Harness the power of limits for better work/life balance

I can remember as a tiny youngster those Sunday mornings when I’d come downstairs to the smell of toast and marmalade and the sound of the radio, excited at the prospect of the hours of cartoons I was about to watch sat comfortably on the sofa in my pyjamas.  Those smells and sounds were always accompanied by the clink clunk of the front door as my dad left the house to go to work at 7am every Sunday morning.  Yes, Sunday morning.

Struggling to balance the scales

One of the most common complaints I come across within my corporate coaching is that of individuals not having good enough work/life balance.  Many of us feel we are always at work. Though this is clearly not technically true, it is clear that many struggle with getting the scales to balance evenly.

Lives of quiet desperation

Often the result of this feeling is to try and pack as much stuff into our free time as possible, before we have to go back to work, in order to help us feel that we have spent our free time wisely.  Many of us watch hours on end of television, have a never-ending list of chores, a full schedule of commitments (often those of their children and not theirs) or even do lots of work-related stuff when at home.

We have to do the best with what we have

In my humble opinion, the problem doesn’t really appear to be a lack of time causing us to have poor work/life balance, but rather that we spend our time poorly.  And let’s be realistic here, there’s no global plan to add more hours to the 24 we already get, so we’ve got to just be smarter with what we already have.  Many very busy people manage to do it, and in a moment I’m going to share with you one of their techniques…

One of my favourite books on productivity is ‘The power of less’ by Leo Babauta.  In this great little book, Leo the author of the Zenhabits.net blog (lifestyle advice on living simply) talks about how most of us live without limits.  He says “Most of us lead lives filled with too much stuff, too much information, too many papers, too much to do, too much clutter”.  Does that ring any bells?

An energy drain…

According to Leo, having no limits on the content of our lives dilutes us, and wastes our energy, so that when we come to the important stuff in our lives we’re not able to handle it as effectively as we could because we’ve used up our energy on other less important stuff.  Quite simply, many of us spread ourselves too thin.

Important vs urgent

To spend our time wisely we really need to find out what’s important to us right now, and make sure that’s where our energies go.  In the Seven habits of highly effective people, Steven Covey spoke about how we focus on the ‘urgent’ to the detriment of what’s ‘important’.  He broke it down into four quadrants, those being:

Quadrant one – important and urgent tasks
Quadrant two – important but non-urgent tasks
Quadrant three – non-important but urgent tasks
Quadrant four – non-important and non-urgent tasks
Some Eastern wisdom

In the power of less Leo offers up the Japanese Haiku as a means of conveying the power of setting limits to increase our effectiveness.  The Haiku method is truly powerful because it constrains the writer to only seventeen syllables, written across three lines (five, seven, five) This means that all of the extraneous matter gets chopped away, leaving behind only the true essence of what the poet wants to say.

Applying limits in your life can bring a whole host of benefits such as:

  • Making your life feel less stressful, due to having less going on
  • Allowing you to focus on what’s really important to you
  • Allowing you to become more focused rather than diluted, using your energy wisely
  • Sending out the message to you (and others) that your time is valuable and important
  • Helping you to develop discipline that can carry over into other areas of your life
  • A roadmap to what’s important

Of all of the benefits of having limits in your life, I think the number one is that it allows you to identify whats important to you at that time. And a good guide to assist you along the way can be asking yourself a series of questions to help you get to the heart of whats important to you. In the Power of less, Leo Babauta asks the following questions:

  1. What are your values? (ie: the things that are truly important to you in life, and have to be present)
  2. What are your goals?
  3. What do you love?
  4. What’s important to you?
  5. Do you need these things or just want them?
  6. By asking yourself these questions you should be able to identify whether you’re spending your time on things that truly matter to you or not, and will help you decide the level of limit you may want to place on the areas your time is spent, or whether you may even want to remove some of these activities from your life altogether.

Getting started

In terms of how to actually set limits, Leo advises against just diving in and choosing a random number.  Instead, he suggests basing your new test level on your past experience, then trying out your new rate for a week and adjusting as you feel necessary.  Let’s say for example you’re currently spending four hours per evening watching television, and you want to reduce this, an idea might be to aim for three and a half hours, or perhaps watching one programme less.  Try this over a week and see how you get on.  Then adjust as feels comfortable until you find your ideal level.

What shall I chip away at first?

So, what can we set limits on then?  Well I guess that’s completely up to you, all of our lives are different, and we each have our areas where we know could probably do with a few limits being introduced.

In my life the obvious answer was Youtube.  I used to spend hours watching videos that weren’t really adding much to the quality of my life, a lot of them pointless.  So I set myself a daily time limit, and after a few weeks of tweaking I was down to half an hour a day, and guess what, in that thirty minutes I now only watch things that I feel are important and of value to me.  No more Knightrider re-runs.
If you’re unsure where to start, here are a few areas of possible suggestion:

  • Television
  • Magazines
  • Life commitments
  • Work projects and tasks
  • Emails
  • Clutter
  • Stuff
  • News Media
  • Social media
  • Surfing the net

Dangle the carrot

When it comes to plans many of us are able to get them off the ground, but it’s staying disciplined enough to keep them going that is often the problem (see January vs February gym attendance levels!)

So to keep our limits going we need to find ways to keep us focused on what we’re trying to achieve. I always find it useful to reframe the situation to give it a more positive slant.  So in my case, ‘Stop watching so much Youtube’ became ‘Create more evening time for exciting activities’.

This positive reframe helped me to keep myself disciplined whilst weaning myself off those clips of David Hasselhoff jumping his talking car over lorries to save the day.

I’m hoping this blog has inspired you to get started by choosing just one thing you’d like to get started on limiting today.  Then all you need to do is trial and error it for a week until you find a comfortable new level and you’re away.  Once you’ve built your confidence in your power of limiting, see if you can start brushing limits over other areas of your life, confident in the knowledge that you’re steadily improving your quality of work/life balance.
Jonathan Pittam
Corporate Mindfulness & Resilience coach, consultant, writer, speaker



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