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How to strike a work and life balance

Each week we will be asking Dr. Covey to comment on common questions.
This week we ask about work/life balance.

With today’s technology, multitaskers are using PDAs, cellphones, text messaging and emails to stay in connected 24 hours a day. While lighthearted nicknames like “crackberry” have been coined to describe this almost obsessive behavior, what happens when we become addicted to this connectivity? Do we exclude the other important dimensions of our life?

Q: What does it mean to have work/life balance?

A: This is a very personal thing and it is different for everyone. Generally speaking, having a good work/life balance means that your actions and priorities are aligned in a way that is taking care of what is really important to you.

Today the average college student or corporate worker considers themselves a “multitasker”. It’s not unusual to meet people in their 20s who are working, going to school, starting their own company, married, raising kids and enjoying hobbies. They end up with a huge list of things that fracture their attention. This isn’t wrong in any way–for the most part it’s admirable–but there is an old saying: to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a chronic multitasker, everything is a task. Soon, the things in life that are really important to them are in the same list as everything else, and the only tasks that get done are the ones that have become urgent, but often aren’t very important.

Because of this they are driven by an addiction to the urgent and continually respond to the the four P’s—those things that are Pressing, Proximate, Pleasant and Popular—leaving very little time to do those things that are truly important.

Q: What can happen to you when you allow yourself to become out of balance?

A: One of the main implications of being out of balance, however you define it, is that you neglect other areas of your life; family, health, etc. are often some of the first. When you become so addicted to only dealing with your urgent tasks you don’t think there is time for the non-urgent. You think that there will be time to deal with them later. But often, when you ask people what they feel is most important in their life, things they really want to accomplish, they are things that take time and long-term investment. By the time these things become urgent, it’s often too late to affect them.

For example, take a relationship. If you only invest in your relationships when they become urgent (you are on the brink of divorce or your child has become self destructive) you can’t just “take care of it.” It becomes a dominate issue that could take decades to “fix.” These issues can often be avoided if you invest in your relationships when they are important, but not urgent. This might mean turning off the computer and cellphone when you get home and really investing in your loved ones.

Another example is your health. If you don’t eat well or exercise because you don’t think you have the time or because it isn’t urgent, you could find yourself in a life risking situation later. When a health issue becomes urgent, it stops everything else. But if you take the time daily to eat well and exercise in some form, you take care of your body so that you lessen your chances of ill health.

Q: So, I have to say “no” to some things. What should I say no to?

A: First, you have to decide what is important. What do you really want to be and do with your life. What is your mission? What do you want people to say about you 30 or 40 years from now? Then, look at what is being asked of you and see if those things are a part of your life’s important goals. If not, smile and say “no.” If you’ve really decided what is important, you can become an agent in helping the people you work with, your family, friends and boss, know and understand your top priorities. This takes courage. It means you have to stand up for what you feel is important and help others understand why.

Q: But I’m worried that if I make time for personal things, like my health or relationships, that I’ll lose chances to be promoted in the workplace.

A: I suggest the opposite will happen. Reaching a level of life balance where you are learning to say “no” to the urgent and unimportant gives you time for things such as professional development activities. You are enabled to go the second mile in your efforts to help solve problems; you carve out time to mentor and be mentored, to look for other opportunities; you are able to anticipate needs long before they come up because you are not so urgency-addicted. Therefore, you are really promoting your promotability and increasing your options by choosing to spend time working on things that are most important. Of course, there will be some employers that won’t see things this way. They will look at you as a workhorse that should be given as much work as possible until your back breaks. My question to you would be, if this is the case, and you can’t focus on what is truly important to you, then why are you working there? You are worth more than that.

There are no quick-fixes to achieving work/life balance. Your priorities may change as your circumstances change. Thus, I invite you to consider the things that you value most and allow those to serve as the foundation. Then commit to consistently re-evaluate your current priorities, given your current circumstances and based on what you have identified as your core values. It takes courage, but remember not to trade in what you want most, for what you want now.

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19 Responses to “How to strike a work and life balance”

  1. Chris Bennett Says:

    This is Spot on! I am always accused of cheating on my wife, with my TREO.

  2. CS Says:

    This is me to a tee. I get home form working like a dog on my laptop all day, eat dinner with my wife and kids and then get back on the laptop at home to work more.

    It wasn’t until I read this that I really questioned it. Everyone I know does this. Of course, most of them are divorced and unhappy.

    I worry that it take more courage than I have to just say “no” to all my urgent junk that takes up my time. I guess I always thought of this as having a good work ethic, but I just don’t have a good life ethic.

    Thanks for this. I’m going to have to do some soul searching this week,

  3. Johnson Says:

    Just like time management, life balance is based primarily on managing oneself, instead of managing stuffs outside us.
    Only if we know “who we are”, can we know what is first things, and how to balance things around the first things and principle.

  4. David Rogers Says:

    This couldn’t have described my student life any better. I’m a student at a secondary school and I feel that everything is a task, especially as I have to work better than everyone else to keep up standards in competition. Being a bit of a well known computer nerd at my school I have to be able to answer everyone’s questions and can’t fall back in an area someone decided to learn, or be mocked for someone being better than me.
    Even as I speak I’m neglecting my health as such as for the last 3-4 weeks I’ve kept sleep to a minimum. snacks and energy drinks have become my diet just to save time when working.

  5. Mike Says:

    Good call on this one Mr Covey

    It’s easier and provides exponential returns to invest in your relationship when things are going well.
    And when you relationship with your significant other is firing on all cylinders everything becomes that much easier to do.

