Want Better Balance? Set Sharper Focus and Clearer Boundaries

Whether it's at work or elsewhere with friends or family, our attention has never been in higher demand. Executive coach, Becky Hall gives her recipe for ensuring we can avoid only being 'partially present' and with a little thought and determination, manage our energy to achieve a better work-life balance.

When I first became a mum, I was a big fan of technology-enabled flexible working. It helped me to balance work and family life well and it was the difference between me being able to keep my job by working flexibly or stopping for a longer amount of time. I have lots of friends who have, equally, used the flexibility that technology provides to return to work after extended parental time out so it can be a great enabler of a balanced life.

The challenge though, is how to keep it as an enabling force, and prevent it from dominating our lives. On average, we check our mobile devices 150 times a day (once every six and a half minutes).

The Dangers of Being ‘Semi-present’

Linda Stone (former CEO of Microsoft) coined the term 'continuous partial attention' - which expresses what happens when we try to be connected all the time. She suggests that in this state we are giving a mere 45% of our attention to what we are actually doing in the moment. We are constantly semi-present or, you could say, semi-absent; we risk never giving anything our full attention.

This semi-present state is what can happen when we feel the need to be 'at work' or connected when we are at home. We get caught up in trying to do both and end up doing neither fully.

The Key to Finding Balance

Here are some things that I have found help provide balance - I like to call it the 'art of enough'.

  1. Focus On the End In Mind

We live in a world that is fighting for our attention 24/7 - full of complex demands and constant distractions. As such, society has moved to operating a knowledge economy, not a time economy - we are judged by our deliverables, and less by the amount of time we spend working.

At the start of each day, it can really help to write down the three things that you want to have achieved by the end of the day. Do the same at the start of each week, just three things, the big things that you want to have achieved that week. The distractions must work around these - you will find that, once you are very clear about what you want to attend to, your focus follows and distractions fall into line.

  1. Manage Your Energy

When is your energy at its peak? We all have different rhythms, and it is really helpful to know when you are at your most alert. When you track this over a week or so, you will find that this is similar each day. There will be regular peaks and troughs for you. Once you can predict when you will be at your most and least focused, you can plan your tasks to fit the energy you are able to give.

Do not waste your peak energy (some call it 'biological prime time') on clearing your email inbox! Save it for the stuff that matters - your three 'end in mind' deliverables - whether that is quality time with your family or writing a report. When you manage your energy, not your time, you will be amazed by how much more you can achieve.

  1. Set Your Boundaries - and Stick To Them!

The sooner we all realise that we can set our own boundaries around time, the better. In fact, we must, because the demands won't stop. No-one tells you not to check your emails at midnight. It’s a choice. OUR choice. Giving yourself autonomy over your time is the best way to release yourself from continuous partial attention and that other curse of our age, especially for working parents, is continuous underlying guilt!

Making clear, conscious decisions about what you want to give your focus to, and sticking to boundaries that you set yourself, for your work and your family, can make the difference from feeling constantly stressed (pulled at from all angles) and only half succeeding at anything. You'll feel in control of what you want to attend to.

For me, setting boundaries also involves making a clear choice about when I am contactable. I turn off my wifi when I am working on something important, in my peak energy time. At home, we have clear rules about electronics during 'family time' - eating or watching a movie together. Only one screen at a time is our rule, and that includes phones! This is so important, because it's not just the adults in the house who have 'continuous partial attention', it's all of us.

Balance In a Blurry World

Being crystal clear about our energy patterns, what we want to give our attention to, and protecting that time from distractions, is the key to providing balance in our 'blurry' world!

Becky Hall, Executive Coach and Facilitator