Work Life Balance? Impossible! Do This Instead

I spoke today to the ‘Ivy Professionals’ Group – a bunch of people who meet to discuss how to get the best out of working for God, whatever they do. They asked me to speak on ‘Work/Life Balance’. Numbers were down, probably effected by the terrible news of terrorist attacks in Paris which leaves us all with a sense of numbness and the need to just reflect, pray and perhaps be with people we love. 

The people who were there asked me to share my notes on here and I hope they help you too. 

I have benefitted from a lot of training over the years from the fantastic Franklin Covey organisation and much of what I do has been shaped by their materials. I recommend them 100%. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has probably been my number one ‘Go back and read again’ leadership book over the last fifteen years.

Once of the central concepts is of course the story of the teacher who fills up a glass storm jar, first with 7 Big Rocks, then with smaller pebbles, then with smaller pieces of shale, then pouring in sand to the brim… each time asking ‘Is it full yet?’

Finally it gets full with water poured in.

What’s the lesson?

A pupil cries out ‘You can always squeeze more in?’

No! The lesson is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never squeeze them in after.

What you can do is put the Big Rocks in first, and fill in the pebbles and sand around them.

The Big Rocks are the major things you want to get done this week. That important report, launching a new website or product, getting to the gym, spending ‘quality time’ (another concept I think is nonsense by the way, this is the one area where quantity matters a lot more than quality!) with your husband or wife and kids, making that big dream of writing a book start to come true.

But the Big Rocks get squeezed out, one day after another, one week after another, because we never quite have time to do them — ‘stuff’ gets in the way. Our days fill up, other people come along and fill the jar and our in-tray and email inbox when we were not even looking. Before we know it, another year has gone and the Big Rocks are still sitting on the side, untouched.

Another Covey story is of the team hacking their way through the jungle, chopping away at the foliage before them. A manager will get them all singing the team song for morale, make sure machetes are sharp and they all have water. A leader climbs a tree, looks around above the treeline and declares ‘We are in the wrong jungle!’ Because you can be very busy, doing the wrong things. going in the wrong direction.

I have raced in a few triathlons. It’s interesting how they start with a scramble and frenzy in the open water, everyone pushing and shoving and scratching to pass each other in the first 20 yards or so to get pole position as if they’re ever likely to win. Then it settles down but amid the melee you need to sight the  buoy. And you have to learn to swim differently. Not with your head down like in the pool where you were practising following a line; here there is no line. You have to keep looking up and sighting, or you find you were swimming hard in a lonely spot way off and have to swim back to even catch the pack to go round the buoy.

We can be thrashing around getting all pressured, but not being productive. Productivity isn’t about doing a lot of stuff. It’s about doing the right stuff. 

It’s like the airline pilot who announced to the passengers, ‘We have no idea where we are, but we are making excellent progress!’ 

I don’t believe in the concept of work/life balance. I believe if would be much better for us and everyone around us if we can learn to be fully on, and fully off. Think of it like a seesaw.

Office and home on seesaw drawing with index finger to balance, one businessman running on

If you are balanced, you’re stuck in midair going nowhere. Too many people live like that. They are never fully on and engaged at work, and they never give their family and relationships fully off time either. Running fast from one to the other but never being anywhere. Why not instead be fully on? And why not be fully off? I think the choice is not between work and life, because it’s all life. The choice, the tension that never goes away, is actually between Pressures and Priorities. If you never set your priorities you will be ruled by pressures (from outside and inside), you will procrastinate more, because you won’t be engaged with passion. Wow that was a lot of Ps!

Let’s look at two days in Jesus’ life for how he handled Pressures and Priorities.

Read Mark 1:14-29

There’s one habit that does more for productivity than any other, the keystone habit for people who get things done. 

It’s about choosing PRIORITIES rather than chasing PRESSURES.

Look what Jesus did here count the leadership tasks, how productive he is:

Day 1 – VISION CASTING – Sets off preaching his summary message (14-15)

TEAM BUILDING – Selects his team and invites them to join, gives them job description (18

STRATEGY IMPLEMENTATION – EMBODIES / MODELS THE VISION. He is intentional about Sabbath preaching, healing and deliverance ministry, this is  a deliberate strategy to confront the prevailing religion and system of the day (21- 28)

RELATIONSHIP BUILDING – Goes to a friends house to eat, heals his Mother in law! (29-31)

Then when evening comes, ‘Knock knock- who’s there?’ EVERYONE! Everyone else is banging on the door, trying to see him and be healed and set free. And he does it. Is that a busy day?! You think you had a busy one. And this is the Sabbath, so don’t tell me you can’t get involved and serve in a church community on Sunday because it’s your Sabbath…

We all face pressures from the demands of others. Franklin Covey call it ‘The Whirlwind’ of all those emails in the inbox, the calls you have to return, reports to write and so on. I asked around the room, how many people right now have anything like a clear inbox. I was the only one. Want to know how? Come back here at the end of the post.

Many of these are Pretty Important and if we don’t get them done, they become urgent and shout loudest from the top of the pile. But underneath them, some quieter, but more important priorities are lying, undone.