  6. Jake Says:

    Posts like this always make perfect sense…. except when you are self-employed, and the additional nightime work and the multitasking become almost unavoidable.

    But dead-on about the urgent tasks sometimes becomming the only ones completed!

  7. Stephen R. Covey » Blog Archive » How to strike a work and life balance « Island in the Net Says:

    […] post info By Khürt Categories: Work/Life Wow! I always felt in the back of my mind that this was true but dared not buck the wisdom of “doing more with less”. Less money. Less time. Less thinking. I have now chosen to do less and pay more attention. Attention to what I have decided is important to me. Looking forward to living it. With today’s technology, multitaskers are using PDAs, cellphones, text messaging and emails to stay in connected 24 hours a day. While lighthearted nicknames like “crackberry” have been coined to describe this almost obsessive behavior, what happens when we become addicted to this connectivity? Do we exclude the other important dimensions of our life? — Stephen R. Covey » Blog Archive » How to strike a work and life balance […]

  8. Peter Says:

    I agree with Jake. The urgent task seem to get more attention than the non-urgent ones and we almost always fall into the trap that it will never be too late to do them. I’ve been taking my driver’s licence for 7 years. hehe! That’s because I kept focusing on doing what people told me to do at work and make sure I still have a job! After reading this artlicle I’m going to start doing this differently.

    Great article, Mr. Covey!

  9. Joy Says:

    It’s very important to maintain balance in our lives. We should always remember not to neglect other aspects in our lives just because we are too preoccupied with our present situation. Maintaining balance is the key to a happy and peaceful life.

  10. Ruthan Brodsky Says:

    The struggle to balance our lives becomes particularly difficult when we become passionate about one or two different areas in our lives. Our passion could be directed to recreation - golf, bridge; to our work - our students, patients, clients; to planning a wedding for a daughter. The trick is to figure out how we can satisfy our passion - at least to some degree so there’s no regret, and at the same time take care of our responsibilities without feeling resentment. I suspect it’s the problem solving of this struggle that separates the adult from the child.
    Cheers Ruthan

  11. Sheila Cason MD Says:

    This is good. I’ve always prided myself on being a multitasker. It’s not enough that I’m a pediatrician, I have all these other projects on my plate and I can’t figure out how to NOT make everything into a task. Even the stuff I say is just for fun ultimately has a goal.

  12. RJF Says:

    This is great psychobabble from Mr. Covey…too bad I don’t have his life to work with, instead of my own. I work for a company where if you don’t multi task or aren’t a “team player” - meaning you don’t put the company first - you will be laid off, without fail. Since Mr. Covey has not offered me a different set of employement circumstances, I will say that in my field it is very difficult to move around job-wise, and that I have to stick where I am at, no matter how much I dislike it for cutting into my personal life, etc. I have to feed, clothe, and shelter my family - so I stay where I’m at until I can change those circumstances. The only way I get around / away with it sometimes it to just tell the boss that I can only get so much done, and if he doesn’t like it, he can find someone else. So far, he hasn’t taken me up on his offer….

  13. CatherineL Says:

    Great advice. I’ve been looking everywhere for a good explanation of work/life balance to add to my resource list.

    And I didn’t even realise there was a Stephen Covey blog.

  14. T Hartman Says:

    Sorry this doesn’t apply directly to this week’s posting…

    I am a current Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon working in the Small Enterprise Developement program. Everything about your books seems essential knowledge to the people here. People really want more for themselves but don’t have the resources to get ahead or even know where to start.

    Two questions: First, is there a French translation to 7 Habits? I looked a little online and was unable to find one. Second, I was thinking about doing a workshop based on the book. Are there any materials already put together that I could use or would I have to start everything from scratch?


  15. Bhuwan Thapaliya Says:

    (Inspired by Stephen R Covey)

    Success doesn’t just happen

    Success doesn’t just happen,
    it doesn’t pop on its own.
    Success is all about
    the choice you make.

    It’s a balancing act between
    what to choose and what not to.

    Don’t lean your ladder
    against the wind.
    Every step you take,
    takes you far away
    from yourself,
    and the future
    you envision, my friend!

    Lean your ladder
    against your heart instead,
    and climb the ladder,
    step by step
    without overstretching
    yourself much.

    success doesn’t come
    to greet you on its own
    for that you need to
    renew yourself often,
    and expand yourself
    beyond your own expectations
    without overextending yourself much.

    Then only success – lasting and long
    will kiss your lips, my friend!

    Bhuwan Thapaliya

  16. Terrill Says:

    Dr. Covey nails it right on. I’m in the real estate business, and I see Realtors including myself who get so wrapped up with all the urgent tasks when we could have just set aside time to deal with these issues. “first things first” don’t be a slave to the immediate moment when you have the control to say what you want to do or not. Sometimes it’s a hard choice and if you make a mistake you can always go back and clean it up. It’s not the end of world if you don’t text or email someone right back. It just isn’t. What is necessary is to spend time with the people you love including yourself. what you are all waiting for?… don’t reply to this post…go be with someone you love. NOW!

  17. bud taylor Says:

    When you say “driven by an addiction”, to respond to the urgent foregoing the important, i recall an acronym for death –defy every addiction takeback health–this defiance is Stephen’s 7th habit, of course, “Sharpen the saw”…

  18. NewYork Says:

    While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that only tragedy is to allow part of us to die - whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.

  19. Bill Adams Says:

    There are things that have truly made me happy and things that have truly made me sad what has made me sad have been my vices and addictions and being sick because of them the things that have made me happy have always been when I have been in good health and when I have given more than I have taken. This is from my personal experience and this is always true for me. This of course is not easy to do.

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