Find Out of the Box Solutions and Get More Out of Life

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 11: Balance

There are many good arguments that a “work-life balance” is something of a fallacy, and that’s true. But if you put the semantic distinctions aside there’s a good chance that there are some things in your life you’d like to do less of, and some things you’d like to do more of.

Take me, for instance. I really enjoy my job, despite the fact that it’s what you might call a “9 to 5” white collar office job – the very antithesis of what people have in mind when they tell you to “follow your dream.” But although working for a bank isn’t something that will catapult me on to the global stage or change the world dramatically for the better, I like the way it challenges me, I get to work with some interesting people and I have to develop new skills in order to keep getting better at what I do.

What I don’t like, however, is the commute. I live about an hour’s drive from the office where I work, which means that every day I clamber into my car and make a banal kind of pilgrimage to work. Over time I’ve developed travel strategies to minimize the usual problems – leaving early to avoid rush hour, finding the routes that seem to be the least congested or prone to accidents. But no matter how much I tweak, I still find myself sat in traffic for several hours each week and I still have to find 2-3 hours extra each day in order to accommodate the round trip.

There are several obvious answers to this particular problem: I could find a job closer to home, or I could move. Neither of these is particularly attractive at this point in time. I like the job I have, and though I make a point of keeping up to speed with jobs in the local and wider area I’m not aware that there are many opportunities to do similar work closer to home. Neither does my wife or I particularly fancy moving away from this city, where we have family and friends.

At some point in the future, one or both of these circumstances may change and we’ll do something about this. Equally, it’s possible that I’ll decide to “follow my passion” and dedicate more time to writing or other pursuits and change career track entirely. But until that point, there’s no getting around the fact that my current arrangement requires me to accept the daily commute that I dislike intensely.

So faced with this kind of Status Quo, where I’m unhappy with some elements but not others, what are my options? I’m not looking for balance – I only spend a few hours of my day carrying out this detested task – but I would happily reduce further the proportion of my time that it consumes.

When I first took on this job six years ago, it was new and different enough that I was happy to accept the travel as a compromise for the new and positive benefits I was experiencing. Particularly, I was grateful that I had to spend less time staying overnight away from home – something I’d been doing a great deal in my previous job. Over time, my tolerances and expectations shifted and the commute becomes something I was less enthusiastic about tolerating.

As my attitude towards this unwelcome arrangement changed, I started to think about the ways in which I could improve things. I investigated ways to make better use of my time. I decided to start listening to language podcasts, and then productivity podcasts, on each journey; But I realized quickly that my mental state at the start and end of my working day wasn’t particularly conducive to this. I took the train; But this added time and expense to my journey as I had to travel to and from the train station. I also found the morning train to be a less than ideal environment, one in which I struggled to do anything useful.

So I went back to listening to the 15-minute news bulletin and music in the car, accepting that my journeys back and forth were unlikely to get any more productive.

Since then, I’ve made two specific changes that haven’t eliminated the nuisance of my commute, but have had a subtle positive impact on my overall routine:

I Delayed My Departure Time

Over the years of working, I’d gradually shifted into a pattern of ever-earlier start times, designed to minimize the chance of running into traffic problems. I’d even taken to traveling in my exercise kit and hitting the gym as soon as I arrived. The routine worked well for a long time, so even as my family grew and our morning patterns changed, I failed to appreciate why it was no longer working brilliantly. It was only after I talked it through with my wife that I determined to make some changes that would allow me to stay longer at home to support those morning tasks that were difficult for my wife to complete on her own. As an added bonus, I quickly found that I was getting 15-20 minutes of “morning time” with my kids that I’d previously been missing out on – something that any parent will know is priceless.

My fear – that leaving later would make my commute even longer – proved to be unfounded and I’ve found a rhythm now that allows me to help out in the morning and still be out the door before rush hour starts. This pattern works for as long as my kids remain early risers; if they start to sleep in, it may need reconsidering.

I Negotiated a flexible working pattern

I’m lucky enough to be in a job where I’m not required to “clock in” or out at a certain time. I’m trusted to manage my own time, which means I have a certain degree of flexibility in how I manage my day. Unfortunately, this informal flexibility doesn’t always work out; Though I can start early, the demands of the day often require me to be in the office at the end of the day, even though I’ve “worked my hours.”

In my company culture, there’s a delicate balance between “what’s expected” at a certain level and what is deemed to be genuinely “above and beyond requirements.” I saw an opportunity to define this boundary more explicitly with my boss and talk about how to address the balance of my time spent in and out of the office.

In my company culture there’s a delicate balance between “what’s expected” at a certain level and what is deemed to be genuinely “above and beyond requirements.” I saw an opportunity to define this boundary more explicitly…

I started by acknowledging that my pattern of extended working had evolved, in part, to suit me and that a rigid enforcement of a 9 to 5 pattern would most likely serve to force me to spend more time sitting in traffic queues. What I sought was a more holistic way of dealing with the inconsistencies of my working pattern. Recognizing that it would benefit us both, my boss agreed to a pattern which afforded me one “non-working day” per month; that is, an extra day of holiday accrued through the hours I worked for the rest of the month. In exchange for this additional day, I accepted the long hours I’d been working as part of this revised schedule and agreed that the timing of the non-working day would be flexed to ensure minimum disruption to important diary events as they occurred.

This was truly win-win. My boss wasn’t obliged to agree to my request, but he saw the benefit in working to the strengths of my working pattern and supporting my need to find balance by ring-fencing specific time to spend with my family. In return, I felt better about the hours worked and was able to carve out a specific block of time whose sole purpose was for spending with family.

The end result of these two changes was not a fundamental change to the root issue of my daily commute; instead it gave me mechanisms to help me address the perceived imbalance between the amount of time I was spending doing something I had to do and the time I have available to do the things I want to do. I have created time that previously didn’t exist for me; Most importantly I have filled that time with shared moments with my family that I can treasure forever.

I still hate climbing into my car every morning; but these minor victories offered me a feeling of balance that somehow mitigated the niggling discontent, making the journey into work just a little bit easier.

I won’t be satisfied with this arrangement forever, but for now, it suits my needs and I’m happy with the balance of choices and compromises I’ve made. After all, isn’t that what’s important?

Now back to you.

Would negotiating a workable arrangement help you to achieve a more balanced life? Have you evaluated your bargaining position? Have you asked yourself: What value do I bring to the negotiating table? Leverage this value and demand more for your time.