You may have seen the story about Mita Diran, a young copywriter in Indonesia, who died soon after tweeting about how she had worked 30 hours straight. Now I don’t know if there were complicating factors, but even if there were, it’s a timely and tragic reminder that we all need to take responsibility for our work-life balance.
It’s an understatement to say the world of work has changed since I started my first job back in the early 1990s. I did have a computer, but no email. I had a phone, but no voicemail. No mobile phones, no Skype, no text messages, no instant messaging, no blogs, no RSS feeds, no social media, no Internet, did I mention no social media?
On the downside researching a new business pitch back in the early 1990s meant driving to the local library with a bag of 10p coins to feed the photocopier.
Today by comparison we face a dizzying variety of channels, and the volume of information being pushed through those channels is incredible. That’s before you think about interruptions, calls, conference calls, meetings and unexpected distractions. Load on the growing expectations of your clients and co-workers and the ability of technology to keep you connected wherever you are. Now try and balance all these competing demands while trying to find some time for family, friends and yourself.
I see two core issues here.
Firstly, we need a better way to manage all this ‘stuff’ while remaining sane. I’ll come back to that a little later in this post.
Secondly, we need a wakeup call on our priorities.
I’ve read a number of tweets and blog posts recently, where ‘being always on’ is some sort of badge of honor. Seriously. People not only brag about it, they claim it’s non-negotiable.
What a complete canard (and I’m not being bi-lingual here).
Let me tell you something. The quality of work you produce and how well you meet your commitments, is far more important than how many hours you spend online.
End of story.
Working in PR or marketing, I’m sure we’ve all had times where we have worked for weeks on end with no break – perhaps months. Actually Mira Diran’s story isn’t that shocking to many of us. But it should be.
But besides the physical impact of this effort, there’s something else you should remember. Long before you hit ‘the wall’ of exhaustion you can be sure that the quality of your work and your decision making has dropped.
That I can guarantee you.
Whenever I’ve talked with executives I’ve found they all share a common trait. A clear understanding that they must balance hard work with rest, exercise, balance and productivity.
The reality is that if you want to be a creative, effective, productive, high achiever, then you need to ensure you’re getting mental and physical rest. You need to be looking after yourself, exercising, resting and giving your brain downtime. That’s how you perform effectively – and ultimately come up with your best work.
Many years ago I had personal experience of burn out. After overworking for months I had a serious fright. It made me re-assess my approach to work. It motivated me to explore best practices in terms of performance, productivity and work life balance. While my wife would readily point out I don’t always get the blend right, she’ll also admit I’m much better at balancing what’s important while still delivering great results at work than I was.
At work I have the great privilege of working with a high performing team. My job is simple, help these folks do their best work while ensuring they are achieving balance. They’ll all happily tell you I bore them to death by telling them they’re no good to me if they’re burnt out :). We work hard, but I try and ensure we also have balance.
Take stock of how you’re working, learn how to get more productive (see below), make time for what’s important from your personal health to your personal life.
This is your responsibility not your employer’s. A smart employer will understand and support you getting this balance, because they’ll understand that’s how they get the best results.
If your employer doesn’t get it, then find one that does. I can assure you that not only is it a better place to work, but they are probably delivering better results.
You are (I’m sure) primarily measured on outputs and results not inputs or how "hard" you worked.
Ensure you can do your best work by getting the balance in your life right. What are your professional and personal priorities? How are you going to achieve them?
There’s no panacea, it’s an ongoing struggle. I don’t always get the balance right, but at least it’s something I am acutely aware of. There’s one thing I can tell you, it’s not about being ‘online’ all the time.
How can you more effectively manage all the stuff you have to deal with, how can you keep a focus on the results that matter?
A couple of weeks ago I had an exchange on Twitter with Stephen Waddington, Sean Fleming, Sally Whittle, and Mark Pinsent that began about the evils of e-mail.
My view is that email is simply a tool. Used correctly it’s incredibly useful, but of course in reality many people abuse it.
So how do you manage not only your email but all the rest of the information hitting you on a daily basis while keeping on top of your commitments and deadlines?
A few years ago – after the fright I mentioned earlier – I quickly realized I was drowning in information and as I got clear on my personal and professional priorities, I also started looking at my own productivity.
How could I more effectively manage everything that was crossing my desk while staying focused on what’s important?
I quickly discovered there’s a lot of processes and systems for keeping yourself organized and focused on managing all the demands you have. I also discovered that there’s no one size that fits everyone, it’s all taking some pointers from these systems and applying what works for you.
Probably the best known workflow is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (You can find a huge amount of content around the web on GTD.)
In summary, Allen provides a framework for thinking about managing all the stuff in your life from emails, post, to bills, a thought, an article, a tweet, a project, a commitment or an objective. He argues that unless you capture and process all this different stuff (and process can mean creating a reminder, or a new project, or just deleting it) it creates distractions which ultimately waste time and make you less productive and less focused.
He provides a framework that can be summarized as:
- Having a system you trust to capture everything in your world. This ranges from incoming emails, tweets, drive-by meetings, phone calls or ideas you’ve had in the shower.
- Process all these items and make decisions about them. For example, you have an email from a colleague, is there an action you need to take? If no, then do you delete it, file it for later reference, or if you can’t do it now put it on a list? If yes, what is the action? Is it a new project? Do you need to delegate it? Can you do it in less than 2 minutes? Then do it.
- Organizing all this information into a system you can trust and use.
- Regularly reviewing your (personal and professional) lists, commitments, goals, objectives and schedules is key. It’s how you keep the system live and relevant.
- Taking Action. The whole point is to actually get stuff done.
Of course, like Stephen Covey’s ‘Sharpen the Saw’ you need to stop and invest time to get your system up and running, but in my opinion it’s worth the investment.
Here’s a question for you: How often do you get your email inbox empty? Every day?
Why not grab a copy of Getting Things Done and give it a read.
As we wind down 2013, it’s a great time to take stock of where you are in your personal and professional life, think about where you can make changes in the year ahead and get the balance between those lives back in check.
Remember life really isn’t a dress rehearsal, so is checking tweets at 11.55pm really the best use of your time on the planet? Probably not.
Technology is part of the solution, but only when it’s combined with clarity on your priorities and a system that helps you be more productive.
I’d love to hear about how you manage.