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This article as originally published on 15 January 04

Work-life balance: swings, roundabouts or a bit of both?

Strike the best balance between work life and your home life and it can only be good for your business. But it's all swings and roundabouts, according to personal coach Peter Jackson...

Like many people, I've been away from my desk over the Christmas period and I've been able to do some thinking. And being away from my desk has made me think about work-life balance.

Two models
The work-life balance issue has definitely changed for me over the last few years. I worked for a succession of great bosses who allowed me to work four days a week when my daughter was born, work flexible hours and take extra time off to support my partner's career.

In return, they got commitment, loyalty and, I always believed, more value for money. Taking that time out to do other things stopped me from getting bored and stale and made me more valuable to the team. This is one sort of balance. We can call this the swings model: you're either doing or recovering. Allowing for time out can makes the time in more focused.

Now I'm self-employed the deal is a different one. I have to do everything, not just my job. If I'm not there, it doesn't get done. Almost everything I do is about the business. And it never really stops. I'm more likely to work six days a week than four, yet I always feel happy to work. If I watch the clock it's because I want to get something else finished. Exhausting? Well yes, but it's also extremely satisfying. And when I'm with the kids the change just picks me up again. It seems like the more I get out of my job, the more energy I get spilling over into other things. We can call this the roundabouts model. It doesn't matter where you push, it all goes in the same direction.

Both these are pretty positive examples of balance. I've given them both because a lot of people operate as if only one of these models really describes what happens for working people. In fact, they both do. Swings and roundabouts. Maybe to one person at different times. Maybe to different people at the same time.

How they work together
Not only do they both operate, but they operate together. That's because they both have a bad side as well as a good side. So, for example, some people use non-work activities to compensate for lack of stimulation at work, and can get into a spiral of dissatisfaction. It's a kind of detachment. Other people don't know when to stop and end up, exhausted, getting ill.
We can look at this as a kind of matrix:

  Helpful effects Unhelpful effects
Swings A Recovery B Detachment
Roundabouts C Positive spillover D Exhaustion

Most people running their own business are pretty stimulated by the job, but it can be difficult to take time off. Both the responsibility and the sense of engagement with the business mean that you can end up feeling that you'd rather be working than worrying about not working. There can come a point, though, where this isn't helping any more and everything's getting on top of you. On the diagram you've moved from getting positive spillover (Box C) to exhaustion (Box D).

Other people in your business might have a different mindset. For some people it's just a job, and let's face it, if they do it well, that's OK. They keep a part of themselves separate from the job (Box A) and that's a kind of balance. If they become too separate, it starts to spiral into detachment (Box B).

So here's how they work together: exhausted (D)? maybe you need some recovery time (A). Detached (B)? maybe you need a way to refresh your commitment to work and enjoy some positive spillover (C).

Plot those changes on the diagram and you get a figure of eight pattern.

How does this help you?
As I said earlier, many people operate as if only one of these models applies. What follows from this way of thinking is a very one-dimensional policy. If x worked before, I'll do more of x. But put everything I've said about these models together and it illustrates a very simple truism: you can get too much of a good thing. All I'm suggesting is that when that happens you might benefit from a little bit of something else.

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