Nov 12 — Platitudes about the importance of work-life balance never fully capture the complexity of employees’ situations.
The pursuit of a meaningful, multifaceted life involves endless choices about both short-term tactical issues (“Should I volunteer for this project?”) and long-term strategic ones (“How can I position myself to advance in my career?”).
Howard Stevenson — an entrepreneur, professor, philanthropist, former chairman of Harvard Business Publishing, husband and father - likens the challenge to walking on a balance beam while trying to juggle an egg, a crystal glass, a knife and any number of other fragile or hazardous objects.
As you progress in your career and life, more responsibilities and opportunities are tossed at you. And so at some point, to maintain your balance, you’ll have to drop something. The key is to decide consciously what to relinquish instead of unwittingly letting go of the most important item
It is hard for high-achieving people to accept that they cannot have it all. Even those who recognise the limits on their time often still expect to be energetic and efficient enough to excel in every role: Productive employee, inspiring boss and mentor, supportive colleague, active community member and committed spouse, friend, parent and child.
But it is impossible to do everything perfectly at the same time. You cannot pursue all your goals simultaneously or satisfy all your desires at once. And it is an emotional drain to think you can.
Instead, you must focus on long-term fulfilment rather than short-term success and, at various points in your life, think carefully about your priorities.
You, the ongoing process
We all know that it is difficult for a company to make good strategic or tactical decisions without a mission in mind. The same holds true for individuals. Most of us start walking and juggling on the balance beam without thinking holistically and explicitly about what aspects of our lives we value most and how we value those things in relation to one another.
It helps to carefully consider all the dimensions of your life. Mr Stevenson and I have identified seven:
1) Family (parents, children, siblings, in-laws, and so on)
2) Social and community (friendships and community engagement)
3) Spiritual (religion, philosophy or emotional outlook)
4) Physical (health and well-being)
5) Material (physical environment and possessions)
6) Avocational (hobbies and other nonprofessional activities)
7) Career (both short- and long-term perspectives)
For each dimension ask yourself three questions: Who do I want to be in this part of my life? How much do I want to experience this dimension? Given that I have a finite amount of time, energy and resources, how important is this dimension relative to the others?
In describing his own experiences, Stevenson often uses the word “value”. That is because he is an entrepreneur who knows that the only way to truly assess cost is to understand the value of one choice relative to another.
For example, an hour spent reading to your daughter has a different value from an hour spent playing basketball with friends; and both have values different from an hour spent studying for a licensing exam or volunteering at a homeless shelter.
The key is to differentiate between options that appear to be equally valuable by carefully considering how each of them advances you toward one dimension or another of your legacy vision. The following questions can help you in that process.
Where do your options fall on the needs-wants spectrum?
Needs start with food, shelter and health; wants include diamond necklaces, round-the-world cruises and mansions. Needs have more intrinsic value than wants, but most things fall somewhere in the middle.
So the goal is to understand, in relative terms, where your options fall on the spectrum, based on your individual circumstances at a given moment and on your legacy vision. Some wants are so strong - because of habit or even peer pressure — that it’s difficult to separate them from needs.
What are the investment and opportunity costs?
Almost every decision — whether agreeing to a strategic business alliance or committing to a leadership role in a non-profit organisation — involves two kinds of costs. There is the investment cost: The time, energy and other resources you expend. And there is the opportunity cost: The options you forgo by investing those resources.
The challenge with investment costs is to be explicit about them up front and to understand if and how incurring them will lead you to your desired, well-defined outcome.
Are the potential benefits worth the costs?
Expected benefits must be evaluated just as carefully as costs, and in relation to them. Does the benefit you will receive warrant the investment you will have to make?
A friend who works for a large conglomerate was recently told by his boss that he would be well served to earn his CPA, an achievement that requires three years of coursework. “Well served” implies a benefit, but how much of one?
Can you make a trade?
Life is full of trade-offs, but sometimes units of one element of your life cannot be exchanged for units of a different element. Think of Steve Jobs, who assuredly would have paid great sums to cure his cancer. But his money could not buy him health. There was no trade to be had.
Many of us face similar, albeit less consequential, challenges throughout our careers and lives as we try to exchange something we have for something else that we want. The frustration arises when the two items in question cannot be traded.
Can you pursue your most important goals sequentially?
Stevenson is fond of citing a piece of advice his mother often gave him: “Remember that you may be able to have everything you want in life - just not all at once.” Consciously staggering your goals may enable you to be equally successful in many dimensions over time.
In today’s complex, frenetic world, many of us are struggling to chart a path toward success in our careers and a sense of fulfilment in all aspects of our lives.
Instead of striving for work-life balance, or even worrying about juggling on the balance beam, use this framework to pursue your life’s work - holistically seeking both success and satisfaction.
In the real world, isn’t that what “having it all” really comes down to? — Today
* Eric C Sinoway is the President and a co-founder of Axcess Worldwide, which creates partnerships between companies in the luxury, travel, hospitality and mass consumer brand industries. He is the author, with Merrill Meadow, of 'Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work’.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.