Over the past two years with almost every Executive I coach and every audience I speak to, I hear that the aspiration for work-life balance is dead. It was killed by technology. What's weird is that this fact is often presented with some chest beating...as if to say...work-life balance was for wimps all along...people with a serious work ethic never worry about work-life balance.
I guess so. Sheryl Sandberg the guru of "Leaning In" to work writes, "The days of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone." Way to go Sheryl...sounds awesome.
Yet sadly, I find she is not kidding.
Ten years ago, even the CEOs I coached had most weekends and evenings free of direct work, such as conference calls and decision-making meetings. That's certainly not true today. Today leaders are lucky to get a half of a Saturday or a half of a Sunday free of stressful meetings or real-time emails where decisions are being made.
And free evenings...yeah, that's a relic from an earlier age. Today most people go home and spend at least two more hours on the computer working. This new work routine is not confined to leaders. The combination of technology and massive projects is increasingly engaging managers and individual contributors in a trail of work that slithers through our lives like a hungry python night and day.
Is this it? Is this the best we can do? Is this the crowning achievement of our economy...that we all live work-centered lives?
If so, what is the cost?
Well, according to marriage experts at the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, what we are sacrificing is our love lives.
I don't mean just less sex, although it's true that super busy, stressed out couples enjoy sex together less frequently and do so much more quickly. For many couples, sex is something they do on vacation. Yet working Americans take less vacations every year. Hmmm.
But again, I'm not just talking about the physical side of love. The biggest toll a work-centered life is having on us is increased feelings of social isolation and a lack of intrinsic connection with our loved ones.
When we get too busy, love devolves into a concept rather than a feeling.
In this state of mind, we recognize that we love our romantic partners and children, but we just don't feel that love. We could write down on a yellow pad all the reasons we love our loved ones but we just don't feel it. All words, but no music.
Having the emotions of love evaporate from our lives is a ridiculous price to pay for work. A recent survey of 1,500 people over the age of 78 asking them what their biggest life regret was overwhelmingly confirmed it was one thing...staying too long in a job that was unfulfilling.
We also know that the happiest and healthiest people on earth are actively in love. In the hundreds of studies done on the causes of human happiness we know there is no greater mood elevator than being "crazy in love."
We all know how goony people get when people fall in love. The thrill of emotional intimacy with someone you find fascinating, attractive, and admirable sets off a brain circus of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin that gives you a feeling of optimism, well-being, and invincible confidence that is simply the best brain buzz ever.
The problem is this love fog does not last without continuous investment in the relationship similar to the investment you were willing to make when you were falling in love.
So, just what are the investments you can make to increase the love in your life?
First of all, you have to have an IPO! Stay with me. A few days ago, I was talking to two of my favorite clients, Brad and Sheryl, who own a very successful high-tech consultancy. I have known them for nearly two decades. They're married with three daughters and have always been crazy in love. What I mean by that is that they have an Irrational Positive Opinion (IPO) about each other.
When I talk to them separately, they're constantly bombarding me with how great the other one is. They refer to each other as brilliant and amazing. They brag about each other's accomplishments. Hell, it's like being married to a cheerleader.
So, are they really that great? Well no. They're like all the rest of us...full of good stuff and not such good stuff. But they're living proof of the research by John Gottman at the University of Washington that confirms that the happiest couples are those who hold an irrational positive opinion of each other. It turns out that when it comes to personal self-worth and interpersonal trust, we don't much value realists who point out our flaws and want us to change. That's something a coach can do. What we want from our romantic partner is for them to be "crazy" about us...literally irrational about our wonderfulness.
If you want to be happy in life and happy in your primary love relationship launch an IPO. And keep investing so the stock of your relationship continuously rises.
Here are four critical investments that research confirms will keep the flames and the feelings of love burning.
- Celebrate each other's successes. Research tells us that making a big deal of small successes creates more trust and intimacy than comforting people when they're struggling. The reason we think this is true is that amplifying good feelings has a bigger positive payoff than trying to reduce bad feelings.
Here is a silly but true example. I am an old dude surfer, and like all surfers we want to be admired for our surfing. I am quite sure that I am average for my age and experience, yet sometimes I get a good ride and some other surfer will give a hoot or say "nice wave." When I get home, I never fail to tell Debbie of my small success. She insists that I then tell her about the details of the wave, gives me a hug and a kiss and makes me feel like I'm the greatest surfer on earth. She clearly holds an irrational positive opinion about my surfing that jacks me up with enough dopamine and oxytocin that it makes me want to actually move the furniture around so she can see how the room would look with a new arrangement.
The key to celebrating each other's success is to ask for the details of what your partner actually did.That's what creates positive intimacy.
- Help when it's inconvenient. Talk is cheap, even love talk. A willingness to drop whatever you're doing to help your loved one communicates how important their agenda is to you. You don't have to do this one hundred percent of the time because sometimes what you were doing may greatly suffer from an interruption. However, if you're willing to instantly respond most of the time, your love stock will certainly rise. (It's also important to help with routine tasks to avoid causing simmering resentments. Only 20% of men are willing to do laundry and vacuuming regularly. So, if you want to be in the top 20% of male partners, you know what to do!)
- Plan positive experiences. Dating is all about planning positive experiences. We make careful choices about where we eat or what movies we see to make sure that our dating partner will be happy. We take great care in what we wear, how we smell, and what we say. However, when our relationship ripens we often approach going out together with a question..."So, what do you want to do?" This means you did very little thinking about your time together...not good.
Planned positive experiences are critical to fanning the flames of love. That's because we associate the positive feelings we get from the experience, like going to a sensational concert, or visiting a breathtaking National Park or exotic tropical island with the person we are with. New experiences also make us more interesting to each other. These experiences also create shared memories, which are strong positive bonds that sustain loving feelings when things get a little stale, dull, or frustrating.
- Love with your full presence every day. We know that the happiest couples spend at least 30 to 60 minutes a day in focused conversation with each other. I know...that may seem like an impossibly high bar. But consider its possibilities. The greatest longing of the human heart is to be fully accepted by another. The most powerful way that we communicate this is to listen to a loved one without an agenda for them. This is difficult. When I am talking to Debbie I often have to remind myself that I just want her to be happy in the way she experiences happiness. It's unnatural to listen without judgment. We justify having agendas for the people we love because we think we know how to help them...and sometimes we do. But remember our loved ones long for someone more than a coach. We all want to feel loved intrinsically. We want others to see our good and positive motives not just our less-than-perfect behavior.
The only way we can access the feelings of unconditional positive regard is to drop our agenda and just be present. Just listen with loving intention. All of this will be impossible unless you're willing to unplug from both your job and the torrent of mostly irrelevant media that bombards us daily. (New research validates that peoples' optimism and happiness rise when they quit Facebook or other Social Media Apps.) The primary reason seems to be that Facebook incites envy and social comparison causing an epidemic of inner emotional drama among Facebook users. If you think this doesn't apply to you try a week-long Facebook fast, and ask yourself if you're less stressed and a little more happy.
The bottom line is that love and intimacy take a daily investment of personal time. I'm convinced the good life is a combination of meaningful work performed at a reasonable rhythm that makes plenty of room for love-drenched relationships. No work success can substitute for love.