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Principles embraced while accidentally creating work life balance.

Layla Driscoll is our guest blogger this week – it is so optimistic and well thought out – I thought it would be a nice “balance” to the crazy pre-holiday-get-it-all-done-before-next-week tendency I have!  Don’t miss her tips for finding a healthy balance.  BTW for those interested in Sheryl Sandberg’s talk a few weeks ago – here’s the link.  Very inspiring!

Betsy Speare, Principal Program Manager Lead, Microsoft Windows Server, Happy Family member, new Green Lake, Seattle Resident, 15 years at Microsoft, EWU CIS grad and chicken farmer (down 1 chicken due to racoon)!

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Principles embraced while accidentally creating work life balance.

In her 7 years at Microsoft, Layla Driscoll has worked on tablets (back before they were cool), in the cloud (OfficeLive/Office365), and now she is a Program Manager on the .NET Common Language Runtime.  The tech side is what brought her here, but she also has extreme passion for the people side of software development. Layla’s path to Microsoft, which includes jobs from retail to electrical work on a proton accelerator, wasn’t exactly a straight shot. She is the daughter of a Flamenco dancer and while growing up, she spent more time in Spain than playing with computers. In fact, Layla got into Computer Science in college kind of by accident. Today, she is sharing a few of her principles on work life balance that she also learned a bit by accident.

Layla

I  think there is some level of truth that any successful person at Microsoft (and I assume at most tech companies) will work long hours sometimes. However, I don’t think it has to be in contradiction to a balanced life. In essence, what brings balance is defining what is personally important and doing that (with a bit of flexibility). We often leave perceptions unchallenged and give control of our lives to others. Regardless of when I come in or how many times I check my email in a day, when I am living with integrity about how I spend my time at work and out of work, my life feels balanced.

Until recently, the phrase “work life balance” was completely lost on me – subconsciously avoiding any conversation on the topic. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a room of people I highly respect and a discussion of work life balance broke out. I was utterly useless in the conversation. All I could add was a bold statement of not having any work life balance issues.

Before you think this makes me unqualified to write a lengthy post on the topic, please read on.

                                                   Visiting Spain  LaylaInSpain

After that conversation, it took a few days of background processing to realize that I’ve actually given thought to many aspects of life that have huge impact on work life balance – I just never called it that. I’ve worked on being more efficient, reducing stress/working with clear thought, understanding my motivations and desires, organization and planning, having appropriate boundaries, and taking care of myself. All of these are critical aspects of having work life balance – I just hadn’t stopped to think about it. Silly, I know.

While my thoughts on work life balance are newly codified, I’ve been practicing and evolving supporting techniques far before I joined Microsoft and before I had ever heard the phrase. I share this background as a reminder of how much our perception and the words we use shape our challenges. With that, here are my thoughts and some of the things I do, which allow me to have a work life balance I’m happy (enough 🙂 ) with.

1. Understand why you work long hours.

It’s much easier to change a habit when you know why you do it. I ask myself questions like: what are you afraid of about creating balance? Are you afraid that people won’t think you are a hard worker or committed? Are you afraid to say no to projects? Do you worry about trusting others when you delegate? The flip side is if there is something to gain. Do you think it will get you respect? Does it make you feel important? Which of these are legitimate and which are perception? How important is it – is it worth the sacrifice? Sometimes it is just a matter of getting caught up in the day to day, but if I have underlying drivers, I want to know.

2. Define work life balance for you.

It is hard to get something when you don’t know what it is. Work life balance is different to everyone. It changes over time and with what is at work and in our lives at that moment. From my statements throughout, you should have a good idea of how I define it.

3. Balance does not necessarily mean rigid splits.

Yes, I check my email at odd hours of the morning and night. Some days I come in really early and others I don’t. During some projects I might work really long hours and weekends. Then at other times I may have something really important outside of work and I make time for that. I consider my life balanced when there isn’t an area of my life that is preventing me from living with joy most of the time. Working extra on something that energizes me leaves me with enough vitality to do what I want outside of work. The amount of time I have capacity for changes over time and with different project or teams. It also isn’t about having perfect balance in everyday; it is about balance in life.

4. Decide which things are non-negotiable and stick to it.

If I have a yoga or improv class and I need to leave at a specific time to get there, I leave. Usually I just have it on my calendar and that handles it. If there is a meeting or other situation that is still going, I politely explain that I need to leave – ideally making the comment of having a hard stop from the beginning. There are rarely things urgent to the hour. If something has to be done that night and I really don’t want to miss class, I see if doing it later that night is an option. Then, when really needed (rather than just perceived) I’m flexible and stay. In the end, I don’t have time to do everything that I want to, but I have to stay fulfilled in each aspect to a certain threshold. Rather that deciding, that only working X hours is work life balance, figure out what you need to make time for to make you happy and just do it.

5. Schedule life holistically.

Closely related to the last point, put the important things on your calendar. If you live by your outlook reminders at work, use it for life too. If find this helpful for 2 main reasons. First, it makes it easy to remember. I don’t trust my memory to remember when to go to a team meeting. Second, it’s important to make the time. If I just rely on doing something when I happen to have free time, it will never happen. I have a habit of filling my time to full capacity. I have to carve out time. Lastly, it protects the time. If your calendar shows you busy, most people won’t schedule over it and when people do, it is a little easier to decline or suggest another time if your calendar looks busy ahead of time.

