Managing work-life creep

Fun fact. The notion of ‘work life balance’ was first proposed by a renegade called Robert Owen. Can you guess when?


Owen’s famous phrase was “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest” neatly dividing the day into work time, play time and rest time.

While the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says we are pretty much on par with this sage suggestion across most industries (summary here, thanks ‘lifehacker’), there are some jobs such as school principals, crop farmers, surgeons and miners that are clocking up more than the average.

While the Lifehacker article also indicates middle and upper managers are also pretty busy too I’d say at a pinch (judging from my personal survey of myself and everyone I speak with every week) that other people have big work days too.

The moral of this part of the story is that we’ve been trying to get work/life balance right for OVER TWO HUNDRED YEARS and it is still a rod for our backs.

The work/life balance nugget flogs us (particularly working mums — sorry dads) at every angle.

Don’t spend enough time with the kids and you feel like the worst parent in the world. Spend too much time with them and your work starts to suffer (and they think you’re weird — particularly as they move into tweenhood).

Not available to attend an in person and not urgent meeting at school because you’re doing something important and not sitting by the phone in case the school needs you to tick a box? Prepare yourself for eye rolls by both admin and teaching staff alike when you finally get there, you’re on the ‘bad mum’ list. (side note on that one, don’t bother trying to tell the school principal that mum’s work these days and she should consider putting more money into career education rather than attendance measurement — apparently that doesn’t go down well).

People will TELL you to look after yourself but forget that if you don’t help the kids with homework, cook dinner, scrape the worst of the mess off the floor and hide the rest in the time you should be doing a Pilates class you’re going to have to do that around 1am anyway.

If you have children under the age of 25 and have somehow found a way for that illusive ‘you’ time I applaud you. Now go and read someone else’s blog, we are living in paradigms that may never overlap.

Come on ! I don’t know about you but I’ve got other things to feel guilty about.

Work life creep

The thing that has my attention is not work/life balance. Now I know that everyone is likely to have an opinion on how I balance out my work and life, and I no longer care, I have something more important to monitor and that’s… work/life creep.

Work/life creep as it suggests is how much your work life and private life blend into one another. Certainly some degree of overlap is imminent…

A family member not well? Moving house? Going through a break up? Of course that’s going to creep into your working life.

and similarly

On a pointy deadline, working on a career defining moment, just about to close a deal? That’s likely to creep on over into your personal life.

It’s not the out of the ordinary that’s the problem, it’s the business as usual and the habits that are built around it.

The creep can sneak up on you. What starts out as a once off, or a great way to start a role can very quickly turn into business as usual. You may even tell yourself that you like answering emails in the night because it gives you a headstart on the next day — and maybe that’s true.

At peak busy times I know I’ve almost snapped as people contacted me via email, SMS, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram messages, on social media posts and often phone calls as well. It’s simply un-managable and when there isn’t budget for additional support rules have to be created or the creep will become embedded.

I’ve had some very simple rules over the past decade.

(1) I don’t do breakfast meetings. And ideally my first commitment doesn’t happen until 1030am (because with 3 kids mornings can easily derail). I could count a few I’ve attended in the last decade but no more than a handful. Mornings are MINE for walking, caring for my kids and getting them to where they need to go. Now they are a bit bigger this is where I fit my walks, writing for pleasure or doing work that needs my focus. This is not time for other people to barge in.

(2) I say no to most evening event invitations. Evenings, at least until dinner time is mine. I relax as I cook, tidy a few things or run the kids to sports (again a little different now they are bigger). The early evening is now mine. I enjoy this time of day and learning different ways to unwind after the day.

(3) I take holidays far away from home and if possible without phone reception.

In exchange for all of this I’m available digitally most of the time. Yep, 24/7. Sometimes this is a bit exhausting (duh!) but when I’m really tired I just put my phone down.

Managing work/life creep will be different for everyone. Here are some questions to guide you as you manage yours:

  • Is there any rhythm to your working day? Is this OK or would you like to change?
  • When was the last time you measured your average working week? Perhaps it’s time to measure over a few weeks.
  • What is the first thing you do every morning? If this is the most precious thing you do every day are you using the time wisely?
  • How do you unwind in the evening? Do you have a few choices here?
  • How often do you go tech free?
  • How many hours are you working on weekends on average?
  • Do you have time to exercise?
  • When was the last time you had (by your description) some meaningful time with your kids?
  • Is there something niggling at you that’s YOUR voice, not someone else’s that’s telling you things need to change?
  • Do you feel like you have enough time for work and for family?
  • What rules can you put in place to manage your work / life creep?

Above all get to know the signs that tell you something is out of whack for you. Are you drinking too much or working too hard to ignore something at home? Or are you coming in late and staying at home to ignore something at work? Know your signs and when something doesn’t feel right jump on it otherwise prepare for 24/7 work/life creep.

“The days are long but the years are short” Gretchen Rubin.

Best wishes to you,

Kerry Grace

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