We ask the question in the Ivy staff team every week, what is WILDLY Important? We announce to the rest of the staff our WIGS. Our Wildly Important Goals. Not, ‘the things I am busy with’ but ‘The most important thing I need to get done in the next couple of weeks to add the most value and make the most progress for the role and the organisation.’ Speaking that out loud helps personal accountability to get done, and also recruits help from others to achieve it.

The problem is that PIGS eat WIGS (Pretty Important Goals eat Wildly Important Goals.)

I used to say ‘If you don’t set your priorities, nobody else will.’ That was naive.

The fact is, if you don’t set your priorities, everybody else will! You will be super stressed,  ruled by pressures, not priorities, so you will never perform to your potential. That will inevitably roll over from your work into your life. Work life balance? I’ll say it again, I’m not sure there really is any such thing. It’s about what matters to you, and what needs to be done now, most importantly. And if you are a Christ follower, you don’t get to make that up yourself. You go to God and he tells you what to do – like he did with Jesus, so you seek first his Kingdom, and can relax about everything else.

Are you ever FULLY ON and FULLY OFF?

When God created the world, he was fully on for 6 days. And it wasn’t done till the last of those, but at the end of each day he would say “That’s GOOD!” Even though the project was not complete, some good work had been done. He didn’t have to pull an all nighter,to create day and night!

Do we say ‘That was good’ at the end of the day? Even if it’s not done. Draw a line under the work and say, ‘I did some good today – it’s not fully done, but before I’m done in, I will plan what’s most important for me to tackle tomorrow, and schedule time for that, then go to my family, and later I will go to sleep, and trust God, because I’m commanded not to worry about that anyway.’

Oh but won’t that mean less performance? Not at all ! Elite performers are consistent about setting priorities, clear about the right priorities, and disciplined about following through on their priorities.

Jesus’ iPhone sets off an early alarm the next day. (That’s a key to top performance too).

He gets up and checks Facebook and emails.


Because that would start the day with you being reactive, not proactive.

Later when Peter came to tell him what the crowd wanted, Jesus said ‘No’ so he could say a better ‘Yes’ to what God wanted him to do for others. He listed where he was going and what he was going to do that day and he did it.

The better you are, the bigger the crowd gets. The more people will want you, the more demands you’ll have on your time. But if you just go along with them, you’ll end up increasingly less use to all of them.

Jesus has first said yes to God his Father. Now he can say yes to the things God wants him to do, in the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own strength. These things are written for our instruction!

Jesus said NO to Peter, to people and to pressures of what everyone wanted him to do.

Often people come and want me to do the next thing on their agenda. They want to offload the problem they are carrying, onto me. That’s why:

I never answer calls from numbers I don’t recognise.

I never use Facebook for ‘business’ stuff, don’t message me – email it

I never have had an answerphone, and I will never use Voice Mail. Really? Yes! It’s awesome. An answerphone is like leaving the front door open and inviting anyone who wants to, to come and use your toilet. They make the mess and the smell and leave something, and you have to clear it up. If anyone needs me, call me. If I don’t answer it’s because I’m busy right now, you can call back or text me or email me or ring the office. Everyone knows that, they don’t need to be told. But I don’t want to spend ages calling people back or chasing their priorities. They feel glad they dumped it, now I have to flush?

The question I want to ask is ‘Am I really the person this person needs?’ Before you commit to any time consuming activity, ask yourself, and ask God, “Is this the very best use of my time?” And “Am I the very best person to do this? Otherwise you will find yourself procrastinating because of lack of passion for the task, instead of enjoying what you do – it will be a grind. Because people pleasing always leads to you spending more and more time on tasks of low or no value.

Years ago I heard Andy Stanley at one of the early Catalyst talks and he was juggling while he was speaking. He said ‘I can do three.. I can even do tricks with three..’ (I thought, so can I. At least I am as goo as you at one thing!)

Then he tried to do four, and dropped them all. He said ‘I can do three, but I can’t do four..’ Then he gave me a life lesson I hope to never forget, and I remind myself every week when juggling pressures and priorities:

‘Only Do What Only You Can Do.’

I know it’s unrealistic, I know there will always be more to juggle, but let some of them drop so someone else can pick them up, and keep asking ‘What is it that only I can do?’

At times the answer will be ‘Only you can be your son’s Dad at sports day.’ If you are not, someone else may fill that role when you get divorced. Then how important will that report be? Be FULLY OFF! Too often the people who love us most end up paying the price when we focus most on what matters least.

At times the answer will be, ‘Only you can work on the talk that will sum up and lead your church, business or organisation to its next bold move into the future.’ If you don’t, it won’t – and one day you may watch someone else take over the reigns as you get sidelined. Be FULLY ON!


This week, what will you do to make the distinction between a PRIORITY and a POSTERIORITY?

Priority – something front and centre you should do more and more, as soon and as much as possible.

Posteriority – something you should do less of, if at all, or later.

I can’t help you make those decisions. But I know a God who can. Listen to him, focus on the priorities Father sets for you, and be fully on, and fully off.