Be a planner
You don’t go far wrong when quoting Benjamin Franklin. His sage advice, commanderied down the years by boy scouts and football managers alike sets the tone for this post: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Or put another way, be a planner.
I’ve always liked planning. I like knowing what is happening next and the feeling of having some measure of control over it. I like structure. I like a degree of certainty. I like to know – where possible – what is coming up on the road ahead.
Now there will be lots of people for whom that is the stuff of nightmares. The “I like to go with the flow” people – those who believe that planning is not just boring (although they think it is desperately so) but that it stifles their creativity and gets in the way of their fun. I have some sympathy for them and their wacky ways. I have sympathy for my wonderful wife who regularly rolls her eyes affectionately when, before she has eaten a mouthful of breakfast is being asked by her husband what she wants for her dinner. I know that planning is not everyone’s thing. That it has something of a marmite quality about it. But in the context of achieving and maintaining the right work life balance for you, I believe passionately that it is non-negotiable.
I am not talking about planning your life away – although I will come to life plans in a few moments – but putting in place three aspects of planning that will help underpin any attempts to get the balance right in your work and home life.
Firstly, have a diary/calendar which both you and your nearest and dearest can access and input to – ideally on your phones, iPads etc with its great colour-coding options and ease of changes and updates – also it avoids my awful, doctors would be ashamed of it handwriting. The diary needs to be set to view all seven days with equal weight – not the weekend squashed at the end as if not as important of the other five proper days.
This diary or calendar should include all work stuff and home stuff; appointments (doctors, hair, dentists etc), travel time to and from stuff including work, after school activities, school run times, daily dog walks, yoga classes, running, gym trips, your favourite sporting team(s) fixtures (there is few things in life worse than the stress of agreeing to do something – usually with family and then finding out it classes with the big top of the table clash – anything that is important yo you and the missing of or being late for would cause you even the mildest disruption. Simply put, anything that takes more than five minutes needs to be in the diary.
This plan needs to include some free time – during the day and in the evenings. Being busy every evening with events and activities is not sustainable as something will always run late, over-run or not go to plan. The plan needs to be realistic and not optimistic – especially about your ability to get from place A to place B in zero time – remember to always include travel time. This free time needs to include two things; time for lunch at work and the avoidance of back to back days. Oh that’s easy for you to say I hear you thinking. That is naive, Ben. I spend my life in meetings etc etc.
Well, I refer you to my previous advice on saying no to some stuff and some honesty in your choices and in drawing and keeping within your boundaries. If you chose to have lunch each day and a 30 minute break it will happen. Not at 2:30 (“I was too busy to eat/“I didn’t get chance to eat” – just listen to how ridiculous that sounds – you refused your body one of the few things it need to stay alive because of a meeting that you probably could have say no to/asked to be moved/gone for a short amount of/taken you lunch with you before going out after the meetings etc) – but actually at lunchtime.
Days that are full of back to back meetings with no free time between them lead to overrunning meetings, insufficient time between each to get to them and latesness, stress, missing important stuff, playing catch up later in the day, longer days, tired people and work life balance in the bin before the end of Monday.
You would not go on a drive in your car to somewhere you haven’t been before without a SatNav, a map or both. So why start the week, the month, the year without a map for the journey ahead?
Right, this diary/calendar is now your plan. Secondly, you need to use the plan properly.
This is the hard bit. You have make the plan a part of your life. Your routine. I suggest a weekly look ahead – Sunday is the best day for this. Just check through the week that is coming up; who is doing what; what nights do you have late finishes at work, evening events etc; are there any early starts; do you have to be somewhere unusual at any point; is there some travel or meetings that are out of the ordinary? Which one of you at home is picking up your child, dog, granny etc each day? Agree that before the week starts not shouting up the stairs at each other each morning when you realise that no-one is currently due to do the school run that afternoon! Once you know about the things coming up next week – well in advance – you can make the necessary arrangements to make sure you are there on time and away on time.
Going back to my previous advice about making the tools work for you, this planning is about getting a grip on your time and removing as much wasted time as possible – especially time spent at work that could be spent at home.
Once the week starts, look at the plan. Keep reviewing it. Make changes if suddenly the back to back meetings have returned. Check the plan reflects the boundaries you have set; day start times, end times, lunch breaks and the like. Each afternoon look ahead to tomorrow and the rest of the week and challenge yourself; do I really need to do that; could someone else take that meeting; could I delegate it; is this the best use of my time? The rule is not whether you can do something at work but whether you should do it; are you uniquely placed to attend the meeting or undertaken the activity? If the answer is no, then ask yourself why you are doing it.
The secret to planning success is to have a plan, review it regularly and keep changing it. If you are not updating your plan several times a week, you are not doing it right.
Thirdly, have a long term plan. I am not talking here about a 50 year plan for the rest of your life – although there are worse ideas – or a 100 days JFKJ-style plan that would have you get through the start of your first presidential term of office – but a plan that maps out the big events, moments and goals that you have for the next one, two, five and ten years. These should include milestone birthdays for you and yours; any big career changes you might envisage; big training or education you want to undertake; the rough dates you may wish to have children; get a dog; go on a special holiday; take that long-desired trip; publish a book; learn to play the piano; lose weight; give up smoking; anything that is important enough for you to want to achieve.
For my plan, the key things I looked at was how many days did I want to be working; what hours I wanted to work; what type of job did I want and I wrote it down; setting targets; devising goals; the home ones being just as important as the work ones.
You get what you measure in life and so often in the last three years I have met people who are now have their dream lifestyle, work and work life balance. They didn’t achieve it overnight but most of them were able to achieve it by being clear what exactly they wanted to achieve and by when. They could then start to map out the individual steps that would take them to that place.
In practical terms, I suggesting drawing this plan out in a notebook or a piece of paper you can keep safe. Draw axis with the dates/years across the top and start to draw boxes with each of this big events, goals, etc on. Take a look across the years and ask yourself is this what you want from life? Is this how you see you life panning out? Is this what success looks like for you?
Without a plan; without a sense of direction about what you are going and by when, how will you know you’ve arrived?
My view is very clear; if you are a planner you have a much better chance of success than if you’re not. Like every intervention I have suggested in these five principles, none alone is a magic bullet or a guarantee of success, but the combination of all five will increase your chances of achieving and maintaining that work life balance that is right for you.
This is not a theoretical statement or one made out of speculation and idle guesswork, but one that was forged in the white heat of trial and error; of success and failure; of falling and getting up again; of hot, anxious office sweats and time spent walking very slowly up the street at home to get that last email sent because I couldn’t find the time once I put my key in the door; of years and years of doing it right and wrong; of thinking and talking about it; observing others; listening to others’ stories; of exhaustion and anxiety; of depressive episodes and the smug satisfaction of good times; of travel; commuting in London and beyond; of working at home; of part-time and full time working; of 25 hour weeks and regular 75 hour weeks; of late nights; early mornings; weekends; holiday working; secret holiday working; daily holiday email checking working; being present; not being present of working; working; working.
I am passionate about work life balance. I live and breathe it. I want to help you find the right one for you and yours. All I ask is that you have a think about my five principles. That’s not true; I don’t just want you think about them, I want you to follow them. All five. Starting today. Please give it a go and tell me how it went.
Perhaps it is now time for you to prepare to succeed. It is your work life balance; therefore only you can achieve it. Don’t wait for your employer to do it for you; no matter how great they are, you will be waiting a very, very long time.