Can you have a work-life balance and drive a fast-track career?

Career development
Sarah Hobbs
By Sarah Hobbs | 10th April 2019

This is a question that is often asked at career workshops, and there is a short and a long answer to it. The short answer is 'no' and the long answer starts with 'yes, if you take active control of your life'.

People who have their work as their core focus, who enjoy going the extra mile, reading in their spare time, who are willing to pick up every opportunity regardless of the extra travel or moves or time in hotel rooms - those people are always going to be taking on more, giving more, and building a reputation with more people. And that is likely to give them more career options.

You can see this dedication to work in top athletes and people who build very successful businesses. The reality is, if you're investing all of your energy and drive into your career, and you're able to make moves without regard for geography as you have no mortgage or family ties, you'll create more opportunities, and can pick up on them quicker.

However, while it certainly takes commitment, the good news is that many people have managed to progress at a good pace without completely jettisoning their personal life. Take, for instance, the view of one senior manager with Airbus - "I put 100% into my career and 100% into my family and home life; I just don't watch a lot of TV". And that's the real secret to success - putting all of your energy into what's really important to you.

But before we explore what that looks like in practice, let's take a moment to consider balance and what it truly means.

In dance, balance is defined as 'a controlled fall from one position to another position', and it's a great way to look at your career - especially if you want to drive your career whilst also enjoying a quality family and personal life.

The first thing to take away from this concept of balance is that life balance is rarely achieved on a daily or weekly basis. Life balance may not consist of working 9 to 5, five days a week, or reducing your weekly working hours. Your career is a 40 year project. You don't need to be focused 100% on your career for the whole of your life. Instead, you may need to flex and 'fall' from one position to another. This might be on a daily or weekly basis - or it may be yearly or even 10-yearly.

For instance, someone could focus on their career for a number of years in their 20s when they have fewer family commitments. They can choose to do this again, once their children have moved into secondary school and they're more flexible to work long hours and away from home.

Then in their 50s once their mortgage is paid off and they have less financial pressures, they may want to take up a new and interesting challenge. At other times they can focus their energies into their family life or personal goals, essentially dividing their life up so they're sometimes focusing primarily on work and sometimes primarily on home. I personally manage my own life balance on an annual basis. I work very hard for 10 months of the year, but I committed long ago to taking a complete month off in the summer (how many summers do you have left after all?) and three weeks over Christmas. I've seen people negotiate less pay and longer holidays, or payment by results, to achieve this.

The key is finding the right way to achieve balance, and crucially avoid burnout, across your whole life and not necessarily on a day-to-day basis.

Coming back to our dance example, the second part of balance is 'control', and this is something people often overlook when thinking about their work-life balance. This is because they don't recognise that they need to take conscious action to shift gear from one state to the other. If your plan is to work really hard during the week, and then have a great family weekend - you can trip up on Friday night or Saturday morning. That's when you can't stop thinking about work, and you think 'If I just do this one thing, I'll be able to relax...' and it then takes up your whole Saturday morning!

The way to combat that is to first make a conscious decision as to when you're going to take time away from your career and work tasks, and then at the point you switch to personal mode, have a commitment in your diary which will force you to fill your mind with the new priority. Plan in a mind-absorbing activity on Friday night and Saturday morning which will put distance between you and work and stop the niggles.

It's a bit like going cold turkey - you need to resist the addiction until it goes away! Also plan a series of activities to fill the first two to three days of your holiday, which you won't be able to postpone. This helps create a buffer zone, a space in which your mind can let go of the urgent drive to do what you have been doing. It allows you to put that drive into something else, and fill your mind with other things.

It's easier to switch from obsessed with work to obsessed with sport, culture, or home commitments, than to switch from obsessed with work to relaxed. This tactic can help you manage the change between being career focused and personal focused at various times in your life.

And if you can achieve that, you may just find a way to create your own personal recipe for work-life balance.

Take Away: Be more flexible in your thinking about work-life balance and aim to achieve it over your whole life and not necessarily on a daily basis.

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