6. Working longer hours isn’t more productive.

Some people think longer hours always mean more/better work. I firmly disagree. Yes, hard work and hours are important, however, diminishing returns kick in. Either the work just gets stretched over more time or you work into a mode of being unproductive/less creative/tired etc.

7. Maximize peak time.

We all have times where we are more or less productive/creative etc. If you know yourself well enough you can plan to maximize the use of that time. For me, I can do some of my best work from my couch at 6 or 7am. Rather than trying to force my work time into standard hours or sitting in front of my desk, I use that time to get a jump on the day. Then if things come up, I’m already a little ahead. If your brain stops working – stop working. Several hours of your time to get what could be a 30 min task isn’t worth it.

8. Work on something that feeds your life.

I’ve had projects I’ve loved and those I haven’t. There are also skills and activities that energize me that aren’t built-in to my job. I have to make time to do those things. I try my best to find a way to add value to the team while doing so, but if I can’t, I find another person or group to help. If I’m not doing enough things that really get my passion going, the draining things overpower me. The more alive my work makes me feel the more it counts on the lifeside of the balance. <slight_tangent> management needs to know what you like or want to do before the project is available so they can keep an eye out. You don’t always get what you ask for, but you rarely get what you want when you don’t ask for it. </slight_tangent>

9. Be careful of raising the work-duration standard.

First, if you legitimately might be needed, let the right people know you will be gone or at least leave an auto-reply or Lync message. With that out of the way, I’ve had a couple of colleagues (mostly male) talk about the impression sending frivolous oofs/leaving early messages. Basically by sending an “I have to leave early but I’ll be back online later” email at 4 pm does 2 things. 1) It makes everyone feel the pressure to work late hours regardless of the work they have done or when they came in. 2) it gives the impression you don’t think the team can survive without you for a few hours. This is just one example. The point is, if you want a better work life balance, be carefully of the standard you imply.

10. Take responsibility for how you spend your time.

You decide when you work and how you work. If you want to get more done in less time there are many resource. Are you doing more than you need to? Do you need to delegate? Are you doing projects that don’t really need to be done by you? Be deliberate about how you use your time. Learn to say no nicely. If others are making an assumption about when you will work or a deliverable, reset the expectation. Are others not pulling their weight and you are taking up all of the slack? Don’t go to meetings if you don’t need to be there. Schedule 30 minute meetings when all you need is 30 minutes. In most cases people are happy to respect your boundaries, but they won’t know what they are if you don’t ask.

11. Free your mind.

If you can’t stop thinking about some work task when you are at home or some home task when you are at work, deal with it. Either keep a list and add to it so you won’t forget later or just do it. If the distraction slows down your work or prevents you from enjoying the company of a loved one, no one wins. If it is a quick thing, give yourself permission to make that call, run that errand, or clearly capture the idea for later.

12. Minimize firefighting.

If there is an urgent issue that you can solve, rock on. However, take stock of how many fire drills you create and how often you interject into fire drills others create. Is there a way to reduce those with better planning? Do all of those fires need to be put out? Will they burn out themselves? Unfortunately creating and then fixing problems and fire drills can get rewarded here. For the good of yourself, others, the product, try to prevent the drama of needing to be a super hero.

13. Accept that you don’t need to be part of every conversation.

There can be fear that missing some meeting or not being a part of a conversation will leave your unprepared and useless. Yes, if you miss key information and aren’t in the right place to influence hall way decisions; you will end up in a bad place. However, being there for everything doesn’t scale and isn’t the most efficient way. Build strong relationships with people. Make sure they know what information you are interested in. Let it be in their best interest to give you information (you include them, treat the information with respect, whatever it is that maters for the situation). Then build up a pattern of how the information comes to you or that you are sought out when you are actually needed.

14. Stop spending time feeling guilty.

Whether you feel guilt for not being home or for not being at work, the guilt isn’t helping. Take that time and give fully to whichever you are at now. Guilt just takes up time and builds a negative vibe. Practice by thinking of one thing to be grateful for in that moment as soon as you notice guilt.

15. When out of balance, acknowledge it and make a plan for correction.

If I’ve reached a consistent pattern of being drained, feeling overworked, or stressed, I stop and assess. Will this end on its own and I just need to get through it? Have I taken on the wrong things or developed inefficient habits? Am I unfocused and if so would working from home or the café (if I don’t have meetings) help? Have I neglected important things in my life? Do I need to find even a few minutes to meditate?

16. Know why living a balanced life matters for you.

When I am out of balance I rely only computational thinking and lose touch with my wisdom – that isn’t my ideal working mode. I am a more productive, creative, and happy person when I make room for a full life. Knowing why it’s valuable for me helps me prioritize it.

To me this list is more than work life balance tips. These are principles I practice on my journey of life while working. Even tips on balance should be used in balance and moderation. It’s a long list which doesn’t need to be applied 100% or all at once to be effective. Over time I focus on different aspects more than others. If I forget one for too long the world has a way of giving me an opportunity to relearn it. Of course we each have different situations and there for need different approaches. I hope that you are able to find a nugget or 2 from my list that inspires a path to balance in your life. I’d love to hear what works for you or other things that cause imbalance that I’ve missed.

LaylaWalkingBudapestLayla in Budapest

–Layla Driscoll

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