Why Work Life Balance is Impossible to Achieve!

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This is nothing to do with investment but is an important topic I thought I would like to share my thoughts on. This is an excerpt from my book, Financial Joy which I thought I would like to share with you guys! ~Sean Seah

Work life balance?

“From now on, no one is to mention this term ‘work-life balance’ anymore!”

I was working in a leadership research centre then, and my boss announced this in the midst of a meeting. It was especially shocking to me because I was in charge of the monthly leadership newsletter, and just the month before, we had sent out an article on work-life balance to all the managers of the organisation. I particularly liked what we sent out ,because my boss had personally written a list of things to take note of as well as practical suggestions, which the managers could act on.

Some examples of the things to take note of:
1. Making last-minute changes without much consideration for its impact on subordinates.
2. Last-minute work due to lack of forward planning or late decision making.
3. Conducting big group meetings that only concern a few – wasting the time of the rest sitting in.
4. Starting new initiatives without prioritising workload.
5. Micro-managing subordinates for fear of making mistakes.

Some examples of practical suggestions:
1. No calling, sms-ing and emailing on work-related issues after 7 pm and during weekends.
2. Giving days off on birthdays and/or early knock-off on wedding anniversaries, spouse’s and children’s birthdays, and any other special occasions.
3. Weaving cohesion into the company’s schedule to build bonds.
4. Blocking out periods to ensure there are no time intensive projects during school holidays.

There is one thing that I really want to share. My former boss, who had suggested all of the above, actually practises what he preaches, as much as possible. So I did enjoy having work-life balance. Don’t you wish that your boss takes up and implements these suggestions as well?

If you are a boss, I will ask you to consider these and increase the level of joy in your workplace. If you are not the boss, you can give him or her a copy of this book and hope that the suggestions are eventually implemented.
Of course hope, in this case, is not the best method. Let’s take charge and create your own work-life balance. But before that, let me explain why my boss told us not to ever use the term ‘work-life balance’.

Work-life balance is an illusion

My boss is probably a true believer and practitioner of work-life balance, so why did he asked us to stop using this term? “Our big boss does not agree with this term. After he read our monthly leadership newsletter last month, he asked me into his office and told me to never use it again,” he explained.

My blood began to boil. “This slave driver!” I thought to myself, as I pictured our big boss holding a whip, driving the people to work harder.

“And what he said does make sense,” he continued. My initial unhappiness turned into curiosity. If my boss said that it makes sense, there must be something I was missing.
He continued to explain, “Some people are quitting their job because they feel that there isn’t work-life balance. But what exactly is work-life balance? Can anyone define it? Work is part of life, and if it is part of life, how can we balance it against life?”

The meeting room was quiet. Some of us were probably enlightened, while other were confused. I happened to fall in the latter group.

He continued by drawing this diagram on the flip chart.

1-work-life

“When we use the term work-life balance, we are painting this picture in the minds of our people. But how is that possible, when in reality, work is a part of life?” He then drew another diagram:

1-work-life-2

“In reality, there are different segments in our life, and work is one of them. We cannot then achieve work-life balance because there is no balance. Work cannot be separated from life. There isn’t health-life balance or family-life balance because it is all part of life.”

The room buzzed with side comments and small talk. Some were impressed, some were dismayed, and others were indifferent. For me, I began to think deeper and questioned whether a change of terms would actually solve the issue. Whatever the wording, some people are still unhappy with their work, and feel that other areas of their life are compromised by the time spent and stress gained from work.

The solution – Creating your own work-life balance wheel

Boss, I am sorry that I am still going to use the term work-life balance. I understand the logic behind not using it, but at the same time, most people are already accustomed to it; so I don’t need to try and change it.
What happened after the meeting was that I began to speak to different people regarding the subject. There are some people who are generally happy with their work and feel that they had work-life balance. Unfortunately, many were unhappy, believing they did not have work-life balance.

As I spoke to them, I identified two differences between those who were relatively happy versus those who were not. These are having a sense of work-life balance, and being driven by purpose and passion.
We will discuss the second point in a while, but hey, didn’t we agree that work-life balance is not possible? How then can some people still achieve it?

Let me explain that it is not strictly the kind that my boss illustrated, but a sense of balance within their lives. There are some people who feel that their work is pretty balanced – compared with other important areas of their lives. When I probe further, these people feel that they are achieving pretty much what they want for each segment of life, as well as fulfilling their work obligations. Thus, they feel that they have work-life balance.

An example is a friend called Samson. When I spoke to him, he told me he indeed had work-life balance.

“Why do you say that, Samson?” I asked.

“Well, I get my work done, I get to have dinner with my wife, and get to bring my family out on weekends. I also get to attend the investing courses I want. So it is pretty balanced, isn’t it?” he replied.

