Don’t Drop Your Crystal Balls

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April 16,2013 /LinkedIn/ – You probably know more than a few people who’ve let work obsession turn their lives upside-down. Well-compensated or not, these unhappy souls feel locked into stressful jobs, have few interests outside the office, and can’t seem to make time for a life partner.

Forty years ago, my Harvard Business School class gave little thought to managing life outside of work. Now balance is on everyone’s mind. We want career success, but not the misery of workaholism. We want a fulfilling personal life, but not at the expense of career achievement.

As you walk this tightrope, striving to balance professional success and personal fulfillment, here are a few images you may find useful:

1) Rubber balls, crystal balls. Every juggler drops a ball or two. The key in life’s juggling act is to drop the rubber balls, not the crystal ones. There are elements of your life that, if let slip, will shatter into a thousand pieces and be near impossible to put back together.

And if a crystal ball drops, you’ll likely drop the rubber ones too. Professional failure often follows on the heels of personal disintegration. No career glory can offset failure at home.

So if you’re good with your office day-planner, get good with your personal one, too. Just like time with family and friends, time for health, for learning, for recreation and for reflection all need scheduling. Work priorities may have to “bounce” to another time.

2) Draw your lines, and stay inside them. My first Sunday after joining the national real estate firm Trammell Crow Co., I got a call from Trammell himself, asking me to come into the office to go over a deal. It was a Sunday, but this was the founder, the fellow with his name on the door. Still, I mustered the courage to tell him I’d reserved Sundays for my family, but would come in as early as he liked on Monday morning.

It was the last time he asked me to work on a Sunday. Moreover, Trammell became a great mentor of mine, and I went on to become the firm’s managing partner – in part, I think, because of the boundaries I’d set that first week.

Those boundaries can be hard to establish, and harder to observe. And at any given moment, each of us can be out of balance; so forgive yourself for imperfect days or weeks. But whenever you find yourself “coloring outside the lines” with the limits you’ve set, call yourself on it. Talk to the people your imbalance is affecting—whether at home or at work, and make up for it. In other words, pay for your mistakes along the way and don’t let any of them become habits. Get the people you work with to help you keep your outside-work commitments. And when you’re more senior, celebrate your employees’ family and personal commitments, and help them keep them.

3) First things first. When it comes to time management, Stephen Covey recommends that people think of their lives like a big mason jar. First, try to fit in “the big rocks” — the important stuff — then fill the remaining space with the less weighty pebbles, and then sand. You’ll even be surprised how much room is left for water.

For me, the big rocks were always my kids. Miss a concert, soccer game or parent-teacher conference, and you’ve lost an opportunity that won’t come back. Worse yet, it’s the wrong message to send to your kids while they’re so impressionable. Yes, being with my kids meant sleeping a little less, missing occasional business trips, and sometimes leaving the briefcase in the car – but these are all things worth skipping in the big rock scheme.

It’s true that the tension between home and the office is especially acute earlier in your work life, when you’ll often need to put in extra hours. If you can, in the long run, it’s wise to front-load your career; you’ll have more flexibility later, when kids are older and your input is even more valuable.

Balance, in life or on a beam, requires constant adjustment. No one can do it without the occasional wobble, or even a fall. Most of us will look back later with some regret about how we spent our time – it’s the price of a busy life. But that’s why it’s better to look ahead now. You’ve got plenty to look forward to, and when it comes to balancing the important things, you don’t need a crystal ball to see that a little forethought goes a long way.

By Joel Peterson