Review: The One-Life Solution

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

one lifeA few weeks ago, I went out to breakfast with a big group. Most of us were engaged in great conversations about blogging and, frankly, Iowa media gossip, but a few people were pretty noticeably withdrawn from the discussion. They were busy checking their Blackberries every five minutes, putting them down and seeming to pay attention, then picking up that Blackberry again.

When the person next to me pulled out his Blackberry for the sixth or seventh time, I asked him if he was expecting something important. “Oh, no, just a crazy start to the day at the office,” he said as his thumbs scrolled through a document. “Shouldn’t you maybe slip out and go put out the fire?” I asked him. “Oh, no, I’d rather be here chatting with you guys,” he said.

Was his statement true? On some level, he might have felt that way, but when he pulled out his Blackberry yet again just a few minutes later, it was clear that both his heart and his mind were already in the office.

Where’s the divide between professional life and personal life for this person? It’s obvious, based on his use of the Blackberry at a breakfast with friends, that the divide is pretty blurry, if there is one at all. That blurring leads to a life that is truly centered around work – and over a long period, often leads to burnout and disenchantment with all of life.

The One-Life Solution, by Dr. Henry Cloud, focuses on this very problem, one that seems incredibly prevalent in modern life. How do we have a successful career without it completely dominating every aspect of our lives? Let’s dig in and see what Cloud has to say.

Identifying the Problem – and the Solution
Cloud gets right to the point. The reason many people find that their personal lives are being overrun by their careers is that they fail to set boundaries between their work and their personal lives. Boundaries create structure within your life, enabling you to firmly separate the professional and personal aspects of your life. Cloud argues that people who fail to create these boundaries are lacking an internal core that gives them the strength to simply put their foot down on issues of personal-professional separation.

Your Vision and Your Boundaries
On some level, people want to be wanted, but when that’s coupled with an inability to set boundaries, it often results in one’s professional life dominating their entire life. Boundaries include six key elements: ownership (who’s running the show), control (who can set the limits), freedom (how much or how little energy one can devote to something), responsibility (who faces the consequences of failure), limits (when and where does a certain part of life begin and end), and protection (disallowing negatives from one part of life to intrude on another part). Most of us struggle with one or more pieces of this puzzle most of the time.

Structure and Boundaries
You are a distinct person. You have your own wants and needs that are completely separate from the needs and wants of everyone else. Boundary issues usually occur when you allow the needs and wants of others to supersede your own wants and needs. For example, you need a certain amount of uninterrupted time each day to focus on your personal needs and interests. When you allow that time to be interrupted because a colleague wants you to do something, you’re giving up much more than a few hours. You’re showing that you’re willing to sacrifice your needs for their wants – a sure sign that you’re not standing up for yourself.

Reclaiming Your Power
So, how do you fix the problem? It’s not as hard as you might think, actually. The first step is to simply take inventory of your life and figure out the areas where you’re failing to set up boundaries. Are you accepting projects that are poorly defined? Are you allowing work projects to interrupt the time you spend with family? Are you incapable of saying “no”? Do you feel guilt about things potentially left undone? Try to identify what is compelling you to violate the barriers you want in your life.

The Audit
Once you start to figure out what exactly is wrong, take an audit of your life. Be mindful and look for the situations where you find yourself falling prey to violating the separation you want. Who is causing you to break these barriers? What projects are causing the problems, and why? Study your own life carefully and look for the patterns. One good way of doing this is by keeping a detailed time diary for a month or two, detailing what you’re doing every fifteen minutes or half hour of every single day.

The Laws of Boundaries
It’s very difficult to give up the patterns of life that leave you with little true personal time. Here, Cloud offers some tough encouragement to make some changes. The piece of the chapter that really hit home with me was the idea that you sow what you reap. One of the big reasons why I felt a need to draw a boundary between my personal life and my professional life was that I worried about becoming the father in the song Cats in the Cradle – a person who didn’t have enough time for my kids when they were young, only to find that they didn’t have enough time for me when they grew up. I then reflected on my own relationship with my parents, particularly with my mother – she always made plenty of time for me and now, as an adult, I love making time for her. She’s not just my mom, she’s one of my best friends, because I know she will always be there for me until she draws her last breath, and I, without hesitation, will be there for her. You sow what you reap.

