My first job, which I loved and enjoyed a lot by the way, was an endless cycle of sync ups and check-ins, meetings and wasted pockets of time on unproductive conflicts. I didn’t mind it so much then. I was after all single and lived with my parents. I preferred whiling away unproductive hours in office to going home and answering questions about marriage, MBA and other assorted life plans. The problem was that my first job ingrained in me the idea that long hours were the only way to get things done. It is a different matter that at the time, I had little perspective to see just how unproductive our work style was.
My second job was a whole different ballgame! A 750-member business unit in a Fortune 500 with far too many people and far too little work to go around, it meant slow days spent on too many cups of coffee, too much gossip and very little sense of accomplishment. I lasted a little less than a year there.
Then came my third job and with that, a manager who was a time management rockstar and a performer beyond compare! I came face to face with the very concept of productivity for the first time in my life. Our team stayed back afterhours once in the two plus years we spent there. Suddenly, I had the bandwidth to do more, not just at work but also in life. I read more books, watched more movies, cooked more, and travelled way more than I had till that point in my working years. And I learned and did a whole lot more at work too. For me, there was no turning back from there. Productivity, pace, and time management became ongoing themes in my life. Having a life became important; as did finding a sense of accomplishment simply by being effective in whatever time I did spend at work.
I tried to distil what working towards perfect work-life balance entailed.
Simply put, it is important to find the balance between the important and the unimportant. Wasting time in relentlessly fighting over things that neither affected my team’s work nor morale was pointless. Accepting every meeting request, going to meetings unprepared, being tolerant towards unnecessary conversations, sync ups, gossip fests meant that I stayed back after hours to finish endless to-do lists. I cut down on lunchtime, sticking with 30 minutes instead of the usual hour. I am not saying that that will work for you too. What I mean is that everyone at work needs to find what is important to him or her in order to make work happen and stay engaged and motivated. Not everything is worth doing or participating in.
Another lesson was to attempt to get things right in the first go. In client facing roles such as the ones I worked in, we often work on extremely tight timelines, turn in half-baked work, and get into an endless cycle of revisions and reprimands. No prizes for guessing that it does nothing for one’s productivity or motivation levels. Ask questions, get your briefs on point, do your due research – do all you need to in order to get your work right in the first go.
Often, with little information at hand, I have noticed individuals shy away from planning and structure. The other reason, they say, is that creativity thrives in chaos. I am not entirely sure about the second reason but even if it is true, eventually we are all professionals at work, not whimsical artistes. Everyone has deadlines to meet, and people depend on your capability to adhere to timelines and structure.
Sure, frequent uncertainties mean that plans cannot be set in stone. At the very least, a sound plan gives your work some direction. It uncovers every stakeholder’s priorities and breakdown of tasks. It gives you a semblance of a schedule and helps you estimate and track your time on various activities effectively. It is the very spine of project management and can help teams foresee challenges and potential contingencies and prepare for setbacks well. If you think about it, in several projects, time starts to trickle down the drain only when setbacks and failures happen. If you are well prepared when the pressure is not on and still clear-headed, you will save some time and anxiety over it once the project starts and is in full swing.
Whether it is prioritising your life just as much as you prioritise work if not more, or claiming your hours of working with zero interruptions, there is really no need to feel guilty about it. Often, people think that single-minded attention to their to-do lists may come in the way of team collaboration. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Randy Pausch, one of the most astute productivity and time management guru put it, “When you get good at time management, you realise that it’s a collaborative thing. I want to make everybody more efficient. It’s not a selfish thing; it’s not me against you. It’s, ‘How do we all collectively get more done?’”
There is nothing wrong in having clarity about how much time and attention you have for others when you are in the middle of something critical or time-sensitive. Feel free to turn off your phone, instant messaging and email and call notifications during such moments so you can focus on the assignment with no distractions. If the habit of prioritizing and time management rubs off on your team too, you will all get more productive and in the process, have more time for fuller lives.
And I mean this in the nicest way possible! Recent years have seen a returning interest in hobbies and community participation outside of work. This is reasonably different from the last generation that dived headfirst into the pursuit of earning money and made work its identity. If you actively choose a life of many interests, work will just be one of them, and believe me, your life will feel like it has more meaning. Set goals outside of work – a marathon, a side hustle, some books you want to read, or a community project you want to be part of. It will give you a reason to get out of office at a reasonable time and focus on yourself.
In truth, everyone wants a great work-life balance. Everyone likes to spend time with families or pursue hobbies, or at the very least, “stare at the ceiling and make plans for world domination while scratching my cat’s ears”, as Swati Bhattacharya put it in an essay about work-life balance in advertising. Make it a goal and start working towards it. Trust me, you don’t even need to feel intimidated or threatened about having a life if you can do a reasonable job in the hours that you do spend at work. Finding your optimum work-life balance is not as unpopular an idea as some bosses or employers would have you believe. Don’t fall for it.