4 Disciplines of Work-Life Balance

Posted on Posted in Words on Personal Effectiveness

St. George slaying the dragon of importanceIf you’re struggling with work-life balance, you know that one of the most frustrating feelings is knowing you’re not getting everything done. Your to-do list just seems to keep getting longer, and the things you really want to do are getting no attention at all.

You know how it goes. There’s something wildly important you need to do, but you just never seem to get to it. Whether it’s starting a new business, plotting your next career move, or planning a vacation, the most important dragon you want to slay just keeps getting pushed aside by all those annoying gnats of urgency. Here’s the good news: you can finally slay that dragon while keeping the gnats at bay. You just need a system, and here it is. 

Is It Important, or Merely Urgent?

Before we dig into it, let’s have a quick review. In the previous article, we discussed how the tyranny of the urgent can prevent us from tackling the important. Conversely, focusing on the important can actually prevent some of those gnats of urgency from ever being born. We looked at Stephen Covey’s four quadrants to help us better understand all the demands on our time. It looked like this:

Important or Urgent?

These four quadrants can be understood in the following way:

  • Quadrant #1: Urgent and Important: This is non-negotiable stuff, like putting out that fire in your cubicle or taking your next breath. It’s the quadrant of REACTION.
  • Important, but Not Urgent: This is stuff that will probably make life better, but can be put off indefinitely without perceptible consequence, like planning your next three weeks of work in advance or saving for retirement. It’s the quadrant of PROACTION.
  • Urgent, but Not Important: This is stuff that screams for your attention, but doesn’t actually matter in the big picture, like the instant message that just popped up on your screen or that coworker who keeps interrupting you with office gossip. It’s the quadrant of DISTRACTION.
  • Neither Urgent nor Important: This is stuff that doesn’t need your attention, but somehow gets it anyway, like catching up on Facebook notifications or bingeing on Bachelorette episodes. This is the quadrant of TIME-WASTERS.

Did you notice anything about urgent matters vs. important matters in that quick review? It’s very simple.

Urgency happens TO you. Importance is what YOU make happen.

Think about that. This means that every urgent matter you deal with is basically in charge of you, but if you want to get to the important stuff, YOU have to take charge.

But I promised you a system, didn’t I? Let’s get to it.

4 Steps to Mastering the Important Stuff

I recently read The 4 Disciplines of Executionby Sean Covey (yep, that Covey family again), Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling. If you’re interested in organizational effectiveness and how companies can slay important dragons and keep the gnats at bay, I highly recommend it, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. As I read the book, it occurred to me that the same framework could be applied to improving our own personal effectiveness, as professionals, parents, and people.

As a quick overview, here are the four disciplines that Covey, McChesney, and Huling have identified in their research:

  1. Focus on the wildly important.
  2. Act on the lead measures.
  3. Create a compelling scoreboard.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability.

If this all sounds like corporatespeak to you, just bear with me. Let’s apply it to your real life. This week, let’s just try to tackle step #1.

Focusing on the Wildly Important

In the 4 Disciplines world, we recognize that there will always be a tension between the important and the urgent. The authors refer to the urgent matters as “the whirlwind,” and doesn’t that feel just right? You can’t ignore a whirlwind. You have to deal with it.

But if you want the important to conquer the urgent, it makes sense to start by identifying what’s really important to you. Covey, McChesney, and Huling recommend defining a WIG — a Wildly Important Goal — and so do I. This isn’t a to-do list or a brainstorm of all the things you want to accomplish. Instead, it’s the ONE thing that will make all the difference in your life. It’s the thing that, if you fail to achieve it, renders pretty much anything you do meaningless.

So what does this look like for YOU? There are no wrong answers. At this point, it’s ok to think big. Maybe what’s wildly important to you right now is spending more time with your family. Then that’s your WIG. If what’s wildly important to you right now is improving your performance at work, then that’s your WIG. If it’s having more downtime, you’ve got a WIG. But you’re not quite done.

Next, you need to be able to articulate your WIG in a way that gives you a clear finish line. You don’t have to get all caught up in SMART goal mumbo-jumbo, but you need a way of knowing when you’ve attained that goal, so Covey, McChesney, and Huling suggest the following format:

Imperative verb (what you’ll do) + direct object (the thing you’ll change) + X (how things are now) + “to” + Y (how things will be) + “by” + date (when you plan to get there)

Here are some examples of well-crafted “finish lines” for your WIG:

  • Increase amount of time spent with family from 8 hours a week to 12 hours a week by December 13, 2016
  • Improve performance rating at work from 3.5 to 4.5 by June 30, 2017
  • Decrease number of open items on to-do list from 35 to 10 by October 31, 2016
  • Increase number of LinkedIn connections from 25 to 200 by December 31, 2016
  • Increase weekly workouts from 0 to 4 by June 1, 2017

Got the idea? It’s possible, too, that your WIG might be a single project you want to complete. In that case, you can simplify your finish line to this format:

Imperative verb (what you’ll do) + direct object (the thing you’ll change) + “by” + date (when you plan to get there)

Here are some examples of “finish lines” for project-related WIGs:

  • Re-tile the shower floor by August 31, 2016
  • Implement new website design by September 30, 2016
  • Publish e-book by October 31, 2016
  • Plan 2017 summer vacation by November 30, 2016
  • Launch online course by December 31, 2016 (yes, that one is mine)

Now, here’s the real trick. Don’t just read this article and move on to the next item on your to-do list or the next email in your inbox. Instead, take 5 minutes — just 5 minutes — to figure out what your Wildly Important Goal is. This will help you distinguish the important from the whirlwind of urgency, and will put you in a good position to tackle step #2: act on the lead measures. We’ll tackle that in the next article.

Congratulations! You’re one step closer to feeling a greater sense of work-life balance. Don’t stop there. We’ll do this together.

P.S. Interested, but don’t have time to read The 4 Disciplines of ExecutionNo sweat. I created a mindmap summary of it for you to download. I hope you’re able to put it to use, both at work and at home.

  • Love your advice on focusing on the urgent and important over the other ends of the quadrant. Simple but effective. I agree that making actionable goals (with targets and dates) is a smart way to stay focused and move the work-life balance pendulum in the right direction.

    My suggestion for your readers is to remember to include “taking time off” tasks in the important and (sometimes) urgent categories. Unless taking time off is a personal priority, we are prone to putting it off again and again. Those taking time off important/urgent tasks can be for a traditional week of vacation or a weekend trip away as well as a staycation or bonus time spent with family, friends, volunteering, or engaged in an enriching or adventurous hobby. Your choice!

    -Scott, VacationCounts – Take More Vacation Time Off! (blog)