This page contains Amazon affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
I'm a big advocate for work-life balance. It's the main reason I am writing my new book, Surviving IT. I'm in a pretty good place now, professionally and personally. And I want to help people like you achieve a build a successful career with a good work-life balance.
When people sign up to the Surviving IT mailing list (here) they receive an email from me asking what their biggest career challenge is right now.
Here's a few examples of what people have written back to me:
My biggest challenge is balancing work with my family life. If you could give us some pointers on how to better manage projects and workloads, it would be greatly appreciated.
It would be staying on top of things while having time for my family and hobbies. The work-life balance in this agile IT landscape.
I don't want to be the guy who becomes a master of something while losing out on his personal life and other things that matters in life besides work.
I know from personal experience, and from what people have written to me, that three things have the biggest impact on personal and family time:
- Keeping up with the volume of work in your job
- Keeping up with the never ending change in the technology industry
- Investing time in developing a deep expertise to grow your career, find better jobs, and earn higher salaries
These issues touch on a few key areas that are separate issues. But they also overlap and combine to create problems for technology professionals.
- Excessive workload and issues with burnout. This leads to problems with your physical and mental health, and has a flow on effect on your personal life.
- The constant race to “stay up to date”. This leads to “change fatigue”, which has become an even bigger issue in the era of cloud computing.
- Spending time wisely to learn skills that will help your career. As trends come and go it's hard to avoid wasting time on things that will not help or that will “fall out of fashion”.
These are big topics. I am writing an entire book about them (and others). But in this article I want to touch on something that I've found can help with all three areas.
Time Management (But Not What You Think)
The internet is full of productivity and time management advice. There are also a lot of motivational quotes intended to give you a little productivity boost in your day.
Here's a nice one:
The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.
In other words, don't dwell on past failures. Yesterday was a bad day, but today can be a good day that leads to a better tomorrow.
Here's another nice one:
You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.
I've been guilty of this myself. Sometimes I spend too much time reading about how to do something, and not enough time actually doing it. It's a reminder to me that action, even imperfect action, is what moves us forward.
Being aware of how I spend my time reminds me of another quote, attributed to William Penn:
Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.
I've written about time management before. In my post What Does Your Ideal Day Look Like? I mention having control over my time. I map out a day that includes a balance of family time, personal time, healthy habits, leisure, and work.
And, in my post about The Coaching Habit, I explain how to free up time by removing yourself as a dependency for others.
Each of those articles deals with day to day productivity. Getting enough things done each day to feel like we're getting somewhere. It should be easy. If we assume a work day of 8 hours, and a goal of sleeping 8 hours each night, that leaves 8 hours to spend on the rest of our life.
This is where most people get stuck. Surely 8 hours is enough time to fit in some family time, some personal time, and some learning for career growth. So why do so many people struggle with getting this work-life balance under control?
How to Burn 8 Hours
With 8 hours of non-work, non-sleep time in our day, here's what happens to most of us. We spend:
- An extra 1-2 hours on excess work.
- 2 hours commuting to and from work
- 1 hour of random stuff at home (showering, changing, interacting with family, etc)
- 1 hour preparing food, eating, and cleaning up afterwards.
- 1-2 hours on rest/idle time (television, Facebook, etc).
On weekends, when work should be out of the picture, we also spend:
- Several hours on cleaning and other household chores.
- Several hours attending social events, including travel time.
- Interacting with family as we move past each other doing other stuff.
- Some exercise, if we're lucky.
In amongst all that it's no wonder we struggle to:
- Spend meaningful time with family and friends.
- Spend time exercising and maintaining our health.
- Invest time in personal and professional development.
Zooming Out and Deciding What Matters
So much productivity and time management advice gets down to the micro level. We can be more productive if we change small habits. Laying out clothes for the next day before going to bed saves a few minutes in the morning trying to decide what to wear. Listening to podcasts while we do the dishes turns a chore into learning time. Doing squats while the microwave heats up our lunch avoids a trip to the gym.
Those are all valid ways to make improvements in our lives, but they don't have the necessary impact.
In her book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam writes:
Time management isn’t just about saving five minutes on the margins, perhaps by running our errands in a way that means we never have to wait for lights. True time management is about filling our lives with things that deserve to be there.
168 hours is the number of hours in one week. As a unit of time, one week is a good representation of what our life looks like. Optimizing your minute by minute day has limited effectiveness. Optimizing how you spend the larger blocks of time in your entire week has a much greater impact.
At the beginning of the book, Laura offers one simple tip that I used to overhaul how I structured my week.
Simply changing my words from ‘I don’t have time for that’ to ‘That’s not a priority for me’ has completely changed the way that I organize my life. Actually, the way I live my life.
