Success is typically a function of our passion for work and accomplishment—my clients and students are generally “happy workaholics” who love what they do and wish there were more hours in the day to get things done. (I view myself this way as well.) The concept of life/work balance isn’t that helpful for us, because there’s always more work to do, we’re eager to do it, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. In some cases, particularly in junior roles early in our careers, this tendency can be exploited by a dysfunctional culture or an uncaring manager, and at those times we need to protect ourselves to avoid burnout. But as we advance professionally we’re less subject to those external forces, and we need to protect ourselves primarily from our own internal drive.
Here’s one way to think about protecting yourself. Years ago my colleague Michael Gilbert suggested that we substitute “boundaries” for “balance”: while balance requires an unsteady equilibrium among the various demands on our time and energy, boundaries offer a sustainable means of keeping things in their proper place. Gilbert drew upon his training as a biologist in his definition of healthy boundaries: “Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.”
What does this look like in practice? What types of boundaries do we need?
Temporal boundaries designate certain times exclusively for family, friends, exercise, and other non-work pursuits. Note that I’m talking not about balance but about boundaries; the amount of undisturbed time we preserve for certain activities will vary and may be quite small, but what matters is that we create and maintain a functional boundary around that time.
Physical boundaries ensure that we get out of our offices and workplaces at regular intervals and create actual distance between us and our work (which includes not only the office itself but also all our professional tools and artifacts–laptops, tablets, phones, papers, everything.) Again, the question is not about balancing the two worlds, but establishing boundaries to create the needed separation.
Cognitive boundaries help us resist the temptation to think about work and focus our attention on the people or activity at hand. This is by no means an easy task, particularly given that so much in our work environment is designed to capture our attention (email alerts, message reminders, innumerable blinking lights and flashing icons). Recognizing when our attention is being held hostage by work and turning it elsewhere requires persistent, dedicated effort, but it yields substantial rewards, in part because our focused attention is one of our greatest resources. (And one reason I often recommend meditation is an improved ability to control where we direct our attention.)
This subtle shift – eschewing balance and establishing boundaries – isn’t easy work, but it’s worthwhile in trying to protect us from ourselves.
Many of my executive coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford are going through a transition that involves a step up to the next level in some way. They’re on the cusp of a big promotion, or they’ve launched a startup, or their company just hit some major milestone. Very few, if any, of these people would say that they’ve “made it”; they’re still overcoming challenges in pursuit of ambitious goals. And yet their current success has created a meaningful inflection point in their careers; things are going to be different from now on. The nature of this difference varies greatly from one person to another, but I see a set of common themes that I think of as “the problems of success.” You can read my first post here.
Photo by Frederic. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.