Fellow MVP and colleague Paul Bloem wrote an article that inspired me to share the work-life balance journey I stared over 6 months ago now.
I consider work to be part of who I am, and thankfully I love what I do. This blurred line between work and personal life means that work could happen at anytime; the 9 to 5 doesn’t exist for me. Typically work was during (long) daylight hours with a scattering of after hours gigs. But, in addition to the mostly scheduled work I do, and largely due to the high expectations I set for myself, I found myself more and more taking care of admin catch-up tasks like email follow-up in the evening. This ended up being a nightly ritual making the work day even longer. At times I suffered from high levels of stress which further effected the family by adding grumpiness to my unavailability. Not cool.
I wanted to find a way that I could keep up my standard of work, but disconnect in the afternoon and evenings. I can proudly say that I have made some real inroads. I am more available for the kids from the afternoon on-wards, then when they hit the sheets I have time for my wife, and even some alone-time later in the evening when the wife retires, where I try to play guitar or read a book.
This article is a bit about how I changed things up, I hope you enjoy.
While away on holiday I read a book that tipped this plan in to action (thanks for the recommendation Justin Morris!). The book is Deep Work by Cal Newport and I highly recommend it. Not only is it a great and easy read, it has a tonne of useful techniques to help you better manage your time. These are only ideas, and its up to you to implement something in a way that works for you. For the rest of this article I am going to detail what worked for me.
Here’s what I did…
Figure out a schedule that works for you
In my case I need to be available 5-days a week (maybe i’ll negotiate a 4-day week some time). I’m also an early bird, one of those people that feel like they get much more out of the day when the suns awake. So I tried moving my start time from 8:00am to 5:30am – I’m sure some of you think I’m crazy!! (I did) – this schedule probably wont work for those that agree, but you get the idea. It works for me, and I now love getting up in the dead uninterruptible quite. It also has the benefit of me getting in a solid 5+ hours before lunch time.
Because I live 85km from the office, I work from home a lot. When I don’t I deal with a lot of traffic at peak hour. To combat this and to avoid the wasted time sitting in the car, I set out a schedule for preferred meeting times. I have a slot post 12pm for in-person meetings, then a later slot for online only meetings.
Here’s what my schedule looks like:
- 05.30-12.00: Focus time – I appreciate minimal interruption during this time and will be unresponsive to email and IM
- 12.00-15.00: Generally available – best time to organise meetings as I keep this clear
- 15.00-17.30: Generally available – online meetings only
I bet the first thing you thought is “boy that’s a long day!!”. Well I don’t normally work until 5:30pm, but I have that slot available so I can be accommodating where required. My aim is to finish work at 3pm so I can be available for the kids school run and playtime.
Add your schedule to Outlook so others are reminded and can see your preferences:
Put your damn phone down! Surgically remove it if you have to! Phones are the worst, constantly distracting us whether you have notifications on or not. How many times have you seen people out for something to eat or drink and they are both on the phone? When mines in my pocket, I constantly pull it out and aimlessly check it just in case someone (likely) miles away wants something.
Stay close by, and enjoy time with the actual real physical beings you can touch and feel! I’ll admit, this one I’m not the best at, but I try and leave my phone in a bowl on the kitchen bench when at home, and when out and about with people, in the car.
These days we are bombarded with notifications and its not just phones. We cant help ourselves being drawn to them, disrupting what we are working on in the process. Disable them! Yep that’s right all of them! PC, phone and other devices – I have turned off visual indicators, pop-ups and sounds etc etc. Check apps on your terms when you choose to.
Caveat: I have notifications on for SfB/Teams (occasionally I use DnD), SMS messages and incoming phone calls. This stuff has the expectation of (somewhat) real-time response, and I filter this using expectation management.
Once you’ve figured out what works for you, communicate this to your Team and those you work with frequency. I chose not to do an “All Staff” email, instead opting to manage this case by case explaining things when negotiating meeting bookings or other interruptions etc.
Here’s what I sent to my Team (feel free to plagiarize):
I’m back on deck now. Had a great holiday in case you’re wondering 🙂 No work or kids for a week was just what I needed to refresh. It’s been a pretty stressful couple of months for me, trying to manage my large workload while trying to maintain the level of service I expect of myself. This resulted in working most nights and racking up a lot of extra hours, sometimes up to 60 hours a week. Not ideal, but required sometimes. Unfortunately this can effect family life, and I am a strong advocate for family first work second. So while I was relaxing on the beach in Hawaii I wondered how I could maintain a heavy work load and ensure that the laptop is put away by 5:30PM every day. The obvious answer was to find a way to increase productivity, but how… I spotted a comment by fellow SfB MVP Justin Morris recommending a book called Deep Work – In summary, don’t let others or things (e.g. social media) rule your life. Well worth a read, and I’ll be implementing the stuff that hit a chord with me.
So…. to manage the many disruptions and shiny things that take me away from what I should be doing I’ll be following this self-imposed guideline:
- I will only be checking emails several times per day, mostly in the afternoon
- Microsoft Teams is my primary tool for communications – you should be able to initiate a conversation with me via Teams or Skype depending on which you choose to use (yes we all no this fails sometimes, so use Teams!)
- Microsoft Teams conversations will take priority over email, however whichever you choose, you can expect a response as and when I get to it
- For any urgent matters please call me via Teams (I have allowed the UC Team to break through DND status), and if you can’t reach me there try my mobile
- During my focus time, urgent matters only please
- During my general availability, knock your socks off
- This is not an attempt to avoid work! If you want to run something past me, seek advice or guidance, please do; I’m here to help, just at a time that suits my schedule best
Here’s how I organise my day:
05.30-12.00: Focus time – I appreciate minimal interruption during this time and will be unresponsive to email and IM
12.00-15.00: Generally available – best time to organise meetings as I keep this clear
15.00-17.30: Generally available – online meetings only
Note: I work from the Waikato most days. My guaranteed in-office day is Friday, where I skip focus time.
Obviously when I am on support or on-call I will manage myself slightly differently, but still under these circumstances ensure Teams Call/Mobile is used for urgent.
Finally, If you are overworked or stressed, that’s not cool, tell someone so the Team can come together and help out. Not something I am good at doing myself, I find myself slow to recognise stress until it gets to a point where I burn out and my brain turns to mush 😊
Any questions let me know, and thanks in advance for respecting my schedule.
So that’s my story and how I made some changes to my life for better work-life balance. Of course I cheat at times, but I mostly follow this framework I set for myself and it has made a huge difference. If you’re working too hard, stressed or neglecting your family; remember you only live once. Its worth doing something about it:
- Read Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Reach out to a colleague and ask for help if you need it
- Don’t be afraid to talk your boss – if they don’t know, they cant help you
- You don’t have to do something as drastic as I did, small things add up too
Good luck and I’d love to here your stories walking the work-life balance tightrope. Hit me up in the comments and thanks for reading!