by Meridith Levinson

Taking Control of Your Work Life Balance and Gaining Personal Fulfillment

Aug 14, 200812 mins
CareersPersonal Software

In this Q&A, leadership consultant and psychologist Henry Cloud explains why having priorities and setting personal boundaries is so critical to preserving some semblance of work life balance in the era of the 60-hour work week. He also discusses the damaging effects of workaholism.

Work will consume as much time as we allow it. It will take over our whole lives if we let it. That’s why striking a balance between our personal and professional lives is so difficult. We’re waging an uphill battle against a crushing force called work.


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Actually, the real conflict is within ourselves, according to Henry Cloud, a leadership consultant and clinical psychologist whose new book, The One Life Solution, addresses the work life balance issue.

Cloud notes that work life balance never used to be a problem because the personal and the professional were two separate spheres. But that’s no longer the case. Our identities are increasingly tied up in our work. We take tremendous pride in our work. And in our effort to balance work and home, the two have become inexorably bound.

To prevent work from overcoming our lives, Cloud says, we need to have clear priorities. And we need to protect those priorities by establishing and adhering to rules that guide our conduct. In this boundary-less world, having our own personal boundaries keep us sane and focused on the things that matter most to us.

Cloud also maintains that we should understand the difference between things that are urgent (e.g. deadlines, e-mails, meetings, conference calls) and things that are truly vital, that revitalize us, such as our relationships with family, our hobbies and our spirituality. When we fail to distinguish the two, we repeatedly choose the urgent over the vital because, says Cloud, not attending to the urgent causes us immediate, palpable distress. The vital—the bike ride with our kids, the movie with a friend—can always be put off one more day. But when we put off the vital needs, we sacrifice relationships and, indeed, our own happiness.

Cloud spoke with about the importance of taking control of our lives, setting priorities and creating boundaries. He also offers insight into the psychology of workaholics, the problems associated with living to work, and how to better manage our relationships with our BlackBerrys.

CIO: Fewer and fewer professionals seem to have a boundary between their work lives and their personal lives. Workers leave the office to attend parent-teacher conferences, for example; then they make up the time they were out of the office by doing work at home at night. Is there something wrong with this?

Dr. Cloud: It used to be that life and work were two different things. Work was a place, and when you weren’t at the office, you were away from work and you had your personal life. There was also a time you went to work 8 to 5 and there was a time boundary. When you weren’t at work, you were off. Those time and space boundaries contained work, and your personal life was a separate thing.

There are no more time and space boundaries separating people’s work and personal lives. Pagers were the first to pierce that time and space boundary. They made it so your boss could find you anywhere, at any time. Then came the cell phone and the Internet and e-mail and PDAs.

Instead of thinking about these two separate lives, we have to think about how we get in control of what we’re going to give our time to and what we’re going to give our energy to. You absolutely have to be in control of that. If people don’t have personal boundaries inside them at their core, they’re going to feel fragmented and crazy and lost.

So the problem is trying to treat two things as separate that really aren’t separate any more. Is it at all possible, in this day and age, to maintain some kind of separation between one’s work life and one’s personal life, or is that just a futile endeavor?

It has to be possible. If you think about it, we only have two things: We have our time and we have our energy. What you spend your time on and what you invest your energy in is what’s going to grow.

I do a lot of consulting with high-level performers in some of the biggest companies in the world. And what I find over and over is that the higher their performance in their careers and the more fruitful their personal lives, the more they are in control of choosing where they’re going to put their time and energy.

Conversely, when you see people who are stuck, who are not getting where they want career-wise and whose personal lives are not as fruitful, they don’t feel like they’re choosing. They feel like everything is chosen for them, and they don’t have control. They say that they don’t have time, but they have the same amount of time that everyone else has. What’s different is how they choose to spend their time.

Many people seem to take pride—great pride—in always having their cell phone with them, in always being available, whether they’re on vacation, at home or simply on their lunch break. Why is that? And is anything wrong with that behavior?

I have a BlackBerry. I wouldn’t be able to work without it because my work is so mobile: I travel and do consulting and have speaking engagements and I have an office and I do onsite and offsite projects. I live by my BlackBerry. The question is, Is your BlackBerry a tool you are using to serve the things that are important to you, or does it have control over you, where the things that are important to you never happen?

The people who say, “I love to multi-task,” and “Work is my life” are only giving you a snapshot [of their life], not the movie. If you watch the whole movie, you look at the other aspects of their lives besides work. You look at how fulfilled they feel in their personal relationships and how fulfilled they feel emotionally. If you look at their life as if it’s a house under construction, they’ve constructed one wall all the way up to the sky, buy there’s nothing else. At some point, they begin to realize that they don’t have anything but their work.

Over the long term, the people who work that way, it’s rare that they get to where they actually want to be even in their work. They get caught up in a flow that takes them somewhere else.

