There is no formula for feeling more balanced, or being more productive, or having better meetings. But, if there were a formula, I think it might look something like this:
When + Flow + Recover = Balance
One thing that feels very “unbalancing” is not getting done what you think you should be getting done. Optimizing your use of time and energy is one solution for that. Then recovery allows for recuperating energy, but also for ‘rebalancing’ by distributing time to other endeavors. (Of course, there are also bigger picture dilemmas that this equation doesn’t deal with… like whether you should be seriously re-thinking what it is you think you should be getting done. Or, whether significant people in your life agree with you on that.) The equation works best if you generally like your various life endeavors (your job, your friends and family, your hobbies), but you’re looking to bring engagement, vigor, and boundaries into play.
First think ‘When?’
The main idea here (from Dan Pink’s book ‘When’) is that we should be strategic and purposeful about when we do certain tasks throughout the day, according to our natural daily energy rhythms. We each experience a daily peak, trough, and rebounding of mood and productivity at certain times throughout the day (see graphic below from Pink to figure out if you are a Lark, Owl, or Third Bird). The kinds of tasks we do during these periods depends on the nature of the task. Times of peak energy and focus should be used to do tasks that require the most concentration, such as analytic and decision-making tasks. Save your administrative tasks, like sorting emails and completing paperwork, for your low energy, trough period. Then use the rebounding period for reflection, brainstorming, and other tasks that require creative thinking and insight.
Finding your when. The timing of your energy peaks and valleys will depend on your chronotype (and your age). You can determine your chronotype by finding the midpoint between the time you would naturally go to sleep and wake up. Then find your best time for different types of tasks. Another great resources to check out regarding this concept is HBR article Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.
Second, get into Flow
The flow experience of “being in the zone” usually stems from tasks or hobbies that are intrinsically interesting and meaningful to us. The good news is that we can actually (somewhat) re-create the flow experience for tasks that we don’t enjoy as much. The tasks that are best for flow are ones that you find interesting but also a little challenging. These are also tasks with clear goals and ones where you can see you are making progress.
To set yourself up for flow
Get the training and technology you need to perform your work
Ask for slightly stretch assignments, but not tasks that are way beyond your current skills
Get clear about goals and deliverables
Figure out some progress steps that will give you feedback along the way
Also, avoid common destroyers of flow:
Shut out all distractions (turn off notifications on your laptop/phone!)
Set a timer and focusing only on the task (Pomodoro technique)
Do NOT multitask
Do not go into the task hungry or tired
Do not ignore your chronotype
So, decide when you are going to tackle your most important tasks according to the time of day when you have the right energy for the task, and create circumstances that allow you to experience flow (or at least get into the zone) so that you can fully engage in your tasks and work productively.
Learn more about flow here.
Lastly, set aside time for Recovery
Regular work activities - activities like making a choice, controlling your emotions/temper, resisting temptation, keeping focused despite distractions, and making and executing plans - all involve self-regulation and draw from a common resource. Like a battery, we only have so much energy for these self-regulation tasks and once that pool of energy gets used up, we need to recharge. Many of our daily tasks, such as driving, become automatic habitual after extended practice and no longer drain the battery. Similarly, with repeated practice of self-regulation, we can make our battery stronger over time. But our main source for recovering these energy losses and, then be able to re-engage at work, is through activities that recharge the battery.
Research on recovery from work recommends activities that allow you to detach completely from work. Also, work breaks should be low-effort and personally enjoyable (calling a friend, taking a walk, etc.). Switching to an alternative work task or completing an unenjoyable chore is not recovery - those high-effort and/or unenjoyable tasks further deplete your psychological resources. Evenings, weekends, and vacations may involve high-effort tasks, so long as these are enjoyable hobbies (mastery experiences) that really get your mind off work. Also, even if you’re an introvert, studies have shown that socializing is one of the best buffers against stress and depletion. Check out Dan Pink's tips for this below.
Dan Pink’s Guide to Better Breaks
(from When, pages 60-62)
Something beats nothing
Moving beats stationary
Social beats solo
Outside beats inside
Fully detached beats semi-detached
As you are getting back to a more regular work arrangement, or establishing a new normal, think about how you can be an architect of a ‘work-life balance’ that makes the best use of your finite resources. Think about when you should schedule different types of tasks and set yourself up to get into a flow-like state by eliminating distractions. Lastly, plan for breaks as well. To bring your best self to your work, you need to recharge your batteries regularly.
So, there it is. When + Flow + Recover = Balance.
This is a holiday weekend, a perfect time for some recovery. Enjoy your break and let us know how you are creating your new normal.
Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is the Associate Director in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!