Secrets of the Work+Life Fit “Naturals”

This week, to celebrate “15 Years of Work+Life Fit”, I am sharing one of my favorite excerpts from my book, Tweak It.

Where we were: When I wrote Tweak It, I wanted to share what I learned studying the people I call the Work+Life Fit “Naturals”.  Individuals who just seemed to take control of how their work and life fit together without breaking a sweat while the rest of us struggle.

Where we are now: Since the book was published, I’ve watched countless people start to “tweak it” and unlock the power of small, intentional shifts in how, when and where they work and manage their lives.

Where we need to go: It’s not just about individuals “tweaking” their personal work+life fit, but teams, managers and leaders leveraging work flexibility, technology and workspace to find the optimal work+work fit that answers the question, “What do we need to get done and how, when and where do we do it best?”


Truth #5: We think we manage our work and life, but most of us don’t

I decided to start by unlocking the secrets of the people whom I call the work+life fit “naturals.” These are individuals who intuitively and naturally seem to know how to make what matters to them happen when everyone else around them flounders. They innately know how to fit all of the pieces together, often without breaking a sweat.

I’d categorize about 10 to 15 percent of the population as work+life fit naturals. You can identify them two ways:

  • Their coworkers point them out by saying something like “You should talk to Diane. She always seems to have this work+life fit thing all figured out. She’s got three kids, her husband works, she’s training for a marathon, and she’s always happy. Seriously, I’m not sure she’s human.”
  • Naturals will often approach me either before or after an event and say, “I’m sorry, please don’t be offended, but why are you here? Isn’t this information all pretty straightforward? Doesn’t everyone do it?” For them, it’s as if someone held a meeting to explain how you get out of bed in the morning and brush your teeth. They are genuinely perplexed as to why people need a step-by-step explanation about something that seems so obvious.

For naturals, managing their lives on and off the job is in their DNA. And they have a lot to teach the rest of us.

One of my most memorable encounters with a work+life fit natural almost ended in disaster. A couple of years ago I spoke to a group of six hundred junior-level accountants at one of the Big Four professional services firms. The senior managing partner who was going to introduce me came up at the cocktail party before the speech, shook my hand, and said, “It’s so nice to meet you, but I don’t understand why you are here.” (My radar went off immediately)

He began to explain how he was a rabid Penn State football fan, and when he was a junior-level accountant he made it clear that during football season, “I go to all of the weekend games. I would talk to the scheduler on Monday morning and explain how I needed to be off on Saturday. He or she would then give me extra work during the week, especially in busy season, so I could be at the game. It worked out fine. I don’t understand why this is so hard.” I gently pointed out to him, “Well, you are what I call a work+life fit natural. Making small, ongoing tweaks in your work and life seems obvious to you. I can guarantee that most of these six hundred junior accountants in the room tonight don’t have any idea how to do it.” I could tell he thought I was nuts. He politely shook my hand and walked away. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to hear his introduction.

We filed into the auditorium, and the senior managing partner bounded onto the stage. He began, “To be honest, I didn’t have any idea why we hired our speaker to present to you tonight. It’s always been pretty clear to me how to flexibly manage the things you have to do at work with what you want to do in your life outside of work. And I guess until tonight I just assumed everyone else did, too. But I spent some time talking with many of you earlier, and you don’t have a clue! So, thank goodness she’s here to set you straight. And with that, let me introduce Cali Williams Yost …”

In my search to unlock their secrets, I’d ask any work+life fit natural I met how they did it. Over time, I began to see a pattern. There were a few simple steps most of the naturals followed without being conscious of it. These steps became the Tweak It Practice.

Once I understood the steps that were intuitive to the naturals, I realized they were almost completely missing from the routines of everyone else. Yet, when I’d point this out, I’d get a surprising amount of denial and pushback in return: “But, Cali, I swear I’m already actively managing my everyday work+life fit, and it’s still not working.” After I heard this enough times, I realized that most of us genuinely believe that we actively manage our everyday work+life fit, even if we don’t. Perception doesn’t match reality. But how do you motivate people to learn a new practice that will give them what they crave when they think that they’re already doing it?

I decided that I needed proof. I started to ask people scheduled to attend one of my presentations to complete a brief presession survey. In total, 242 full-time working adults who attended eight different presentations answered the questions. Across industries and groups, their responses were basically the same. Here’s a summary:

  • A majority of the respondents genuinely believe that they actively manage their everyday work and life on a regular basis. Seventy-five percent agreed that “on average, I actively manage my work and personal responsibilities and goals daily or weekly.”

But as they answered the next questions, the gap between perception and the reality began to show:

  • Only 40 percent agreed that “I always keep a calendar with all of my personal and work to-dos and goals in one place.” Most didn’t have a clear snapshot of their work and personal activities and priorities in one I lace, which is critical for making good decisions.
  • Twenty-six percent agreed that “On average, I set time aside daily or weekly to check in with myself and answer the question, ‘What do I want?” In other words, less than a third regularly reflected on what mattered to them. You can’t take action without knowing what you want. And finally …
  • Only 15 percent said, “When I see a mismatch between what I want in my work+life fit and what’s happening I make adjustments, always.” Only 15 percent, or very few, said they took control and added what was missing and stopped what wasn’t working. Interestingly, this percentage matches my estimate of the number of work+life fit naturals in the population.

No wonder most of us often feel like corks bobbing on a sea of everyday chaos. In all fairness, no one trains us to manage our work and our Iives. And many of us keep waiting for someone else—someone outside or above us—to tell us what to do.

According to our national study of full-time employees in the United States, the 2011 Work+Life Fit Reality Check, 73 percent of respondents said they still believe that “work/ life flexibility is only possible if my employer and/or boss provides it.”

That’s an example of obsolete thinking in action. You can’t wait. My purpose in this book is to teach you how to take control and make what matters to you happen, personally and professionally. Because, if not you, then who? Honestly, the answer is no one.

I’d decoded the secrets of the work+life fit naturals, and the Tweak It Practice was born. Now I had to test it. The response was more than I could have imagined.