Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself

In today’s hurried and harried age, almost everyone has a hard time with work-life balance. The fundamental reason is obvious: the constantly increasing demands of work and life continually crash up against the fixed 1440 minutes in each day.

And while it’s technically true that we can’t expand the clock, negotiation research has spent the better part of 50 years exploring how to unfix fixed resources. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that we can make life more negotiable by treating work-life balance as a negotiation with ourselves.

The prototypical negotiation study gives two people a seemingly fixed resource like money, then lets them fight it out. Yet, it studies the steps they can take to avoid fighting it out—how they can “expand the pie” rather than simply carve it up. By analogy, what if the fixed resource was time, and what if the two negotiators were our work self and our life self? In that case, five classic negotiation principles would apply:

  1. Don’t assume a fixed pie. The fundamental reason that negotiators fail to expand the pie is they assume it’s not expandable. Thus, two sisters fighting over an orange cut it in half rather than discovering that one sister wants the inside for juice, while the other wants the outside for garnish. They assume the orange is fixed rather than exploring how to “squeeze” more value out of it. With respect to work-life balance, perhaps we could start by assuming that time is not as fixed as it seems? By looking hard enough, most of us can find ways to squeeze more value out of our time—to take that conference call from the car instead of listening to talk radio, to do more web surfing during lunch and less during story time.
  2. Build trust (with yourself). Exacerbating the tendency to assume a fixed pie is the tendency to assume that of our counterparts are nefarious demons. But when negotiating with yourself, you should pretty much assume that’s not true. So take the time to validate both sides of yourself. Remind your life self that your work self is a good and worthy soul—a valid self that only wants the best for the rest of yourself. And remind your work self that your life self is equally trustworthy—that it’s out to maximize your happiness, not tank your career. By explicitly trusting both sides of yourself, you’ll be able to…
  3. Communicate your core interests. Negotiators often fail to expand the pie because they don’t explicitly share their priorities, nor ask about their counterpart’s priorities. Instead, they engage in positional battles in which each tries to grab as much of the fixed pie as possible. If work-life balance is a negotiation between our work self and our life self, might it help for each self to be honest with the other about what is most (and least) important? Might our work self admit to our life self that’s it really important to rock this project but less important to visit the company picnic? Might our life self admit that our daughter’s soccer game is much more important than fixing that squeaky bathroom door?
  4. Insist on your priorities (but only). Contrary to popular belief, negotiation research does not tell people to “compromise,” nor to demand the world on a silver platter. It tells people to hold firm on the things that matter most, but relinquish the things that matter less. If the report is critical, buy yourself an hour by forgetting the squeaky door. But if the soccer game is critical, skip the picnic, and only retrieve your phone to take a picture.
  5. Define and enforce a clear agreement. Negotiations are worthless unless they result in a clear agreement that gets implemented. Similarly, an agreement between our work self and life self is worthless unless we’re explicit about its terms and judicious in enforcing them. So if you decide that 12-5 pm on Saturdays is family time, write it down or at least repeat it often enough that you don’t let 12 slip to 12:30. In a word, draw boundaries and be ruthless in enforcing them.

This is not rocket science, and I don’t pretend that it is. But I hope that thinking about work-life balance as a negotiation helps you to actually attain it. Signing off in search of my own balance…

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3 thoughts on “Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself

  1. Pingback: In praise of work-life conflict | Brian Gunia

  2. Pingback: 10 Things I learned from Johns Hopkins negotiation professor Brian Gunia – The 80/20 Librarian: Focusing on the 20% that matters

  3. Pingback: Saving time by learning to trust yourself | Brian Gunia

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