‘You have cancer’
I remember those words from my oncologist so vividly that day that it still sits with me as if it was yesterday. At the time I was leading a life in the demanding industry of software sales where quotas and big expectations were common. I was just newly engaged, living in downtown Vancouver living the young, hustling life when all of that changed.
Work/life balance wasn’t a common term for me during that time in my life. When you’re in your early 30’s no kids, you just keep working. You keep pushing your boundaries chasing the things that society and others told you were important. Money, job titles, responsibilities, material items. It’s not until that day in October of 2013 that changed my whole perspective and paradigm in life, and uprooted this whole idea of work / life balance.
My cancer journey continued with 3 surgeries and facing testicular cancer twice in the span of 7 years. Cancer also showed up in my family. In November 2016 I remember getting a call from my dad asking for me to come over to have a chat. There he told me he had stage 4 lung cancer and was already undergoing treatment. This was the first time I saw my dad cry. I came home shortly after to share the news with my wife. After we embraced and let our emotions settle down, she then shared with me that she was pregnant with our first child. The circle of life in its purest form. My dad passed away in April of 2018, shortly after meeting his first grandson.
Throughout this experience, these circumstances taught me my definition of work / life balance and made me question its importance and role in which we live our lives. Why does it start with work / life balance to begin with? How about starting with life / work balance? Language is powerful. They are clues to what’s most important in our lives.
Managing life / work balance is easy when the end is potentially approaching earlier than expected. Work tasks magically disappear and all the things that you thought were important in life aren’t. Whether it’s cancer, a death in the family or any hardship, it’s a way for the universe to tell us that things are off balance. Things aren’t aligned and things need to be reexamined.
Take for example a simple exercise of measuring and quantifying what’s most important in your life. You might have seen this as an exercise where you write down what’s most important in your life: Family, health, social connections, reading and growth, career, etc. Great. So you put those in that order and you recite how the first is more important than the other. And if we asked you to divide these buckets into slices of pie as a percentage of importance you would do so accordingly.
For most, putting family or health is first, typically putting down a figure of about 60%. Social connections are around 15% and the rest fall into career, growth and other buckets that you deem significant. I then ask people to look at their last week’s calendar and with their best estimate start measuring how much of your time you spent in these buckets in your life. Dig even a bit deeper and ask them to look not just at the actual time you spent on the calendar in these areas, but how much of your mental energy was spent there as well. Sure we may be home having dinner with family and friends but how much of it is spent thinking about work?
The difference between what we say is important and where we actually spend our time is an exercise I call the ‘Weekly Values Check’. We may have the right intentions calling out what’s most important but how many of us stray away from what we originally declared. Actions speak louder than words and that’s ok. The purpose of a Weekly Values Check is to make sure we stay on track most of the time, most of the month, most of the year.
For the most part, when you ask people who have experienced a challenging situation and have come out of it on the other side, they appreciate the learnings that came with it. My perspective on life / work balance has completely changed because of the things that I went through but the key question I have is: why do we need to go through something difficult to have a better perspective on the way we want our lives? Why does something bad have to happen in order for us to see something good?
This is a question I have grappled with over the years and even though I have this new found perspective, appreciation and gratitude of life, it often escapes me with the day to day of tasks and to-do-lists. With that said here are some tips to start building a better life / work balance that might work for you:
Time levels the playing field for everyone. It’s the one resource we all have. You can’t buy, find, or borrow more of it and you have no idea when it runs out. When you struggle to balance life / work together I hope you apply these tips in your life. The fact that you’re reading this right now is truly a gift. You’re still here. The rest of the day is a bonus.