How to achieve a work life balance (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here

This is an edited extract from How to Lead: The second edition of Leadership for Learning by Matt Bromley, published by Spark Books UK and available in paperback and ebook.



When I wrote the first edition of Leadership for Learning in 2010, I argued that switching off from work was not only good for your health but also crucial to increasing your effectiveness as a leader.

I said that working unsocial hours and depriving yourself of a life outside of school was a measure of ineffectiveness because a good school leader should be able to manage his or her time effectively.

Enjoying a life outside of work, I added, expands your life experiences and increases your frame of reference.

Since I wrote that chapter, new research has emerged which suggests that striking a work life balance is not only heathy, it also improves your thinking skills and creativity.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about ‘sharpening the saw’. If you spend the whole day sawing wood but don’t find time to sharpen your saw, Covey says, then your work will suffer. In other words, as leaders we need to take care of our most vital leadership resources: our physical, social, and mental wellbeing, because it is these resources that enable us to be energetic, enthusiastic, hopeful and kind.

The German car manufacturer Volkswagen has taken dramatic steps to promote a healthy work life balance and ensure its workers ‘sharpen the saw’. They now block emails after office hours – they shut the servers so no one can send or receive emails in the evenings and at weekends – and only open them up again, thus releasing to workers’ inboxes any external emails that were sent during ‘lockdown’, at the start of the next working day.

What downtime allows us to do is incubate ideas. When we switch off from work, our mind steps back from doing and is allowed to reflect and think – often subconsciously and in the background.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied the most creatively prolific people in a variety of fields and he found that everyone he interviewed described the same five-stage process, namely:

1. Research
2. Incubation
3. Insight and ideation
4. Evaluation
5. Elaboration

The most productive and creative people, Csikszentmihalyi concluded, began by conducting research, working out what questions to ask, developing an understanding of the background to those questions. Then they made time for ‘incubation’ – they stepped away from the problem that occupied the space at the front of their minds and allowed it to push back into their subconscious whilst they worked on something else.

Many leaders who juggle various projects or problems at any one time – and that invariably means all school leaders – find that incubation takes place naturally because if they switch to a different project or switch off from work, they incubate the project or problem they were just working on.

The third stage is a period of insight – the lightbulb moment. Sometimes when leaders have placed ideas into incubation by switching off, something clicks in their subconscious and everything comes together naturally and this pulls them out of incubation and into insight. Other times, leaders have to force ideas out of incubation and into insight. They do this through ideation – such as brainstorming. Even if ideation has to be forced, the research suggests that leaders have more and better ideas when they’ve had a period of incubation.

Incubation doesn’t have to take place over weeks or even days. In fact, ideas can incubate in as little as five minutes or during a short walk.

According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, the next stages after insight are evaluation followed by elaboration. First, leaders assess the validity and quality of their insights – are the solutions they’ve come up with any good? Will they work in practice? Are they achievable? Elaboration, the final stage, is the process of putting a solution into practice, trying it out for real.

The most crucial stage is incubation for this is where ideas are created and shaped. But if you don’t find time to switch off and think actively, if you never step away from your work emails, for example, because you have a smart phone that follows you everywhere and allows emails to intrude into your every waking moment, then you’ll never be able to incubate properly. This is why you shouldn’t take your work home with you – or at least not every evening and weekend. It’s why you should draw some boundaries and make some time for you and for other interests. Exercise is a great way to kickstart the incubation period, as is socialising with family and friends.

Making a change to your daily routines is always difficult and if you set yourself a goal that’s unrealistic, it simply won’t happy.

This is why you shouldn’t – if you’re a workaholic who never switches off – attempt to make a sweeping change such as vowing never to take work home with you or committing to blocking all work emails between the hours of 6pm and 8am the following day.

What you need to do, if you are to make a change that you stick to and that works, is develop ‘micro-goals’…

Micro-goals, sometimes called mini-habits, are routines with a small, simple goal. For example, rather than committing to read a novel every week, you commit to read two pages of a book every evening before bedtime. Rather than promising yourself you’ll cut out caffeinated drinks, you promise to replace one cup of coffee a day with a glass of water.

Although micro-goals might seem pointless, the very fact that they are realistic and achievable is what makes them powerful. You need very little willpower to meet a micro-goal and so your chances of succeeding are vastly improved, and the chances of failure are negligible.

Psychologically, micro-goals afford you the daily feeling of success, and this affirmation is crucial if you are to embed a new routine.

So how do micro-goals work in practice?

First, you must choose the right habits to form. Your micro-goal must be related to something you really want to achieve and that you know will improve your lifestyle or effectiveness. For example, if you want to learn a foreign language, you should set a micro-goal of learning one new word a day.

Second, you must create ‘cues’. A cue is a feeling or an action that reminds you to meet your micro-goal. For example, every time you clean your teeth, you learn a new word. That ensures you set a fixed time of the day to work towards your micro-goal and your brain connects the act of cleaning your teeth with the act of learning a new word. The two soon become inextricably linked and the chances of you forgetting to learn a word or deciding that today is not the day to do so, are greatly reduced if not eradicated altogether.

Third, you need to track how well you’re doing against your micro-goal. You do this by reflecting on your daily achievements – did you succeed? What did you achieve? How does it feel? How has it enriched your life? Conducting a short self-evaluation of this nature will help you stick to your new routine and give you a sense of reward and recognition. It will also encourage you to commit to a second then a third micro-goal.

So follow the evidence and ensure you find time every day to switch off from work, to distance yourself from emails, and allow ideas to incubate, thus improving your productivity and creativity. Commit to small goals every day that enable you to develop these new routines – such as switching your mobile phone off for half an hour every evening, then for an hour, then turning off all email notifications between the hours of 7pm and 7am. With small steps you will walk a marathon; with each little victory you will win a battle and then the war.

Try it today.

Read more about successful school leadership in How to Lead: The second edition of Leadership for Learning – available now in paperback and ebook.

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