“If you say it is, it should be. But do you really get to do that consistently? Don’t you have to work late at nights and on weekends?”

“Of course I do. But if I cannot make it this week, I pay it back next week or in the future.”

At this point of time, some of you may be thinking that Samson must be in a very nice working environment. The truth is that I spoke to some others working in the exact same office, but their response was different.
“Freddy (not his real name), do you have work-life balance?” I asked this gentleman, who was a colleague of Samson.
“Work-life balance? Don’t even talk about it, bro! I have to work late nights, sometimes even on weekends. My crazy boss just called me on Sunday morning to help him create Powerpoint slides to be presented by Monday morning. Where got work-life balance?” Freddy shot back. He had obviously rehearsed this speech in his head, or complained it ‘live’ many times.

Same office, same boss, different feelings about work. As I spoke to people who feel that they have work-life balance, I pondered what it is that gives them that sense. I concluded that people who feel that they have work-life balance have certain realistic goals for the other aspects of their life. People who don’t either fail to set realistic goals for the other aspects of their life, or don’t even have any goals at all.
Samson knows that he wants to have dinner with his wife, bring his family out on weekends, and attend courses he is interested in. Regardless of his work schedule, he makes time to make sure he achieves these goals.
Freddy, when asked, didn’t even know what he wants outside work. Because of that, he was generally aimless and went home after work, tired and frustrated.

I sat Freddy down and asked him what he realistically wanted in each area of his life, each week. After some discussion, we came up with a list. He wanted to:

1. Tell bedtime stories to his daughter every night.
2. Have dinner with his wife and daughter three times a week.
3. Go for a swim three times a week.
4. Bring his family out for an outing every weekend.
5. Have dinner with his parents every weekend.
6. Watch soccer during soccer league seasons.
7. Play soccer with his friends twice a week.

After coming up with a list, I asked him if he knew of these things that he had wanted before we discussed them. He did subconsciously, but felt frustrated because he could not achieve these items. What we did was to review these weekly goals and make them more achievable. After some deliberation, he decided to settle for:
1. Telling bedtime stories to his daughter twice a week.
2. Having dinner with his wife and daughter three times a week.
3. Swimming two times a week.
4. Bringing his family out for an outing once a month.
5. Having dinner with his parents every weekend.
6. Watching soccer during soccer league seasons.
7. Playing soccer with his friends once a week.

One month later, I reviewed this new list with Freddy and asked what his experience was like. He told me that he actually managed to achieve most of the things on the list. This was done without any change in his job tempo – his crazy boss was still around, but he still managed to make time for these specific activities. When asked about how he felt about work-life balance, he sheepishly shared that he indeed felt more ‘balanced’.

Interesting, isn’t it?

This list is a simple exercise, but a powerful one. When I checked with Samson, he didn’t have a written list, yet he had programmed himself to go and achieve what he knew to be important. Freddy, on the other hand, had a list of goals but wasn’t clear about it. When he couldn’t achieve these goals he had set subconsciously, he felt frustrated and blamed it on his work, which took up most of his time and energy.

Your work-life balance list
Do you know exactly what do you want in the other aspects of your life? If you are feeling frustrated and feel that you do not have work-life balance, you need to do this exercise.

Just two simple steps can make you much more joyful:

1. List down important areas in your life
2. Set realistic weekly or monthly goals in each of these areas.

There you go, your work-life balance list.

Here are some tips to set yourself up for success:

1. Review your goals weekly and monthly
After setting your goals, you have to review them. Keep track of your goals so that you know whether you are on track. Then review them to make them more realistic and fit them better into your life.

2. Have an accountability partner
If possible, find someone who is already joyful and you know will support you in this change. Talking to someone who is supportive will help you stay on track.

3. Be flexible and focus on the purpose
If you cannot swim twice a week because there isn’t a swimming pool anywhere near your office or home, could you go to the gym instead as a way to meet your health and fitness objectives? Swimming is a means to an end. If the purpose is to keep fit or relax, can you find some other means to do so?

4. Celebrate each success
I am repeating this: don’t go for perfection! Celebrate each action. If you managed to have dinner with your family once this week, treat it as a victory! Even if your goal is to have dinner with your family three times a week, you can be joyful at each dinner, not only when you manage to achieve that goal.

The last point is really to be grateful that you even have a job. You may not believe it, but there may be many people out there who are more than willing to take up your job because they do not even have one.
I am pretty confident that this exercise will help you be more joyful at work. If you are really so unhappy about it even after going through this exercise, you should review if you are on the right ‘bus’. That will be the focus of the next chapter.

God Bless,
Sean Seah

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