What do Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and work-life balance have in common? All three are elusive. All three have been the subject of many articles. Finally, many authors don't believe any of the three exist.
One example is the 2013 bestseller, The One Thing. Author Gary Keller states, "A 'balanced life' is a myth—a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it." Yet, ask teachers the reason behind their New Year's resolution to "get organized," they often respond, "I want more balance in my life."
Why the Interest Now?
According to Keller, the term "work-life balance" wasn't even coined until the mid-1980s. He points to a LexisNexis survey of the top 100 newspapers and magazines around the world showing only 32 articles on the subject during the entire decade from 1986-1996. There were 1,674 articles in 2007 alone. Today, we can hardly pick up a magazine without reading about attaining this concept of balance.
Technology is largely responsible for our constantly connected environment. Teachers respond to emails and texts from parents throughout the evening and on weekends. Google searches take us down rabbit holes and absorb as much time as we allow. The boundaries the environment imposed on previous generations don't exist anymore.
If lack of boundaries is the problem, then our ability to set our own must be the answer. The haunting words of Viktor Frankl whisper across time and space:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
I believe we can achieve the balance between the various roles in our lives. Use the following practices to improve the choices you make and the balance you seek.
Would You Know "Balance" If You Saw It?
We are quick to realize when competing forces in our life are out of kilter. We are not as good at defining how success would appear. Take a blank page and create a one-month calendar reflecting what your balanced life would look like. Here is a starter list of what you might include:
- At what time are you arriving at and leaving work?
- What work activities are you doing at home and at what time?
- What activities do you engage in with your children and when?
- Is your marriage receiving the time it needs?
- Are you maintaining relationships with extended family and friends?
- What hobbies would you see in that one-month calendar?
- How and when are you attending to your health through exercise?
- How is your spiritual life?
- What are you doing to get better at the craft of teaching?
You have time for anything, but you don't have time for everything. Until you get all the parts of the puzzle in front of you, organizing the life you want is impossible.
Seeing All of Your Choices
The one-month calendar exercise opens our eyes to how many pieces this puzzle really has. Much of what you put on it doesn't have to happen on a particular day or time. For that reason, I rely on my digital task list instead.
Look at what you placed on that one-month calendar. Those items are candidates for your task list. Is maintaining contact with your relatives one of those things that is out of balance? Put "Call Mom" on the list and make it a weekly repeating task.
Do you have several out-of-town friends with whom you want to stay in touch? Despite the best of intentions, you get busy, and soon it's been two years since your last contact. Create a task that repeats every week. List these friends in the note section of that task. Each week, pick a couple to call. You might add the date afterward so you can keep track of who you talked to and when. If you want to include a few words about topics for conversation, put it in the note section as well.
Is maintaining your skill on the piano important to you? Put "Practice piano" on the list and set it to repeat every few days.
So often, I hear people say, "I do it when I think about it." When it's on the list, and you look at the list, you force yourself to think about it.
Seeing all of your choices also forces you to examine the finiteness of your time versus the unlimited ways to spend it. You start to delegate.
Good first grade teachers understand delegation. Five minutes before dismissal, one six-year-old is watering the plants. Another is straightening the bookcase. A third is changing the calendar date. Someone else is feeding the classroom gerbil. Twenty children are performing 20 different jobs, 20 jobs the teacher doesn't have to do.
How can you bring the concept into the middle school classroom? What tasks are you performing that students could do and derive benefit? Ditto for your own children at home.
Just Say "No"
What procedures in your classroom have outlived their usefulness? Get rid of them. What time-wasters are being imposed on you from above? Question them.
Learn to be selective. You don't have to grade every activity. You don't have to grade every aspect of any activity. Look for what's going to make a difference and focus your efforts there.
Are you tired of answering school-related email at 9:00 p.m.? Stop. If you think about it, nobody ever told you being "always on" was an obligation. This one, like so many, is self-imposed.
When you say "yes" to tasks that are inconsistent with the life you want, you are automatically saying "no" to more rewarding uses of your time.
There is a Season
For top performers in any field, being temporarily out of balance is a necessity. Just ask the merchant approaching Black Friday, the law student approaching the bar exam, or the middle school teacher who has accepted a new position a week before the start of school. Understanding there are rhythms and cycles in life helps us shift our focus to the demands at hand. The only way to be successful with the looming project is to put everything else on "hold" for the moment.
But knowing what "everything else" is becomes the challenge. Stress comes from the fear that other things are being left unattended without fully knowing what those things might be. When you work from a very complete task list, you know what's waiting for your attention. When the "big project" has been completed, the next subject for your time and attention is clear.
In the truest sense of the word, balance is not about compartmentalizing your life. It's not about isolating work time and home time. It's about engagement with what needs your focus now, and being able to shift that focus later. It's about avoiding multi-tasking, that popular myth that only results in lost motion, lost speed, and increased number of mistakes.
Total Control and Peace of Mind
If you don't look out for your time, nobody else is going to do it for you. Organizing your time is easier than you think:
- Start by making a commitment to write down everything you have to do. I prefer a digital task manager. Many people prefer a paper planner.
- Devote a few minutes in the evening to organize your plan for the next day. Every task on my list gets a due date, which answers the question, "When do I want to see this item again?"
- Put the "Fab 5" for the next day at the top of the list. These tasks are the five that will pay the biggest dividends. Every time you look at the list, the Fab 5 are front and center.
- Batch related items. You can get a ton of stuff done during your planning period if you have organized a list of what you want to do. When the bell rings, attack the list with a vengeance.
- Purge the list. Look for tasks you can delegate and tasks that are not worth your time. Get rid of the tinsel so you can work on the gold.
When you can see all your choices, you make better choices. Balance is in the eye of the beholder, and it's achieved through those little choices you and I make throughout each day. In the end, those little choices shape the life you want to make.
Frank Buck, Ed.D., served as a middle level teacher, principal, and central office administrator during a career of almost 30 years. He now speaks and writes on organization and time management. Dr. Buck is the author of
Get Organized!: Time Management for School Leaders.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.