The myth of work-life balance and the 5 steps to getting it right for yourself

Published by Peter on

A client said one of her goals was better work-life balance. When I asked her what she thought might help, she immediately said, “I need to get more disciplined in managing my time outside work. Maybe blocking time on a calendar will help me get more done.”

While it seems logical that better time management might be a solution, I was struck by the absurdity of the idea that adding another task to the overloaded side of her life will somehow make her life overall less overloaded.

It’s like a joke sign I saw on someone’s desk once: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Guess who’s applying the beatings in my client’s case?

This irrational logic is at the heart of how we typically approach “work-life balance.” When one side of the scales is overloaded, it’s ridiculous to think that adding even more to the overloaded side will bring the whole thing into balance.

Work is one aspect of our lives. Our lives include dozens of profoundly meaningful other aspects, including (perhaps) marriage, children, family, caregiving for a loved one, homeownership, health and fitness, creating art, outdoor recreation, etc.

Balance in this scenario is a myth.

Why do we pursue work-life balance, anyway?

A Google search of “work-life balance” just now gave me 3.6 BILLION hits. (Full disclosure: I did not read all of those pages before writing this post.) According to various sites, the term “work life balance” first showed up significantly in the early 1980s, when the women’s liberation movement began arguing for maternity leave and flexible work schedules for mothers.

Today, we use the term as a proxy for the conditions that lead to employee burnout and work stress. Workplaces and companies try to address the “work” side of this imbalance by all the things that I have championed as an employee engagement expert: empathy training for management, coaching and mental health support for workers, team-building through community involvement, etc. Although a few companies have gone to a four-day workweek, most of the corporate “solutions” to burnout and stress add up to “we care about you as a whole person, but nothing significant is changing in the workplace, so idk, maybe a mental health day?”

The “Job” vs “Career” question we mostly ignore

A fundamental question for each of us should be, what role do we want work to play in our lives? Work is just one aspect of life, as are marriage, home ownership, parenting, health and fitness, caregiving, even pet ownership. Each of these gives us some amount of benefit, while also requiring some commitment of time and energy.

Rarely do we think intentionally and in depth about how we want to blend all these things, and the role each plays in our lives. Instead, we focus on “work-life balance” and end up in a constant state of trying to juggle them all at once, which leads to stress, disappointment, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and resentment.

For many of us, work should be seen as simply a job, just one of many things in our balanced lives, and we should design our lives to have it play its proper role. Others have ambitious career goals that should loom larger in their lives, and their task will be figuring out how to design a life that accommodates that.

Side note: I realize I am writing this post from a position of privilege, and that many people simply don’t have as many options due to circumstances they have no control over. If you are in such a place, I hope you can still find value in this post.

Building the life you want

We all make many life decisions every day. Cook in or eat out? Coffee with a friend or weed the garden? Read that book or go for a walk? Take on that new project at work or sign up for that yoga class? We simply don’t have enough time or money for everything.

Yet the decisions we make and how we make them affect how we feel about ourselves and our lives.

So how can you make the right daily decisions that lead you closer to the life you want? It’s not complicated, though it requires some hard work and deep introspection. (And yes, you might benefit from coaching to get you there.)

I believe there are five steps to this:

  1. Articulate your three core values.
    These are your core values, not the values that society, your parents, corporate advertisers, or anyone else says you should have. You can find lots of ways to get to your three most important values; I have a method I like to use with my clients, but any method that gets you to the truth is fine. (And yes, three is a magic number. Fight me.)
  2. Write out how you think you currently spend your time.
    I am not telling you to record your daily schedule to the minute (unless that’s useful for you and you want to). I’m saying to list all the major things in your life—family, work (include commute), each of your important hobbies, caregiving, home upkeep—anything that you either spend a lot of time on or which you feel is important, and then put down some measure of how much of your life you spend on that thing. However you measure it, be consistent. Percentages, hours, days, whatever. Also, there’s no limit to the number of things you can claim as important. (I’m working on a tool for this, but again: the method is less important than the result. It’s not magic. You can do it on your own.)
  3. Write out how you want to spend your time.
    Take the same list of things you wrote in step two above, and write down the amount of time you would like to be spending on those things, keeping in mind the core values you came up with in step one. This is going to be really hard because to get to the right destination, you have to really understand your core values, the things you want for yourself, external pressures and limiting factors, and how all those things affect your opportunity. You don’t want to undercut yourself, but you also don’t want to have your head so high in the clouds that your goals are totally unreachable. (This is definitely where coaching can help.)
  4. Identify your priority areas
    Now compare the lists you made in steps 2 and 3. If they match exactly, congratulations! You are already living your happiest life! (Which apparently includes reading this post.) If you’re like me, though, there are always differences. Note the biggest and most important areas for change. Here is where you decide if your constant unmet promise to yourself to “spend more time with family” or “exercise more” actually really matters to you in the big picture of your life. How can you start moving any of those things in the right directions?
  5. Get busy living, or get busy… staying where you are
    Start doing the things that will move you in the right direction. It might be a 3, 5, or even 10 year plan. It might require you to cut things out of your life you’ve been told by others should be important. It could mean investing in going back to school, changing jobs, moving somewhere else, getting a dog, I don’t know. Some things aren’t possible to change (like wanting to “have two kids” when you already have three). Other things are well within your reach. And letting go of how it is today takes courage, strength, determination, and an unwavering confidence that you did step one right.

DIY happiness (help is available)

A lot of us use the IKEA approach to happiness: we order it online and assemble it ourselves. Some of us already have all the right tools and the skills to get there. But some of us like to hire a handyperson to help deliver and assemble it, or we just don’t have the tools or skills needed to get the best result.

Unlike prefab furniture, though, our lives are all unique. There is no one size fits all approach (more on that in a future blog post), and if you want the best results you should work with experts who have relevant experience and a broad perspective that can help you design the life you’re looking for.

Ultimately, you are in charge of designing the life that is right for you. You’re the one who’s going to have to live it, after all. Only you can truly say where and how work fits into your life. As so many people are discovering during this “great reshuffle,” what society and business schools and advertisers and previous generations have told us are most important, really may not be that important at all to us.

Looking at our lives through the lens of “work-life balance” is like trying to navigate an oil tanker up a small river. If you want to get up the river, get a different boat. If you want to drive an oil tanker, go out on the ocean. (Okay, probably not a perfect analogy. But you have read this far, so I’m claiming it a win.)

If any of this rings true or you want some help working out what your life should look like going forward, please set up a quick call with me, no strings attached. I have many clients who are in the “what’s next” stage—early career, mid career, approaching retirement, thinking about relationships or big moves—and it is incredibly rewarding to help them figure out how to make their best decisions, and then see how happy they are after making those decisions. I’d love to help you, too.


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