Try this vital balancing act

Managing the different priorities of life is challenging and doing it wrong can destroy relationships. Here's some ideas on making it all work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:35pm

Imagine a typical two-career couple facing all the challenges that success creates. Let's call them Winnie and Benson, both in their 40s.

He is a new partner at an international consulting firm; she is the chief consultant in the paediatrics department of a major teaching hospital.

He is on track to be made a managing partner of the Hong Kong office, and she is the leading candidate to replace her boss in four years as the department head.

Despite demanding careers, both are committed to ensuring their son and daughter, say eight and 11, experience growing up in a supportive family with two caring parents.

In addition, Benson's widowed mother lives with them and regularly shares her strong opinions on raising successful children.

Of course, when both partners are deeply absorbed by their careers, committed to being effective parents and supporting Benson's mother, something has to give.

And typically it is the couple's relationship, friends and time for themselves.

The time has clearly come to step back - to think, plan and act for a better life balance.

However, managing a healthy and effective life balance can at times start to feel like playing a zero-sum game.

The time spent at work seems like time taken from the family. But this leads to the most common mistake, which is to think that balancing work and family demands is the answer.

Unfortunately, this model fails to acknowledge that we have one life with many competing demands on it. And we need to think systematically about all of them. Ignoring friends or not getting any exercise eliminates two powerful resources that can be critical: emotional support and physical health.

If you are serious about living a more satisfying life, you need to ask yourself how you are managing the seven different and interrelated priorities that, according to our research, are created by modern "having it all" living.

They are family relationships, work and professional issues, financial and legal concerns, health and wellness, personal relationships, personal environment and spirituality.

One common problem is reacting to whatever pressing need comes up in the moment, rather than carefully planning for often-conflicting priorities. There is no set formula for maintaining a rewarding life balance, but one sound approach is to align activities around your values, dreams and the people closest to you.

An authentic life demands that your values allocate your time and energy. For example, if work is a financial means to enhancing your family life, then you should prioritise family needs first, while being flexible enough to accommodate work needs on an emergency basis.

If, on the other hand, your work is your central life driver, then you need to negotiate your family life around your professional goals.

Another important consideration is alignment with the significant people in your life, especially your spouse and children.

Family alignment was simple when there were clear family roles: women stayed at home and raised the children and men worked outside. Shifting social values and economic demands have changed all that.

Life balance now usually involves aligning two equal and related sets of personal needs and career aspirations with a shared family. Again, there is no answer other than talking about your values with your significant others - and then working to appreciate and meet shared expectations.

So, what can Winnie and Benson do today to achieve a better sense of balance in their lives?

They can start by recognising that real change comes from small steps that lead to new behaviours and habits. Changing one thing about the way they manage work, family, health or personal relationships will have a ripple effect throughout other aspects to create an improved sense of well-being. One sure-fire way to fail is making and revising "to do" lists, because concrete action is always the starting point.

Here are seven suggestions to get you going.

  • Family relationships require communications, so start by having scheduled family dinners at least twice a week. Spending regular time together is a powerful relationship builder and creates an opportunity to talk about family needs and expectations.
  • Work and professional obligations require a significant time commitment, so learning to delegate to others is your low-hanging fruit. Teaching and empowering subordinates builds trust - and it frees more of your time for other activities.
  • Finances and taxes, if a source of stress, should be thoroughly reviewed six months into the tax year to update your plans and help you sleep better at night.
  • Health and wellness are critical, especially as you get older. Never forget that taking care of your emotional and physical health enables you to support your family. Exercising a minimum of four times a week has obvious medical benefits, but it also represents a commitment to think about you.
  • Personal relationships with friends offer unconditional social support that is critical during challenging periods of your life. Make a commitment to a minimum of two activities with a friend or friends each month (someone outside work or family who cares about you). Simple things like taking a walk or having coffee create more interpersonal interaction than a formal dinner or running a 10-kilometre race.
  • Personal environment is an important factor. Simple improvements like painting a room, adding plants or improving the lighting all contribute to a more positive living space and doing it as a family creates an opportunity to engage with others.
  • Spirituality answers the question: What would you want your family's last memory of you to be? If you want to be a better parent, ensure you have unstructured time each week with your children. But if your reason for being on this earth is to be the best widget sales person in the world, then you may not need to make any changes.

Randel Carlock is Berghmans Lhoist chaired professor in entrepreneurial leadership at INSEAD business school, which has campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi.