Balancing Your Work With Your Life

Personal Time in a Passion-filled Career

When I retired from Microsoft after 22 years, I assumed that my life would be more settled and run at a more comfortable pace.  The Microsoft years were an incredibly positive and productive time for me, but the rhythm was far from “settled” or “comfortable”.  Most of my days there varied between “crazy busy” and “out of control, frantic mayhem,” certainly a stressful existence that had real implications for my personal and family well-being.

I love big challenges, and when I’m honest with myself, I enjoy working.  And at the same time, I care deeply about my family, my faith, and my community – parts of my life where Microsoft frequently intruded.  Evenings, weekends, family vacations, kid’s activities, and major milestones were all open to interruption or abject cancellation based on the latest crisis or upcoming deadline at work.  The ever-present tension between work passion and personal values was a permanent thorn in my side, and sometimes that thorn really wounded me and my family.

All of this is background to one of the most frequent questions I get when I meet with individuals or speak to larger groups: “How did you manage your ‘work-life balance’ given all of your responsibilities at Microsoft?”

At some level, we all face this issue from time to time given the natural ebb and flow of our business and personal activities.  The real challenge is when the problem becomes chronic and the individual loses their self-awareness on the imbalances in their life.  I have definitely been through the personal wringer on this topic and my survival has more to do with my wife’s grace and my family’s forbearance than anything I did.  For that I consider myself fortunate and am forever grateful.

As a result, I write about work-life balance with great humility.  Despite the volume of conversation on this topic, I don’t think there are any silver bullets that work for everyone. Each person’s circumstances are different, and only a few have the flexibility to just say “no” and do something else. That said, I do believe there are some concepts that can help, and I hope my experiences will enable others to avoid the landmines I exploded along the way.

1. It Starts with Accountability

Inevitably people’s first instinct is to comment on the pressures within their company and the unreasonable work expectations that are set.  I’m sure this is true in some cases, but I frequently think this is a cop out – one I certainly used often at Microsoft.

The reality is that you are in charge of your work-life balance, not your boss, your CEO, or your company.  And you have to hold yourself accountable for establishing boundaries between the office and your personal life.  In my case, that began with understanding that I enjoyed working and easily got caught up in the effort rather than being thoughtful about the trade-offs I was making.  If after careful, reflective analysis you conclude the company really is the problem, you need to evaluate a longer term plan to move on.

2. The Discipline of Priorities

In my book, Xbox Revisited:  A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, I discuss the 3P Framework of Purpose, Principles, and Priorities.  Managing your work load is primarily about deciding what “not to do”, and setting priorities is the key to unlocking that task.

If you are serious about your family, your faith, a hobby, your health, or any other aspect of your personal life, you have to reflect these things in your priorities.  Going one step further, we each have to limit that list to five areas and then live within those boundaries.

When I see someone who is out of balance in their life, it is usually because they only give lip service to their personal passions, or because they have a long list of things that are “important”, which really is no list at all.  When you live within a manageable list of priorities, others will understand it and support it.  They might even follow suit.

3. The Yes/No Polemic

I’ve advised people in the past that managing professional stress is largely about saying “no”.  And while I think there is truth in that, it really is too simple an answer.  Since I left Microsoft, I am working almost as many hours and actually traveling more, but I feel significantly less stress.  I’m saying “yes” to activities where I have real, personal passion and “no” to things that are interesting but really just “work”.

Talking Life Lessons with Year Up Students

 It is totally fine to revel in your job and be free of guilt when you are focused on something that drives personal pleasure and positive emotions.  The secret is saying “no” as often as possible to those things that are time-consuming and passionless, even if they present challenges or offer some other form of reward.  And when you can’t say “no”, you need to find ways to balance the negative consequences with positive experiences elsewhere.  Keep your eyes on the family time prize.

4. The Magic of SOS

If you are at all like me, you want to deal with your own issues and feel you can master any challenges all by yourself – the superhero complex lives on in many of us.  Instead, I encourage you to reach out to others for help.  Spouses, friends, co-workers, and especially professional counselors really can remove much of the burden.  In part, just having someone to talk with can be a powerful healer but don’t be surprised if you learn some valuable lessons and techniques along the way.

In Xbox Revisited, I discuss at length the value two life coaches provided when my wife and I started seeing them in the middle of the Xbox craziness (see Xbox at E3 2001 as an example).  They literally helped me re-shape my approach to work and provided both of us with tools to build a stronger, lasting relationship.  We still see them regularly today…

5. A Self-Care Toolkit

Like many ailments, managing work-life balance is not something that just “goes away,” so in the absence of a cure, we each need a set of tools to manage the issue on an on-going basis.  I am very big fan of exercise as a way to blow off steam, reset my head, and gain perspective on what is important.  This has the additional benefit of being good for my health, which is something that often suffers during times of stress.

Some relieve stress by beating their friends in Halo

 I am also a believer in prayer as an element of a balanced life as well as a way to find inspiration, support, and energy.  For others it might be a hobby or personal passion that enables them to press “pause” and get away from the inherent tensions in their lives.  The irony, of course, is that each of these tools takes time and effort – commodities that are scarce and easy to lose in the context of a work-life balance crisis.  Perhaps that is precisely the point:  the very act of using these tools will force you back to your priorities.

The conflict we face between our working lives and our personal goals is a very democratic issue. Whether you are a CEO, middle manager, new employee, part-time worker, or student, some form of this challenge will likely affect you.  And as I said earlier, the challenge can be tamed and managed, but it will not go away.

The symptoms and consequences will vary depending on your circumstances, but the basics for responding are the same.  Take personal ownership, establish what is important to you, make decisions appropriately, get help when you need it, and find ways to maintain alignment in your life over the long-term.

If you are angry after reading this and want to yell “It is not that I easy,” I will simply respond that I totally agree with you.  The word “easy” has no place in this discussion.  In fact, I wish I could conclude by saying there is a roadmap to declaring victory – instead I will close by saying that you have to earn success one-step at a time, every day.