You also begin to see clinical syndromes in these people: anxiety, an inability to sleep, addictions. I can tell you as a leadership coach and clinical psychologist that there is no shortage of these people who take pride in multi-tasking who end up at a bar or in a shrink’s office wondering why their last relationship didn’t work.

So you’re saying for these workaholics, work fills some void or deficiency in their lives. It fills something that’s missing.

Many times it does. Work is a cover. They don’t understand that the urgent always gets in the way of the vital. There are few things in life that are truly vital. These are the things that produce life in us. We can ignore them and we won’t feel immediate pain, but ignoring them will kill us. Nobody feels high blood pressure, heart disease or cancer. On other side of the coin are urgent things that cause us immediate distress. Because we feel distress, they get our immediate attention. This is what drives us to answer one more e-mail instead of going for a bike ride with our kids.

If you are driven by immediate pain or pleasure, you’re out of control of your life and you’re going to lose what’s important. The only way out of that situation is to get purposeful and to think about what matters most to you and to give the best of your time and energy to what’s vital.

I was just talking with a very high performer. This guy is probably in his late 40s. He was talking to me about his kids. He has a 14-year-old and 16-year-old. He was saying how he looks back on his kids growing up and how he invested his time and energy and says, “I don’t know what happened. They’re gone. Where did it go?” It’s like the [Harry Chapin] song, Cat’s In the Cradle.

I wonder if the way the corporate world incents professionals, especially executives, causes them to work too much or to live an unbalanced life. These people are given financial incentives—big cash bonuses or stock options worth lots of money—to perform at a certain level and to achieve certain results for their companies.

I think the way that people metabolize those incentives can do that. It really works against them. I have found over and over that the high-level performers who create the most revenue (or whatever the metric is) are not the ones who are frenetically driven and scattered. The ones who perform the best are the ones who can take a step back and look at the big picture and say, “Of these 10,000 ways of increasing sales, what are the few where the huge gains can be achieved? I’m going to say No to a bunch of the good ones and I’m going to focus on the best one.” That’s a structure they bring to their whole lives.

I talk in the book about the concept of pruning. The most beautiful rose bush on the street is going to be the one someone has looked at and evaluated and pruned. Those are not dead branches that they’ve pruned. The smart ones will cut off branches that are alive so that the best roses can get all resources.

Our resources are our time and energy. People who are scattered give just as much time and energy to low return clients, low return activities instead of pruning. I have a section in the book about firing customers. If you’re only driven by a customer’s revenue potential and you’re not counting all the expenses associated with that customer that are draining you of your time and energy, you’re not getting the full profit and loss on that client. That might be a client you need to fire.

People who are unable to fire clients, who are unable to divorce themselves from draining people and activities are unable to do so because their fears, dependencies and conflicts prevent them. The people who get to the next level have the guts to let go of things.

How do we create boundaries to prevent work from consuming all of our energy?

I speak a lot, all over the world. Speaking is one part of my work that I really enjoy because I get to interact with my audiences. At one point, I found that I was not enjoying these trips. When I tried to figure out why, I realized there were two or three things that caused me a lot of misery.

When people would hear I was going to be in town, they’d ask if we could get together, and I would say Yes. I’d be speaking one night and have a dinner meeting with somebody right before or coffee after. I had meetings here and meetings there. It was sandwiching what I was really there for—to deliver a talk to tens of thousands of people. I was always too cramped and too stressed.

When I saw what was really causing the misery—the meetings around the speaking engagements and the fact that I had to prepare for these speeches in a crunch—I made a couple of rules. I no longer have meetings, especially before I give a speech. I also made a rule where I’m always going to get into that town where I’m giving a talk by 6 or 7 o’clock at night. No late arrivals. I have another rule where I’m going to have everything done and prepared at least a week or two before. I don’t have last-minute prep anymore.

After I established those boundaries, everything changed and I started to enjoy speaking again.

Here’s another example if you work with difficult coworkers. I was working with a vice president one time whose boss had a habit of unloading on him at the end of the day. The boss was maniacal. The vice president would get all stressed and, when he got home from work, he wasn’t there emotionally for his wife or kids. He was miserable.

He made a personal rule not to talk to his boss toward the end of the day. That’s when he scheduled meetings or other things. He made that rule, and his whole life changed.

What’s your advice to the people who work 50 or more hours a week, who can’t turn off their cell phones, who say their work is their life?

I would say to them, Would you really admit to me that all that matters to you is work? Is that who you are? You can be. It’s your life. But when people reflect on that question, hopefully they’ll have a better answer because work is not all of who we are. Everybody has heard the truism that when you’re at the end of your life, you’re not going to wish you had spent more time at the office.

The people who are the most fruitful in their marriages, relationships and in their careers get there because they’ve structured their lives such that those things will be immovable, will get the best and first of their attention.