Why Work-Life Balance Is A Myth, And How To Create Harmony Instead

March 29, 2021

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019
Smartphone on pink flamingo float in swimming pool
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Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Since March, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today we speak with David McNeff, author of The Work-Life Balance Myth: Rethinking Your Optimal Balance for Success. (McGraw-Hill) McNeff founded Peak Consulting Group in 1995 to develop executive talent and bolster the performance of executive team dynamics for companies all over the world. He is an executive coach, high-profile jury trial consultant, profiling expert, and a former collegiate athlete fascinated with peak performance.

David Benjamin and David Komlos: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your area of expertise.

David McNeff: I do a number of different things. I work with CEOs and their teams on leadership skill development, communication skill development, corporate presence, and managing people. I also do conflict resolution work, primarily in the private equity sector, jury and trial consulting for patent litigations in the pharmaceutical sector, and I speak on a range of topics. And that mishmash of engagements, working with teams and executives, led to the book.

Benjamin and Komlos: Can you briefly describe what business leaders can learn by reading The Work-Life Balance Myth and what you’d express as the most important takeaway for them?

McNeff: It's a sense of getting back control of your equilibrium. Instead of following the roller coaster of circumstances and events in business and personal life - that take people in and out of stress – the book offers a method that creates a sense of harmony. The book gives you a sense that you’re not alone in these very stressful situations, and there’s a practical method you can use to deal with them.

Benjamin and Komlos: Are you referring to the ‘Seven Slice Method’? Can you talk about that?

McNeff: There are seven key components (slices) that make up your life: Your professional life, family life, personal life, physical life, emotional life, intellectual life, and spiritual life. Most of the people I work with have 97% of their time consumed by their professional life and family life, spending only minutes per week in the other five slices. In fact, I found in my business that almost everyone over the age of 42 had zero minutes per week for three or four of those slices.

For example, on top of their professional and family life, maybe someone runs (physical) or reads self-help books (emotional) but never does anything for themselves (personal), and stopped attending church (spiritual), and stopped reading for curiosity and development (intellectual) because they’re too busy and can't find time to do those things. The problem is that time spent in those other five slices helps people settle down in their professional and family life.

The Seven Slice Method encourages you to look at the slice in which you are least strong and come up with a practical, short activity per week that you can add to your life. I’ve done this myself and I’ve helped clients do this, and some have come back and said, “I feel more balanced”. That’s a myth, though, because mathematically we're never going to be in balance because the two main slices demand so much – life is just designed that way. What you can achieve is harmony, which makes you feel more balanced. That’s why I titled the book The Work-Life Balance Myth.

Benjamin and Komlos: Has working from home had a varying impact on the slices, and if so, where do you think the impact has been most extreme?

McNeff: First, I’d say that the line between the two main slices is now blurred. The separation between professional life and family life that the commute created is gone right now, so the only transition many people get is moving from the home office to the kitchen. Secondly, time management on the various slices has been affected because some of the slices required you to go somewhere - like a gym, or a book club, or a church – and without that travel time, the professional slice has crept even more into the other slices. On top of that, I’ve heard from people that they don’t have anything to look forward to each week or each month. The family vacation and exciting business trip went away with the restrictions, and that’s something people say they miss the most; it has sapped a lot of their emotional energy.

To combat these things, I recommend picking one of the other five slices and investing it. That might be something spiritual; it might be taking 15-minute walks with your spouse or partner every other day at 5:30 to talk about something personal; it might be reading something you’re really interested in for ten minutes per day.

Benjamin and Komlos: Can you talk about burnout and how one can notice it even when we’re not together?

McNeff: During the pandemic, with many of our important interactions moved to video, there’s been a big impact on communication, given that 93% of it is nonverbal (55% is facial expression and entire body movement; 38% is tone of voice). Despite this, you can really notice people who are withdrawing or disengaging, by their tone of voice and facial expression.

People who are overwhelmed by the professional and family slices of their lives, you can see the tide is just coming over them. They’re too quiet in meetings, and that says that they're not thinking about new, better, exciting things to contribute; they are burning out. What’s worse is that silence is a form of communication, and the more silent you are, the more fearful we are of you because we don't know what you're thinking.

And when that happens with leadership - the visible burnout, the menacing silence - it’s an insidious problem because it doesn’t just happen on a Tuesday, it happens for days and weeks in a row. People want their leaders to tell them where the organization is going. They’re begging for motivation and conviction, but someone who isn’t feeling that way themselves will have a hard time giving others what they need.

Benjamin and Komlos: Do you have any other specific advice leaders should heed today? Any parting thoughts?

McNeff: There's a lot of data that indicates that when people are stressed, they produce less per day than the days when they’re calm and relaxed. Businesses are much more productive when their people are calm. If that's true, then as a leader you should feel heavily motivated to figure out how to help yourself and your people to be a little calmer.

The solution to burnout and to stress is addition. You don’t have to stop anything; you have to start something. Find ten minutes per day to do something new. That’s completely within your control. That’s not something you need to wait for someone else to help you with.

Original article posted on Forbes on March 29, 2021

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