April 23, 2019

Work-life balance sounds simple until you really think about it—at which point it begins to feel impossible. Or, at least hard to fully grasp.

What is balance, you wonder, as you sprint from a dentist appointment to a meeting with your boss.

How do I know if I’m balanced?

Why does everyone else look balanced while I tilt from side to side?

To me, at least, work-life balance feels more like a constant rejiggering and recalibrating—a sometimes-desperate attempt to keep everything afloat until the seas calm back down.

I was never sure how to put this into words until I came across an excerpt from lawyer and politician Stacey Abrams’ new book, Lead From The Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change.

"In Work-Life Jenga, the expectation is not one of balance; it’s one of strategy and of making the best of each move, one block at a time.”
- Stacey Abrams
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She writes:

“I reject the idea of work-life balance. Instead, I believe in Work-Life Jenga. You know, the game where you stack up these seemingly equal-size blocks to form a perfect tower and then proceed to pull them out one by one, restacking as you go along. The goal is to make as many moves as possible without destroying the tower, even as it sways and lists. So too, in Work-Life Jenga, the expectation is not one of balance; it’s one of strategy and of making the best of each move, one block at a time.”


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That’s it, I thought as I read it. The stacking and restacking, the hasty moves—that, to me, is what it’s like to manage a full plate of work, friends, family, hobbies and a personal life.

Of course, recognizing the game for what it is is just one piece of the (Jenga-shaped) puzzle. Moving one block at a time requires skill and an ability to step back and see the bigger picture, before it all comes crashing down.

Just as learning to plan the game takes some trial and error, so does mastering work-life Jenga. Abrams makes it happen by dividing her tasks into four categories—Gotta Do, Need to Do, Oughta Do, and Might Get Around To—then reacting accordingly.

Regardless of your politics, it’s a solid strategy for anyone navigating a busy schedule. Here’s how to put it into action.

Gotta Do

Does it have to happen? And does it have to happen right this very minute? Then you just Gotta Do it.

Remember that life throws curveballs every once in a while, and it’s OK to react. You can always get back to your plan the next day.
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These are the urgent blocks, the ones you have to yank and place into position before you tackle anything else. “Sometimes, the only block you can choose is the one right in front of you,” Abrams writes.

These are the trips to visit friends in the hospital, the next-day job interviews, and the last-minute birthday gift you have to run and purchase. Remember that life throws curveballs every once in a while, and it’s OK to react. You can always get back to your plan the next day.

Need to Do

If something is necessary but not particularly urgent, consider it a Need to Do. You’ll have to get around to it eventually, and you’re more than welcome to do it now if nothing takes precedence, but your tower won’t collapse if it waits a few days.

Just don’t forget to make them happen. “Whether it’s family, friends, projects or personal time, give yourself permission to invest early in the items that need to happen because they will impact your ability to keep your options open,” Abrams writes. “Like a savings account, we can build up a reserve of goodwill and accomplishments, something we can dip into later.”

"Give yourself permission to invest early in the items that need to happen because they will impact your ability to keep your options open.”
- Stacey Abrams
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Oughta Do

Oughta Do tasks are urgent—to someone else. They’re the kind of thing that could make a difference to a friend or coworker, but could also derail whatever you have going on.

“In every organization and nearly every family, someone dominates in the urgent but not important category,” Abrams writes. “Their strident demands or sheepish apologies have the same effect, that of diverting you from your objectives to answer their needs. By appraising your priorities, you can assess whether meeting an urgent request is necessary or can be delegated."

Abrams' advice: Whenenver possible, delegate the Oughta Do. If you can't, then ask yourself a few questions: Do you want to do whatever is asked of you? Do you have something else you Need to Do instead? And would whoever’s asking do they same for you?

Once you’ve got your answer, feel free to make your move.

Might Get Around To

“Might Get Around To is exactly what it sounds like,” Abrams writes. “The least relevant demands on our time are the ones that are not important and not urgent. These requests do not advance your interests, and there’s no reason to deal with them now.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do them. The things you Might Get Around To can be fun, or a nice distraction from the more urgent tasks on your plate. But that shouldn’t detract from what you have to do. These are the blocks that would be nice to move, but aren’t essential to keep the tower standing.

As with the game of Jenga, a willingness to adapt and revise is pretty much essential. And if it feels like your blocks have all come crashing down? Take a deep breath and remember that you can always start over again.


Read next: Work-Life Balance Is a Myth—Aim for Alignment Instead

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