Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

Professor Shân Wareing is pro vice-chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU) and a professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She recently spoke at Aurora in London and Edinburgh about her personal experience as a senior female leader during Power and Politics. Shân has also recently spoken at Leadership Matters and Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership. Here, she reflects on her work life balance which formed part of her talk at Aurora this year.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”
(Anne Dillard, quoted in Scott 2003, p80)

Like most people, there are plenty of times I don’t feel I’ve got my work/life balance right, but perhaps strangely, it was worse when I was a lecturer completing my PhD than now when I have three children and more senior job. Along the way, these are some of the ideas and habits that have helped me.

Know your purpose
To work out what balance is right for you, and how to achieve it, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve in life, what your purpose is. In one of my first jobs, a senior colleague had a poster on his wall that said “No one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office!” and I thought “Hmm, but perhaps I’ll wish I’d achieved more!”  Imagining myself in old age, reflecting on what might cause me to feel pride or regret helped me identify what mattered to me. Being very clear about what is important to you helps you allocate your time and keep things in proportion. That sense of proportion is vital to regulate our emotional response to events at work, which in my experience exact a heavy toll on me if I feel I am living out of alignment with my sense of purpose.

Planning is key
If you know where you’re heading, you can make a plan. And a plan allows you to identify the best opportunities for you, to estimate if you can take on new work without having a melt down, and to prioritise and selectively ignore things.  This is important to protect you from being buffeted by every policy whim, incident, metric, new piece of research, sector panic, and so on. Having a plan helps you spot if you are drawn off your plan too much by fire fighting. I always assume that up to 10% of each day or week will be spent in emergency unplanned reactive activity, but if it starts to increase regularly beyond 10% I need to change my plans to focus more on eliminating the causes of the fire fighting.

The 80:20 Principle
I’ll always have too much work, and probably so will you! In the endless tail of work that is never totally cleared, I have an arbitrary self-imposed cut off point. To minimise the distress of never ticking off everything on my To Do list, the 80:20 principle helps.  If 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of my work and I am fairly sure I’ve done the important 20%, I can go home a bit earlier. Looking at my To Do list regularly from an 80:20 perspective is also important to avoid the feeling that I need to be busy to feel productive. Needing to be busy is the enemy of work/life balance!

Work with and for your team
When the work suddenly piles on, it is easy to feel too busy to talk to people, and I have to fight this instinct! In a management role, and many other roles, people are the job, not an inconvenient extra. The better my team relationships, the more adept my teams are at handling their everyday work and sorting out anything unexpected, which means fewer unpleasant surprises for me. I have found I have a better work/life balance as a manager by talking and listening to my teams. Also working though others is a chance to increase their capability so a win-win for everyone. I could work five hours extra every week but it’s worth a lot less to the university than if I can enable a team of staff to be 10% more productive. To be effective, delegation needs to be in the context of purpose and planning, not random or opportunistic. The better I plan and the higher functioning my teams, the less random rubbish happens, and the earlier we all go home.

Avoid emotional leakage
A lot of stress and unnecessary work comes from emotional leakage – anxiety, fear, hostility, resentment  triggered by projects and people. Work/life balance is not just about what you choose to spend time on, it’s also about how you feel about things. As far as humanly possible it helps not to sink emotion into stuff where it can’t have any positive effect.

Be in the habit of taking care of yourself.
I noticed in pregnancy that what I ate one day had an effect on my mood the next day (protein and vegetables, good; only chocolate all day, bad), and I decided this was probably an exaggerated version of what happens anyway, so I tidied up my eating habits a bit (aiming to avoid chocolate-only days). And I also notice exercise helps my will power.  When I exercise, I’m better able to make myself do stuff I don’t want to do.

Invest in your own growth
Seek out development opportunities that take you in the direction you’re heading.  However experienced and senior you become, you never stop needing to learn. ‘Sharpen the axe’, Stephen Covey calls it.  And to lighten cognitive load (ie fewer things to think about or make decisions about), it really helps to have habits and routines. Barak Obama is reported to have said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Look for happiness
Another tip from maternity leave and days where it seemed like nothing got done is to remember to pat myself on the back for what I have achieved, not beat myself up for what I haven’t.  Dwelling on what is good about my professional and personal life isn’t about being smug or complacent – it is a necessary exercise in order to sustain optimism for vision and planning.

I still get bad days when it all gets too much, but not so much, and falling back on these principles helps. And for the very impatient readers out there who skimmed to the end, the super-efficient version is: (1) work out what matters to you and do that; and (2) count your blessings.


Further reading
Scott, Susan (2003) Fierce Conversations. London: Piatkus
Covey, Stephen (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster

About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

    • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
    • Aurora champions
    • Aurora role models
    • Aurora mentors
    • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and book

Demystifying Finance – Wednesday 18 April 2018
For women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and book

Leadership Matters
Leadership Matters is our programme for senior women leaders in higher education and will be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in 2018. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership
Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership is one of our most highly regarded programmes. It will take place once more this academic year:

PSSL Summer
Application Deadline: 8 June 2018
Programme Dates: Tuesday 19 – Friday 22 June
Location: Manchester

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