As a professional speaker and coach on creativity and innovation – which I call in my new book 're-thinking' – I believe it's time to re-think the fashionable dogma of work/life balance.

wordle image for rethinking work life balanceThe phrase itself implies that work is somehow not life, whereas many successful people dissolve this barrier and bring their love and passion to their work. Of course, if there's no time for friends and family, then there's likely to be no friends and family. But the notion of 'balance' doesn't help much – it sounds like too much work in itself!

The secret of success is to make work like your ideal life – fun, satisfying, and engaged in with an attitude that makes it feel like play. Serious play, perhaps, but more usefully thought of as combining a play ethic with your work one. Also, you're likely to get new and fresh ideas this way. Here's how.

Put life in your work

Years ago I was told by an elderly mentor that the ideal job was "to do something you love doing, and find someone daft enough to pay you for doing it." Don't accept the division between life and work. Discover which aspects of your job you actually enjoy and gradually spend more time on these activities. This is not as crazy as it sounds: you're probably best or most competent in the areas you get greatest pleasure from.

But if you feel that there's little room for manoeuvre in the requirements of your job, try changing your attitude to what you have to do. Look for the enthusiasts. . .

Find an enthusiast

When I was studying Law, my negative attitude was transformed by an American lady who enthused about a topic I'd found dull and oppressive: Land Law. It made me realize that whatever work you're doing, you can choose to listen to negative minds or enthusiasts.

So consciously choose to spend more time with the enthusiasts in your work and share their positivity . The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek root En-theos: in God. There's something spiritual and infectious about people who love what they do. Catch it, and without doing anything differently there will be more life in your work.

Discover your sleeping fantasy

Most of us have creative ambitions – playing a musical instrument, drawing, writing a book, dress designing, restoring a vintage car – that we hope we'll get down to when the kids have grown and we're just not so damned busy. Create some small space to start this every day – starting now - and a sense of balance in your life will follow. As an inspiration, the famous novelist Gustave Flaubert would craft a perfect 39 words a day and then move on to other activities. Doesn't sound much, but he left a body of creative work any of us could be proud of. Even poet T S Eliot worked in a bank most of his life. Start today.

Develop a play ethic

In the UK we now work longer hours than most countries in Western Europe. The sad thing is that work has become such a serious business. This attitude is damaging to the creativity and innovation most organizations are crying out for. It's clear that new ideas come to us in the gaps between one activity and another, or the times when we are relaxing and just playing with a notion in our minds. This is why Einstein described his creative process as 'serious play'.

So take your play seriously, and seriousness playfully. Put the same energy into organising more fun in your life that you do with your professional activities, and you will also become more innovative.

Also, at the end of the day or week, celebrate what you have done rather than ruminating on what's left undone. Otherwise you will always be pressing the button labeled 'try harder', and will slip into the unsatisfying (and ineffective) spiral that comes from too much work ethic and not enough play.

Pay attention!

We all know this phrase, from early schooldays to work and family life. What we put our attention on grows, so if we're fully present and attending to the job at hand, we're also likely to be more efficient and successful.

However, all too often our minds stray onto something other than the person or task that's in front of us. It's why business people play 'meeting bingo' – noting examples of clichéd business speak – and workers in the US spent an average of 8.3 hours a week (a whole working day) surfing non-work-related websites or playing on-line games.

This is the clearest symptom that our minds have gone AWOL, but rather than creating a feeling of balance it makes us feel mentally split, restless, and dissatisfied.

So today pay attention to what's important, whether it's our career, friends, or family, and you will feel more balance in life. It's said that 'there's no present like the time' we can give to our colleagues and loved ones.

Work to live or live to work?

Technology is meant to free us up from time-consuming tasks and give us more time to think smarter, rather than work harder. But email and mobile technologies mean that in practice more and more of us are trapped rather than liberated by an always on, always available culture. 24/7/365 is a prison we need to escape from to achieve more balance in our lives. Many estimate that email has added two hours to their working day.

Of course, it's not the technology but our attitude to it that's at fault. So switch it off for creative thinking space, and the time to be really present for what feeds your soul. The great advantage of mobile connectivity should be that we can work while in a café or on the beach. As long as we control the technology rather than letting it invade our private life.

Time for a re-think: do we work to earn our bread or do we take bread in order to work? Put another way – do we own our career or business, or does it own us?

The real balance that helps us decide is in our own minds, our ability to re-think with our full attention on the quality of what we do. It's less to do with outer behaviour, the way we divide our time and activities, more to do with the inner qualities we bring to it all. That's why 'work/life balance' so urgently needs a re-think.

Originally published: Fri 06 Oct 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.