Workplace Doctor: Quality, not quantity, matters more to achieve work-life balance

Alex Davda discusses techniques to help you balance all aspects of your life - work, family and exercise.

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I have a busy job, a busy home life and a busy exercise regime. People often say, "I don't know how you do it" and sometimes I wonder the same thing. Would a life or career coach be able to help me balance the different areas of my life better? Or is it just a case of sitting down and planning my week out. MN, Abu Dhabi

When I read your question I too was thinking, “I don’t know how you do it”. You are clearly working hard juggling all these aspects of your life. While it is clearly hectic at the moment, it is encouraging that you are still trying to ensure an even balance, with family and exercise remaining as priorities when often other people tend to let these slip when work takes over. Yet clearly there must be some trade-offs.

It sounds like you are starting to feel overwhelmed, and I can understand why. While you try to juggle all of your commitments, you may be setting yourself up for a fall. You should try to focus on quality not quantity. When you have so many things happening at the same time, it can be difficult to fully immerse yourself in an experience without your mind wandering elsewhere, and not truly being in the moment.

As a motivated person, it is natural to want to keep busy, however it can be at the risk of never having any down time. If you are anything like me, you spend your days trying to cram as much as possible into every hour of every day; getting up early in the morning to make it to the gym before starting your day in the office, before rushing home to spend time with your family and friends. It can be quite draining trying to achieve all of these things and equally worry about disappointing people or ourselves when we can’t meet our own unrealistic expectations.

Similarly, we are so preoccupied with trying to achieve everything we have set for ourselves in the week, we are distracted during the actual experiences we are seeking and constantly looking at what is next on the list. For me, I have been trying to make a conscious effort to slow down and focus and trust me this has not been easy.

Two areas I’ve identified myself to try to counteract this situation are the type of things that a career coach would support you with. The first is the practice of mindfulness, something a friend recently recommended after noticing I was struggling with my own work-life balance.

Mindfulness is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the surrounding environment and an acceptance of them without judgment of whether they are right or wrong. In both of our contexts it is a sort of psychological “time out” where you can take 10 or 15 minutes for yourself, to sit quietly and pay attention to yourself and settle, rather than focusing on everything else you need to do. It not only helps you to slow down, but also to become more aware of what is important to you and what is not, which is key when balancing areas of your life. At the moment I am using a very popular app called Headspace, which breaks mindfulness techniques into bite-sized chunks.

My next suggestion is to focus your attention on one activity at a time. We are constantly multitasking and psychologists have found that this is neither good for us or for the task we are trying to achieve. Daniel Goleman, the leading author, describes how as professionals we need to focus our attention to different aspects of our lives at different times, moving past distraction and into full concentration.

If you are busy across your life, then it is likely you are frequently distracted. Focus requires compromise and a realistic appreciation of the balance you need to feel content. You need a dose of “healthy selfishness” where you may leave work at a particular time on a particular day a week to attend a gym class or you make sure to spend two hours a night with your family without being distracted by your emails. Remember – it is about quantity not quality and a morning’s quality time with family or friends will benefit both sides more than a full day together where you are constantly engrossed in your iPhone.

Doctor’s prescription:

Many of us believe that being busy is what makes us important. Yet achieving balance requires some trade-offs and we need to focus our attention and avoid distractions. It is certainly achievable to have a busy job, a regular exercise routine and an active family and social life. Yet we must slow down, set realistic expectations and realise that sometimes doing a little less can help us significantly more.

Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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