When the topic of work-life balance comes up, it is often viewed through the lens of trying to give ourselves more time on the "life" side of the equation as we try to level the playing field between how much time we spend on work versus life activities.
In extreme circumstances, you often hear people talk about work-life balance in the vein of trying to "reclaim their lives" from too much work, especially in today's landscape of universal technology accessibility and companies running leaner requiring us to have to do more with less while simultaneously operating at a seemingly steadily increasing pace.
All of those are legitimate perspectives on work-life balance and even topics I have written about and assessed in my own work-life balance index over the past year around the different drivers of work-life balance (or imbalance).
Often a less discussed side of work-life balance, though, is the "work" side. It is easy to understand why. But getting satisfaction out of our work and the impact that has on the life side of the work-life balance equation is important. Even though most of us do work to pay the bills, many of us also have chosen our jobs because we genuinely like what we do, want to do a good job at what we've chosen, and want to get some enjoyment and fulfillment out of our work as well. And the companies we work for want that, too.
As a husband and dad who founded and runs a boutique consulting firm and who is also the sole financial provider for a family with lots of dependents (I'll admit that I am including our dog and rabbit as dependents in this equation), it is easy to make the case that work simply has to come first. It is also easy to feel the pressure around why it has to be that way.
But what if you put family first? Would it all fall apart?
Over the last year, I took a different approach to my work-life balance. I put my family first. It felt like an incredibly risky if not potentially borderline irresponsible thing to do in terms of providing for everyone in my family, but I did it anyway (with my wife's permission, of course).
The year yielded a counterintuitive outcome, or at the very least, an unexpected outcome. By putting my family first, I actually ended up enjoying my work more and doing a better job at work.
When I broke it all down, here are the four reasons why:
1. I was forced to ruthlessly prioritize at work
Contrary to what I used to do, I figured out all of the family stuff I wanted to do first and then did the same for work. That literally forced me to eliminate a lot of work "noise" - those things at work that were interesting but also distracting and not really that important. When I had put work first, it was easy to heavily engage in those "noise" items, too. With more constrained work time, it forced me away from those to focus fully on only the most important things. It isn't to say that I didn't have to do lower priority things, but there was a lot less urgency around those things.
2. Ruthless prioritization created more space for discretionary "thinking" time
Since I wasn't filling my work time with the lower priority things anymore, I had more space to think ahead, plan better, strategize more, and generally feel better about the business I'm running. As I result, I enjoyed the work more.
3. I was able to "guiltlessly" dive into work
One of the things I used to struggle with a lot at work was the guilt of it. What was I missing? Was I being an absentee husband or dad? It was certainly easy to justify the work in the context that I was providing for my family.
By focusing on my family first, though, it allowed me to eliminate that elephant of metaphorically looking over my shoulder at all of the family stuff I was missing or compromising in the name of work. This actually helped me enjoy my work more and eliminated the guilt.
4. With no guilt, I was able to set better boundaries around work, which ultimately made me more focused, efficient, and effective
One of the ways that I put my family first was to set non-negotiable boundaries around my family first. That forced the same level of rigor around boundaries for work. Once I had formalized and compartmentalized boundaries around work, I was able to focus intently on the work I was doing. It also allowed me to do so in a relatively undistracted way, which allowed me to get a lot more done a lot fast and do a better job at virtually all of it.
Taken together, all four of these things had me being better at my job and finding the enjoyment in doing the work I was good at and liked to do.