You and Your Words
Quite often, when faced with situations where someone or something is trying to stretch out of its barriers, we know that we should say no, but our words undermine what we want. We find ourselves agreeing and then, later, we regret it desperately. Cloud walks through many common situations where this occurs, but the real underlying message here is to always ask for more information when you’re unsure and take time before giving your answer (so you can realize that you need to say no or at least set some limits on the commitment).

Make the “No-Choice” Choices First
What about the things that you simply can’t choose? I know a big handful of system administrators who are constantly on call for their job – if the servers go down at 2 AM, they get called and they go in to the office. For them, this is not a choice – it’s a requirement. Cloud argues that there is no aspect of professional life that is truly a “no choice.” In fact, he argues that any “requirement” that truly reduces the quality of your life should be discussed in detail in an attempt to find a better solution that doesn’t knock down barriers in your life.

Follow the Misery and Make a Rule
What if your job isn’t filled with strict requirements to fill your life, but it somehow seems to eat up all of your time? Quite often, there’s just a single root cause (or perhaps two). Spend some time evaluating why you let those walls break down. Track those influences down to their root cause. Is it a person who pushes too much? Is it a confluence of too many responsibilities? Dig down to that root cause, then develop a clear rule to handle it and give you the space you need – and make that rule clear to the people who may simply expect you to break it.

Time, Space, and E-Mail
With the prevalence of Blackberries and other such devices, many people carry their jobs along with them in their pocket. In many ways, it makes the work-life barrier very low – you can just pick up that device and check in on your work quite quickly, after all. My solution for this kind of problem is the same as Cloud’s: turn the device off and leave it somewhere where you can’t easily access it. If something is constantly breaking down your barriers, you need to avoid that thing. This ties directly into the need to focus on tasks – the best way to get something important done is to simply shut off all possible distractions. Close the email program. Turn off the phone. Shut the web browser. Then, focus on what you need to get done.

Getting Your Balance Sheet in Order
Here, Cloud connects all of this to personal finance. Many people put up with such issues at work and allow work to pervade their personal life because they simply cannot afford to lose the job. If they say “no,” they’re worried the boss will simply find someone who will say “yes” and you’ll be jobless. This is a brilliant argument for sound financial planning. You should always have a strong emergency fund to help protect you against job loss. Living below your means at all times is simply a strong tactic, all around – your boss then loses that bit of financial leverage over you.

End Some Things Now
If there is a long term negative in the workplace – an uncooperative employee, an inscrutable task – that does nothing more than bring down everyone that is involved with it, it’s vital that some sort of resolution is reached as soon as possible. Negatives that don’t seem to ever be going away do nothing more than bring you down and likely bring others down as well. Address it now, not later.

Communicating Your Boundaries
One final stumbling block: how do you make it clear to others what your boundaries are without creating additional problems? This is difficult for nearly everyone. The best approach is to explain things calmly – don’t get angry or aggressive, but state things clearly and firmly. Remember, no aspect of your life should ever have absolute dominion over your whole life. In the end, you get what you tolerate.

Is The One-Life Solution Worth Reading?
Some people have a natural knack for feeling completely in control of their life. For others, it’s not quite so easy, and their personal boundaries seem to get trampled over and over again. If you find yourself in that latter camp, The One-Life Solution is an excellent read. It’s thorough, detailed, and insightful – you will wind up with a lot of food for thought and a lot of tactics to use to handle your situation.

If anything, The One-Life Solution is a bit too broad. Cloud gets into specifics with many workplace and life-boundary issues, but so many different scenarios are addressed that the book sometimes feels unfocused. If you’re looking for solutions for a specific problem, there are large swaths of the book that can be skimmed.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of great advice between the covers here.