As a leadership coach, I encounter a lot of the same struggles across organizations, and I recently heard these sort of struggles referred to as “evergreen challenges.” One of the biggest evergreen challenges that busy executives speak to me about is work-life balance.
Before we dive in, let me reveal that I’m not a huge fan of that phrase. First, it’s a false dichotomy which implies that I am either living or at work, but not both at the same time (which just really makes no sense). Moreover, the idea of being balanced implies some sort of static nature. Yet, we are far from that; we are dynamic organisms and so are our businesses, despite most leaders’ efforts to make them seem static and unwavering.
But all of that aside, what is it that people are really pointing to by using this phrase work-life balance? What is it that we really want?
In the simplest terms, we want to have the experience of our mind and our body being in the same place at the same time; we want a certain quality to our attention.
When I’m at home, I want my attention to be at home with my family, children, and significant other. When I’m at work, I want my attention to be at work, focusing on the key actions that will allow me to be effective in my role.
Thus, our deepest joy comes from the quality of our attention and our innate desire to be fully present to our experience.
This experience of absorption in what we are doing has been examined from a lot of different angles, but the description that most resonated with me comes from the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In it, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience that we have when we are so absorbed in what we are doing that time drifts away. We have a moment of forgetting about ourselves and letting go of our own self-consciousness, and the mind forgoes its natural tendency to drift into the past and the future. What is likely true in those moments is that our attention is directed in a certain way that allows us to be absorbed in the moment-by-moment experience. We are relaxed, alert, and free.
Focusing on just one thing at a time can seem like an insurmountable challenge when the alerts are firing from your email, the kids are yelling in the background and you’re on a conference call, and you have to keep reminding yourself to not forget to reply to an email in the morning. Alas, it seems that our body is frequently in one place while our mind is elsewhere.
And we give ourselves all types of excuses and reasons to continue in this disjointed state. The sheer panic I see when I suggest to a leader that he or she turn off all of their phone alerts is expression enough of our fear of being fully present to our lives. Ironically, most people are unaware of the mind’s tendency to drift away from the moment and compulsively check their phone anyway; research has shown that the average person checks their phone between 35-74 times per day.
And yet, no one has ever complained to me that they missed a life-altering text message because their phone wasn’t dinging on a regular, chaotic basis.
To be clear, it isn’t that alerts or phones that are the issue – they aren’t. However, these dings and vibrations add to the number of things that are competing for our attention.
But all is not lost. It’s possible to take responsibility for the quality of our attention so that we can be present and effective in all of our roles in life.
A good place to start is by implementing a trusted system to capture all of your tasks, and to set aside time to update it daily and weekly. My favorite approach to this mindfulness practice comes from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.
Having all of our tasks organized is not only a practical and actionable approach to managing the stuff of our lives; it also allows us to relax so that our mind and our body are in the same place at the same time.
And that is where we find our greatest joy – no work-life balance required.