Try it yourself. Here's an example:
I didn't study for my certification exam this week because I didn't have time.
Now try applying Laura's advice:
I didn't study for my certification exam this week because it's not a priority for me.
The entire context of the statement changes. It's easy to say that we're busy and don't have time. And it's easy to say that something we don't really want in life isn't a priority.
But it's much harder to say that something we do really want in life isn't a priority. Here's another example that those of you with children will appreciate:
I didn't play with my kids this weekend because I didn't have time.
Now try applying Laura's advice again:
I didn't play with my kids this weekend because it's not a priority for me.
Ouch. That one hurts.
Accounting for Time
When someone wants to lose weight (for real, not with gimmick diets) the first advice they give you is to track your intake (calories). Only when we measure the problem (more calories going in that going out) can we work out the solution.
In the same way, tracking how we spend our time across an entire week tells us whether our time is being spent on things that align with our priorities.
This is not an exercise in guilting you into giving up TV or video games, or quitting your job. As Laura writes:
The rationale for this exercise is to know where you are so you can see if this is where you want to be.
Let's say you track your time for a week and you determine that:
- Your job takes up 9 hours of your time Monday to Friday, and another 4 hours on weekends.
- Your commute consumes another 2 hours of time Monday to Friday.
Many of the people who've written to me say that family time is a priority for them. So shorter working hours and a shorter commute would be an improvement in their lives. We can assume that some weekend overtime or on-call is a natural part of working in IT. But at the same time, having a predictable weekend routine so that you aren't called away from the family BBQ for a critical incident would be ideal.
Staying with the same example, there are a few potential solutions. One possible solution is to move closer to your job to cut down on the commute time. But this often means an increase in cost of living if your job is in a city. Most of us live where we can afford, not necessarily close to where we work.
So another option is to find a higher paying job that allows you to afford to move closer to work. The risk here is of course that higher paying jobs often mean higher demands on our time. I'd love to say that there is plenty of high paying jobs with great work-life balance out there. The reality is that we as a society have a long way to go in that area.
So that could mean that the best option is to find another job closer to home. Or a job with a bigger team to share the after hours work. One that doesn't pay as much as your current job, but reduces the commute time and the weekend on-call/overtime commitments.
But changing jobs isn't always the right move. There is a lot of “find another job” advice floating around in career discussions online. Yes, some jobs suck. But many jobs are quite good, if not great. Which makes it all the more confusing when, despite having a great job that we love, we're still unhappy.
The answer could well be outside of your job.
Are you happy because you’re in the right job, or does being happy make any job seem better?
Optimizing for Your Core Competencies
Successful companies do what they do best and cut out everything else. The same is true for successful people. They focus on what they are best at – their core competencies. Everything else is excluded, outsourced, or reduced to its smallest impact.
My core competencies are:
- Being a good father to my kids, and partner to my wife
- Being a good business owner and manager
- Being a productive and successful writer
There are things that are important, if not essential, to my core competencies.
- Exercising – reduces stress and gives me more energy when I'm with my family.
- Making food – I enjoy preparing healthy meals, and it is becoming a family activity doing it together.
- Reading – I read a lot of business and personal development books, as well as reading/listening to fiction when I'm exercising.
- Sleeping – my energy levels, mood, and productivity all suffer if I don't get enough sleep.
And there's things that are not essential to those core competencies.
- Cleaning the house
- Doing laundry
- Cleaning the pool
- Cleaning our cars
- Mowing the lawn
The challenge is having time to exercise, make healthy meals, and read when all those non-essential tasks get in the way. I would either sacrifice those important activities, or sacrifice my core competencies.
So, reviewing the non-essentials, how can I exclude, outsource, or reduce the impact of them?
Lets take cleaning the house as an example. It is hard for me to say:
I didn't take my son to the basketball court this morning, because I was cleaning the house.
That isn't focusing on my core competency of being a good father. Instead, can apply one of these solutions:
- Exclude by moving into a serviced apartment (high expense)
- Outsource by hiring a cleaner (moderate expense)
- Reduce impact by living in as small a home as we need (reduces living expenses, and also reduces cost of hiring a cleaner)
You can see that one change (moving to a smaller home) has many benefits. It reduces general living expenses (which reduces the need to earn a higher wage), and reduces the cost of hiring a cleaner. If you are spending your weekends doing non-essential tasks, leaving no time to actually enjoy the weekend with your friends and family, you're not optimizing for your core competencies. And you're probably not happy either.
You can apply the same analysis to other non-essentials. In our family we have:
- Outsourced house cleaning. Professional cleaners are able to do in two hours on a week day what would take me all day on a weekend. Plus it's not a very pleasant task. I go to work and let them handle it for me.
