. Does that count as 'work' or 'life,' then?"
That led her to develop a Balance Matrix, which assesses two components in how we spend our time. The first factor is at whose impetus is the activity you are undertaking: Yours, or someone else's? When it's solely someone else's, you may be less committed and content. When it's your own priority, you are likely to be more passionate and less troubled. Often, she says, we work in the middle, with time spent on activities that are a mixture of our own and someone else's impetus.
The other component, energy, identifies whether the work is energizing or depleting. After you finish the work, will you be more or less energetic? "This is feeling-based: How something makes us feel, as that will contribute to whether we feel life is in balance. People often focus on work-life balance when depleted," she said in the interview.
When those factors are combined, four quadrants emerge, each of which tells us something about our work-life balance:
When we're caught up in someone else's priority and the activity is depleting, it can seem an enormous burden and your life feels way out of balance. She cites attending poorly run meetings, getting up four times a night to feed one's baby, or going to your spouse's boss's house for dinner. "Nobody wants to be doing this. Hopefully you are paid a lot to compensate [for that] when it's work," she said.
Grocery shopping, driving the children around, handling your e-mail, and cleaning the house are your own priorities – even if it might not seem that way – and, for most of us, draining. When you spend more time than you'd like on tasks, Ms. Bacon contends you'll feel out of balance too, but less so than when caught up in drudgery.
"I will be unhappy if they aren't done, but they don't light my fire," she said. The key is to figure out a way to do these tasks more efficiently or delegate them.
Sometimes when you are spending time on another person's priorities, the work can still be energizing, so it feels gratifying. Ideally, this is where you want to spend a lot of your time at work. She mentions working with great colleagues or clients, learning new skills that your employer has asked you to acquire, or doing something for your partner that you wouldn't normally consider fun, in her case watching football. "The reward is more extrinsic than intrinsic, here – it's about someone else's needs being met, but there's something in it for you, too, in the form of an energy boost," she wrote in her blog.
In her tech days, she enjoyed coding. It was meditative and pleasant – gratifying, even – but as she began to manage teams and run her own businesses, she found herself drifting into coding when she should have been selling or developing strategy. She was allowing herself to be trapped in rewarding work, and losing out.
Fun and purpose
When you're working on your own stuff and it's energizing, you have the best of both worlds. This is the sweet spot that the musician was craving. It's the zone where you create music or art, where you explore and learn. It's where business people take time to breathe, and develop strategy. "If you're struggling with work-life balance, you need to carve out more time in this quadrant, even if it's for only one thing. If you have nothing here, you'll face burnout," she warns.
So study your life, and catalogue what activities fall into each segment. She doesn't think you have to allot a certain proportion of your life to each quadrant, just that you find an appropriate balance for you that has sufficient energizing time, and minimizes the drudgery and tasks.
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