If you ever want to throw a cold, wet blanket on a performance review – just roll out the old gem, “How’s your work life balance?”
In the world of executive and leadership development, few questions stall a conversation more than that one. Respondents get defensive, they express shame and sadness – they reluctantly confess failure or get angry that the question exists at all. If you ask it, get ready for all kinds of reactions.
Occasionally, someone will have a bright answer at the ready. They’ve just come back from vacation, they hosted a dinner party, maybe they went to a gaming convention or read a book (a fiction no less), but far more often than not, as the question hangs in the air, there is a pause in the conversation, a sigh, an awkward smile and bodies contract into a shrug.
Not only do professionals know how susceptible they are to overworking, the question itself is often asked under false pretense – it is a judgment disguised as a question – for both the under and over employed. For single professionals, married professionals, professionals who are parents, it’s a beast.
The question, “How is your work life balance?” reveals the extraordinary and often un-reconcilable tension between our ability and ambition – and how we each define value. It is the very essence of how our priorities compete. Articulated or not, it can be the source of immeasurable stress.
So, I’d like to offer you a tool to help both assess where you are on the scale of work<>life and a practice to help you get better at whatever competencies would be useful to you as walk that tightrope.
Before considering where are you are on the scale of work<>life balance, consider this framework instead: how is my digital<>analog balance?
In this modern age it is commonplace to work many hours a day at a terminal or on a phone – then ‘punch out’ and dive straight into a Fortnight tournament or a few cooking shows on Netflix. Increasingly I’m finding that I both work and recreate digitally and not only do hours pass while I’m connected to a screen – but literally days. I can order my meals online, pre-tip the delivery person and bring my tablet to the door when they arrive. I take my phone to the bathroom. I sleep with headphones on. It is increasingly possible to live an entirely digital life and my mental and physical health are suddenly hanging on my ability to both get conscious about that and make the choice to break away from it from time to time.
How is my digital<>analogue balance?
The truth is, if my back hurts, if I feel weak, if I’m tired all the time and sleep brings little rejuvenation – it might be time to go for a walk. Or more. Maybe make plans to see a friend, in person. Maybe clean the apartment. Maybe volunteer at a local shelter. It might do me well to create a list of analogue activities to reference when I feel like a part of the chair I’m sitting in.
I would also suggest that this framework is applicable for people on the other end of the digital scale. There are great patches of our country that are profoundly under-serviced by cel coverage or on-line band width – places with fading industries, poor economies and poor people struggling to rise up. They work all day in retail or hospitality and come home to see references on television of digital worlds they have little or no access to and see themselves falling behind. Personally, I would do a slow burn if I were denied access to tools that others have in so much abundance.
This is an example where people would benefit tremendously with an increased access to the digital tools, platforms and communities so many of us take for granted.
My experience is that both my analogue and digital lives become more potent when I practice passing back and forth between them. I become more valuable to my work, I become better at play and I become more valuable to my family and my community when I choose where I am on the digital<>analogue scale, rather than letting the stress of each choose for me.
The call to action is still – balance – and only you know where you are on the scale. No shame, no judgment – just choice.
Now – chances are, you either need to go for walk, or get to the library and get on line.
Russ Hamilton is the founder and CEO of Connection Lab: a consulting firm specializing in communication, presentation and leadership development