- Reduced impact of laundry by installing an indoor clothesline in the garage. This allows us to do many small loads of washing throughout the week instead of one big day of laundry on weekends. As a side benefit, the indoor clothesline means our washing is never at risk of bad weather or theft.
- Outsourced car cleaning. We use the time to work, read, or make it a coffee date with the kids.
The rest of the non-essentials we've kept in-house for now. Yes, I could hire someone to mow the lawns and keep the pool maintained, but I kind of enjoy losing myself in those tasks for quiet contemplation. My wife would happily skip the ironing, but we've at least minimized the amout of it for now. If we felt under pressure to free up time for more important tasks, those two would be easy candidates for outsourcing.
And why wouldn't you? Have someone pick up your ironing and drop it back to you when it's done. Use that time to do a workout, batch cook some meals for the week, or go for a bike ride with your kids.
But That Costs Money!
It does, but there could be a net benefit you're not seeing. If house cleaning and laundry are taking up time each week that you could spend working (earning) or studying (to increase your earnings), then outsourcing it is a good investment.
If it means you have more quality time to spend with your kids, not just passing each other by as you go about your busy lives, then that is a good investment.
If it means you free up the time to go train for that marathon you want to run, which makes you healthier and happier in your day to day live, then that is a good investment.
Redesigning Your 168 Hours
What would your week look like if you could redesign it from scratch? If you looked at your core competencies and the important, essential activities that support them, you might just find that there is more than enough time in a week to fit them all in.
Here's some numbers for me as an example:
- Sleep – 56 hours (at least 8 hours per night)
- Work – 40 hours (if you're working 50+ hours you need to stop, seriously)
- Commute – 8 hours (sometimes less if I do more work from home days)
- Exercise – 10 hours (a good week)
- Cooking – 8 hours (we cook a lot of meals from fresh which adds some prep time)
- Family – 24 hours (includes one-on-one time, group activities, and family meals)
- Reading – 10 hours (not including audiobooks while driving or exercising, I try to read an hour each day, and a little extra on weekends)
- Laundry – 2 hours
- Household maintenance – 2 hours
Out of 168 hours that leaves 8 hours to do whatever else I want. Keep in mind that I've already done my work in that time, including the commute. I've exercised, eaten well, spent time with my family, and done plenty of reading. I have addressed all my core competencies. I can now invest that 8 hours in any way I like.
As I wrote earlier, it's easy to burn 8 hours. With work and life already balanced in my typical week above, I would actually have no problem at all with burning that 8 hours on pure recreation time. A few weeks ago I spent some of my free 8 hours watching the Lord of the Rings movies all over again. It's good for you to relax. But that doesn't solve the problems that people wrote to me about. Those problems were:
- Keeping up with the volume of work in their job
- Keeping up with the never ending change in the technology industry
- Investing time in developing a deep expertise to grow their career, find better jobs, and earn higher salaries
So there's 8 hours you can invest into solving those problems instead. You could:
- Learn an automation tool or language to streamline some of your work practices. This gains you a new skill, and relieves the pressure of that excessive workload.
- Spend 1-2 hours each week reading industry news and articles for your areas of interest. This gains you more insight into how to best position yourself and focus your learning to progress in your career.
- Spend all 8 of those hours studying to gain a deep understanding of a technology that will boost your earning potential. This opens up new opportunities to exclude, outsource, or reduce the impact of non-essential activities for your core competencies.
In 168 Hours, Vanderkam says:
This is what happens when you treat your 168 hours as a blank slate. This is what happens when you fill them up only with things that deserve to be there. You build a life where you really can have it all.
Where to Start?
Change doesn't happen on its own. You will need to do something to make this work. So where should you start? In 168 Hours, Vanderkam lays out the process:
- Log your time – Until you honestly record how you spend a full week, you won't understand the extent of any problems.
- Create a list – Vanderkam calls this a “List of 100 Dreams”. Others might call it a “Bucket List”. These are the answers to the question, “What do I want to do more of with my time?”
- Identify your core competencies – These are the most important things in your life. Look at how many of your 168 hours are going to these things, and how much is going to everything else.
- Start with a blank slate – Redesign your 168 hours from scratch.
- Fill in the time for your core competencies – Some of these are outside of your immediate control, such as your work hours, so start with those.
- Ignore, minimize, or outsource everything else – A useful exercise to identity these things is to complete the sentence “I spend too much time on ______.”
- Add in bits of joy – Short things that make you happy and that fit in easily between your core competencies.
- Tune up as necessary – Not only will you not get your 168 hour plan right on the first attempt, but life will get in the way and things will change over time. Make the adjustments you need to stay aligned with your core competencies.
Yes, it's hard and it takes time. But as Laura says:
Like everything, living intentionally becomes easier over time.