Rebalancing – one small step at a time

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It’s week three of our journey to #rebalance work and life in 2020. So far I’ve covered the reasons why we should #rebalance; and shared the key principle underpinning successful balance.

This week I want to turn the spotlight on our approach to self-change; by suggesting we start small and grow into it. Radical change often proves difficult to sustain. And when that radical change depends on co-operation from those around us (as is often the case when it comes to work-life balance) the challenge increases. At a workshop several years ago I heard one of the wisest pieces of advice ever given to me:

“Change happens best when nobody notices”

The workshop was an introduction to Solutions Focus – an approach to change grounded in positive psychology – and the words were spoken by the workshop leader. Solutions Focus encourages the taking of small steps towards a desired future state. Over time these small steps can lead to big results. In my book I explain how we can apply this approach to #rebalancing our lives.

Stewart Friedman from the Wharton Business School has been pioneering a concept he calls Total Leadership for many years. He recommends we design small experiments to help us find more balance in our lives; and try them out for a set period of time to see what happens. The idea is to look at wins that benefit every area of our lives while considering how the people around us might also benefit from those wins.

Professor Friedman recommends we set an intention to pursue small wins that create big change. Massive shifts often fail because they’re difficult to manage. According to him the best experiments allow us to try something new while minimising the risks associated with change. Our fear of failure is reduced; and as we see results we become inspired to go further – building stakeholder support along the way.

Many of us will have come across a variant of the ‘action priority matrix’ that groups activities into four quadrants: .quick wins, major projects, fill ins and thankless tasks. If you think about the changes that would help #rebalance your life, which ones are quick wins and which are major projects?

I suggest directing your efforts in the first instance to the quick wins. (those having the highest impact for the lowest effort). Pause and consider what you’ve learnt and what progress you’ve made. If you’re ready for a bigger change you can build on your success by taking on a ‘major project’. This will demand more time, effort and planning but will lead you further in the direction of your preferred work-life balance.

For the most part we live our lives in gradual and constant change. Landscapes shift with the seasons, our children grow slowly day by day until we notice they’re no longer the helpless infants we once held but young adults ready to fly the nest; and even our own bodies change as we age.

This week I encourage you to harness the changes going on in your life in ways that will support better balance going forward – both for your own benefit and that of those around you.

Staying positive

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Most of us will have come across the idea – perhaps as part of advice around managing stress – that the human brain is hard wired to focus on the negative. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Basic survival was often a challenge for our prehistoric ancestors so they had to fine tune their senses to danger. And when it appeared – perhaps in the form of a wild animal looking for its dinner – they had to take immediate action. Positive thinking at that moment would not have served them well. Fight or flight – fuelled by fear – would have been the better course of action.

Once the threat was over – however – psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has suggested that positive emotions may have helped them develop new, more effective future strategies. Fredrickson was one of the earliest pioneers of Positive Psychology when in 1998 she asked ‘What good are positive emotions?

I’m a great fan of Positive Psychology. I use it in my work. It was the topic of last month’s blog as well as earlier ones. (This one for example.)

This month I’d like to explain why I believe it’s a powerful component of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. But before I do I want to clarify one thing: Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking’. Nor does it ask us to ignore the negative aspects of life. There are times when we must acknowledge our more pessimistic emotions before we can move forward. What Positive Psychology offers us is a way to shift our focus. We no longer remain mired in the problem but move to a more generative state where we can develop new solutions.

When we perceive ourselves to be under threat our attention narrows and our body prepares for immediate action. In our complex, modern world this may not be the most productive response. Positive emotions – according to Fredrickson – ‘broaden and build’. They expand our attentional focus and enhance creative thinking. In this way we find new solutions and add to our skills repertoire.

Research has revealed that simply putting ourselves into a positive state before we begin a task will improve our performance. So, for example, when I facilitate workplace groups charged with developing more balance working practices I always begin by asking them to identify and list the benefits such practices will bring. Identifying the positive impact on their own lives makes it more likely they will focus on solutions rather than objections.

Positive emotions also have what Fredrickson calls an ‘undoing effect’ that is beneficial to our wellbeing. She maintains they:

 “loosen the hold that (no-longer-relevant) negative emotions gain on an individual’s mind and body”

To prove the point: think about how often you return home from a challenging day at work to the excited joy of your children or the loving attention of a pet. Suddenly you find workplace cares receding. This is what work-life balance researchers call ‘recovery time’.

We live in a complex world where multiple challenges vie for our attention every day. Tackling life with a positive focus will support our physical and mental well-being expand our personal resources and help us strengthen social bonds. As you choose to be a Balanced Leader do your best to stay positive!