I recently stepped into a new role as an executive team member at a high-tempo organization, and found myself having great conversations with friends and mentors about finding a healthy work-life balance.
Much of this conversation happened amongst our outstanding group within the Medical Group here at Shaw (AFB, S.C.).
As we talked though our day-to-day challenges in the face of COVID-19 and shared mutual experiences, one thing became apparent — no one’s balance is exactly the same. We often discuss this topic as if there is some perfect, universal balance that exists daily, that we can all obtain, when in reality it is unique to each of us and to different times in our lives.
Balance can’t always be measured a day or even week at a time. Balance, like resiliency, is measured over the long haul. So, don’t be hard on yourself if you missed a few more days of work over the last month as you had to stay at home with a sick kiddo, or had to stay late a few times this week to get the mission done. Part of finding this long-term healthy mindset is acknowledging the fact that the desired work-life balance may be slightly off day to day. Be willing to accept that we strive for “perfection” with the understanding that we may never really obtain it. Those who accept this concept can find comfort in the fact that they are doing the best they can over a short period of time and truly excelling over the long haul.
No family structure is the same, so by default, priorities are different. Some examples here at Shaw span from a father of four whose wife homeschools to a single mother of two healthy dogs! Each of these Airman are individuals with their own set of priorities and place higher/lower value on different aspects of balance. There is no right or wrong answer here and simply accepting the diversity in approach helps us build a cohesive team whose focus is on the success of all.
Below are some items to consider when establishing your own “ideal” work-life balance:
1. Mission First … when it needs to be.
Service before self does not mean neglecting your family and yourself. It means that you maintain an understanding that at any point you may be asked to place the service to your nation ahead of your personal desires. There will be times where you are asked to place the mission first, but that is not a requirement every day. Remember to refocus when mission requirements slow. Don’t require your people to stay late for tasks that don’t have to be accomplished today.
2. Check your vector.
Self-reflection is a critical principle in developing your own emotional intelligence. In order to truly understand how well you are balancing your work and home life try to continuously survey your family, friends, and co-workers. Seek honest feedback and be willing to adjust. “Check your vector” daily. I recommend using a journal to document a continuous balance over a period of time. Be honest in your assessment! Be vulnerable enough with your co-workers to share where you may fall short and ask for help with accountability.
3. Quality over quantity.
This might be the most critical point! There is never enough time in the day to accomplish everything we want to accomplish, but we can be present. Focus on making the time you spend in each element of your life high quality. When it’s time to be home — be home! Set the phone aside and engage in activities that are fulfilling to the whole family. When you’re at work, block time to accomplish the most important tasks. It’s all about a clear focus on each activity.
4. Find activities that recharge you.
Whether it is reading, being in nature, playing with your kids or pets, watching your favorite TV show, exercising, engaging in religious activities, certain aspects of your job, etc. explore what truly makes you feel whole and make a concerted effort to engage in that activity as often as beneficial. Identifying activities that are enjoyable and making a plan to keep them in your life is a great way to maintain positivity and give us something to look forward to when work life (or home life) gets stressful. Knowing what “fills your cup” can help you build higher-quality time away from the office, so that you can return to work recharged and ready to tackle the mission.
5. Communicate your boundaries.
As stated above, each person’s balance looks different. That is okay and ultimately adds to the diversity that makes us the world’s greatest Air Force. Set your boundaries and then share them with your family and coworkers. Consistent communication can help build a foundation upon which you can truly grow. We know all of our trigger points that may elevate our levels of stress. For some this might be missing a lunch-time run, while for others it may be staying so late that we miss dinner with the family. The more you know about each other’s boundaries the greater support you can give.
6. Learn from others.
Have you ever had a conversation with an older family member who smiles and nods as you share a stressful time in life? This person can simply smile and nod because they have been there! Life experience offers insight that is extremely valuable as we add tools to our toolbox. Seek guidance and be willing to learn from those with more experience who set an example you want to follow.
7. Use your tools.
We are fortunate to live in a time where technology offers many tools that can help with a healthy work-life balance. I was always amazed when new members in-process an organization and ask for a desktop instead of a laptop. Then I realized that some people actually leverage the “older” technology as a way to set boundaries in their lives, as having a desktop prevents them from taking work home. Once again, this differs greatly for each person as many use laptops and smart phones to gain flexibility in life. Think of the balance you want and what tools are out there that can help you achieve it.
8. Don’t forget about you.
By the simple nature of our job, most of us fall into the category of task-oriented people who love to stay on the move. Don’t forget to change gears and make the time for self-care. Your reasoning for why you practice self-care may simply be to set the example for others to follow, or it may be something that you know you fall short on without a consistent focus. Either way, there is no doubt that taking care of yourself is a critical part of the overall balance. Treat yourself!
9. Know Yourself.
Determine when you are the most productive at work, and do your best to block that time for your most critical work related tasks. Try to remove yourself from life’s distractors, such as email, cell phone, additional meetings, etc., during this period. Being able to structure your work day around this high productivity time can result in a more flexible and relaxing time outside of work.
Remember, each day looks a little different, but routine is important. A term that often makes me smile is “Semper Gumby,” i.e. “always flexible.” It defines the daily life of an Airman.
James Carse once said “to be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” There is no doubt that each day will offer different challenges, but maintaining flexible attitudes can certainly prepare us for the surprise!
In the end, the concept of a consistently perfect daily work-life balance is truly an unattainable goal, but the idea of seeking steady balance over a long period of time is both obtainable and realistic. This requires a change in mindset and regular “vector checks,” but will lead to a happier, more sustainable existence that primes you for success both at work and at home.