I’m expected to perform at ever-higher levels at work. My spouse is on my case because I’m rarely home, and when I am, I’m not really present. We’re shuffling the kids from one activity to another, meals are taken on the run, and I can’t remember the last time I had 10 minutes to myself. But it’s only for a while. I’m putting a lot of focus on work right now, but it’ll pay off in the end. It has to.

This is one of the most common dilemmas our clients present in coaching. Focusing a disproportionate amount on career progression, devoting ourselves unblinkingly to our work, most often has the opposite effect.

What to do? Here are some suggestions:

Begin With Self-Knowledge: Gain a thorough understanding of your unique strengths, talents, values, and capacities. It helps maximize your unique contribution while managing around areas of weakness or potential blind spots.  Armed with this understanding, seek out work that is aligned with what you have to offer, or craft your existing work to increase alignment.  In his terrific book, Drive, Dan Pink summarizes the research on performance excellence by describing the three things we need:

  • Autonomy in how our work is performed
  • Mastery – the work is aligned to our skills and talents and has a bit of challenge to it
  • Purpose: we can clearly see how our work aligns to a greater cause. An interesting aspect of purpose: this ability to experience meaning in work is not job specific. Research shows that a janitor and a physician are equally likely to find purpose in their work.  Knowing our unique core values is very helpful in experiencing meaning and purpose.

Focus Your Efforts: Once you’re grounded in an understanding of your unique and authentic ability to contribute, learn to manage the constant distractions that confront us each day. Start by identifying what you most want to accomplish over the coming year. What is the single most important accomplishment? What would be the next? Keep adding until you’ve captured your highest priorities, and they cannot exceed five.  As goals increase beyond five, our rate of completion decreases.  With clarity of direction, alignment to your unique abilities and a few simple tools to increase focus, your ability to contribute expands dramatically.  Rather then expanding resources (eg. working ever more hours), you are strategically focusing your resources.

Balance your Life Domains:  While there are a number of ways to define life domains, we find four key domains helpful. Work is just one domain, financial well-being is another, relationships is a third, and the fourth is health, recreation and your environment.  Balance does not look the same for everyone and it often changes as we move through phases of our life.  Apply the principle of focusing your efforts to each domain. What does success look like in each of those areas? At the end of this year, what needs to be present in terms of my financial well-being, my health, my relationships? Exploring each domain and intentionally focusing our efforts can help us achieve the balance we hope for.

Take care of you.  We can’t make a contribution to others if we are not taking care of ourselves.  Tom Rath provides excellent, research-based practical and actionable advice in his book Eat Move Sleep.  Clearly articulating the linkage between sleeping, eating and moving the book provides simple suggestions, which, when taken together, begin a flywheel effect for improved health. Perhaps the most powerful finding is that taking action in one area helps to fuel progress in another.  For example, by ensuring that you get adequate sleep, you are far more likely to adhere to better eating decisions the next day. As you exercise you are far more likely to sleep well.  Managing our energy is far more important then managing our time and there are many simple techniques to manage energy – one of which is paying attention to how much time we are sitting at work. Make sure to get up and move every couple of hours. Brain science is demonstrating that it might also be helpful to change our view on hour-long meetings … we are likely to make the best use of our brains capacity if we meet for 50 minutes, and leave 10 minutes between meetings to allow our brains to process and consolidate.

Shift your focus from career progression to Being a Contribution, as Benjamin Zander describes in The Art of Possibility.  While this may seem counter-intuitive, moving your focus to how you can positively impact your colleagues, your clients, your industry, and the world at large can transmogrify work from a career to a calling.  You will begin to perform at a very different level and with surprisingly greater ease. The result is that your contributions are noticed and appreciated, paving the way for more ways to contribute. You are then on the pathway expanding your knowledge, growing your talents, and increasing your capacities as you make your unique contribution. Your growth and development aligns to the opportunities to have an increasingly greater impact.

We can have a successful career AND have a life.

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