Students of history fail to quote Henry Ford bemoaning his lack of family time as he developed the first modern assembly line to manufacture Model Ts. Nor do aficionados of early television describe sitcom plots with June Cleaver frustrated and anxious that she won’t be able to get Beaver to soccer practice and chair the late afternoon PTA meeting. As the role of technology in our lives has increased, we’ve leapt into a type of hamster wheel of trying to keep up with the immensely busier lives that our new technologies allow.
During this same time, enormous social changes have occurred: women work outside the home, more women than men attend college—for business degrees, not engagements—and divorce is an option for an unhappy marriage. These social changes have prompted new attitudes about life and what we expect from it. Among the many unspoken assumptions by which we live our lives are the notions that every adult has to be successful and fulfilled, every child requires a ribbon in the competition and even good relationships sometime encounter rough patches. At this precise historical time, the pendulum has come back to the middle: we’re between the Calvinist’s solution of grim work for salvation and Timothy Leary’s advice to “Turn on … [and] drop out.” Hence, the common complaint among our contemporaries of the difficulty in achieving what they term a “work-life” balance.
Some Realistic Expectations, Please!
Just because enormous aspects of our work-life balance conundrum are socially derived does not make them any less difficult to address or painful to experience. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of our media, magazine articles and movies depict or describe the ways you can have it all with just a few tricks. This disconnect between real life and what we believe real life is supposed to resemble doesn’t start when you walk across the stage to claim your diploma. Instead, you’ve been swimming in the misconceptions arising from it for most of your life.
When a person in his 80s says to you, “Back in my day,” this is part of the misunderstanding they’re trying to express to you. Once upon a time, stay-at-home parents didn’t turn into taxi services for their children, not because their children were unloved or neglected, but because it was not considered an “expected” service to demonstrate the quality of one’s parenting ability. Unfortunately, a dissertation on C. Wright Mills’ “The Sociological Imagination” is not going to appease your boss and save your job when she asks for that late report … a second time.
Some Tips to Achieve Harmony at Work—Kinda
Regardless of the details and the extent of their sociological imaginations, interviews with happy, productive and successful people always share some of the same suggestions for achieving some balance at work:
1. Keep things in perspective.
Easy for me to say, right? My brother-in-law relates the story of when the rubber factory he worked for hired a combat vet as a new salesman. The new guy made a mistake and was called into the sales manager’s office for a very loud, rude and public dressing-down. Afterward, he returned to his desk nearby. “You okay?” he was asked. The new guy grinned and shrugged his shoulders, “Hey, it’s only rubber.” A bad day today, sure. But will you even remember it next week? Next year? When you retire?
2. Maintain a Little Control.
Some describe this as a to-do list so that they can see some progress in their day. Others set limits on when they choose to read and respond to email. Some suggest leaving their work cell phone behind when on family outings. Whatever your preference, use it.
3. Don’t Confuse Activity with Progress.
Doing so will cause you to have to work longer and harder to reach your goals because you haven’t distinguished the difference. No wonder so many people experience burnout! They’ve had their foot on the gas pedal, but the car’s been in neutral.
4. Work With Good People
Whether you actually hire them or assign the teams or volunteer to work with a project, work with good people. Collaborating with one or more good people can make a real difference in how you view work. Effective collaboration can also get projects done faster.
The thing to remember about achieving a successful work-life balance is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each person has to come up with his own strategies and techniques for maintaining happiness in both parts of life. Read on to part 2 of this series for more info about how to focus on this subject from the other side of the looking-glass: home life.