A career, marriage, kids, *and* fulfillment? The new buzzword “work-life balance” has us believing that we can have it all.
As companies become more aware of the dangers of chronic stress, and scientists are better articulating the relationship between purpose, happiness, and productivity, there seems to be a growing sensitivity to holistic wellness.
Is America experiencing a shift?
Will we start to value the attentive father over the absent workaholic?
Author and speaker Nigel Marsh says no. “People talk so much rubbish about work-life balance. All the discussions about flexi-time or dress-down Fridays or paternity leave only serve to mask the core issue.”
The core issue is this: “work” and “life” aren’t compatible. At least not in the way we currently define them.
Our success-obsessed society doesn’t value fulfillment or self-actualization. Those aren’t quantitative enough. Our corporate employers, Marsh says, “are inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with… It’s in their DNA.” But you don’t have to be duped.
You can resist. “Work creep” and the “spillover effect” don’t have to be your “new normal.” The “work-life balance” buzzword is a fallacy.
It’s not a balance. It’s a fight. And here’s how to throw the right punches.
Don’t Be Erin Callan
In a heartbreaking op-ed in the New York Times, former CFO of the Lehman Brothers, Erin Callan confessed that yes, she was powerful, rich, and breaking the eff outta that glass ceiling. But even though she had a spouse, friends, and family, “none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over.”
I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success. But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme… I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life.
So, how do you avoid Callan syndrome? Face your reality. Before we try to change anything, we need to ask ourselves: What does our work/life relationship look like now?
Acknowledge Your Reality
The first step is to ask ourselves: why do we work? Author and speaker Nigel Marsh tells it straight. In his Ted Talk he puts it like this:
The reality of the society that we’re in is there are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.
Is that you? There’s a little of that in all of us. So, what do we do about it?
You’re in charge. Which is something we forget all too often. This is your life. Marsh says, “It’s particularly important that you never put the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial corporation.”
That’s why our own co-founder Ryan left his job. He said he needed, “the chance to take his fate into his own hands. The chance to succeed or fail on his own terms.”
I’m not telling you to quit your job, but to take responsibility and enforce boundaries.
You don’t have to put up with “work creep” – you are empowered to define the parameters. This is your life.
And it is possible. But we have to have reasonable expectations.
So, first we have to expel the work-life balance fallacies.
Balance Doesn’t Mean Equal
Here’s the first fallacy: Your existence has two components: “work” and “life.” Not true.
You’re so much more complex than that, right?
Stew Friedman says it beautifully in this piece for Harvard Business Review. “The idea that ‘work’ competes with ‘life’ ignores that ‘life’ is actually the intersection and interaction of four major domains: work, home, community, and the private self.”
Thus, finding “balance” isn’t just equal parts “life” and “work.” The “balance” varies — sometimes on a daily basis.
Jim Bird, business consultant and CEO of worklifebalance.com, says,
“The right balance today may not be the right balance for tomorrow. For me, sometimes 70 hours of work is a good work-life balance. But if I tried it for a few years, it wouldn’t be.”
-Jim Bird in The Globe and Mail
The “balance” is in constant flux. It’s shifting with the priorities of the day, week, month and year. And that’s okay.
This Is Not a Goal You Can “Attain”
Believing work-life balance is something you can “achieve” is the second fallacy.
Balance isn’t static.
Harmony is not a goal to attain, but rather a state of being. It might sound new agey, but stick with me.
Author and speaker Dan Thurmon uses the example of a handstand. In his Tedx Talk he does a handstand onstage. And it’s damn good, too. But if you look closely, he’s shaking.
He’s making tiny corrections to his form. Those micromovements help him stay upright. It’s balanced, but it’s not static. “It’s a process of constant adjustments, decisions, corrections, responding to opportunities and challenges,” he says.
In the search for balance, he says, we have to stop thinking there will be a moment “where it all evens out.”
Juggling work, family, and fulfillment is a state of existence involving constant micro-adjustments and priority shifts. That’s a relief, isn’t it?
This isn’t Everest. It involves no training, no years of suffering for some ultimate reward. You can have more balance today. Right now.
It’s a mind set. It’s a daily practice. You’re capable in this very moment.
Check out Thurmon’s handstand in his Tedx Talk here:
Analyze to Prioritize
So, let’s get started then, shall we? It’s as easy as middle school mathematics. Get out your graph paper and let’s plot some points.
In this beautifully written post, Lauren Bacon proposes “The Balance Matrix.” It’s a way to visualize what your passions are, and what’s sucking your time away from them.
Using the x axis to map priorities and the y axis to measure energy, she’s created four quadrants – with the upper right “Fun and Purpose” quadrant being the “sweet spot.”
Her argument is that instead of looking at “fun and purpose” as a reward for suffering through the “drudgery” and “tasks” (which take up most of “life”), we need to shift our perspective.
Your fun, your happiness, your work-that-doesn’t-feel-like work, is precisely the point of your life. It’s your piece of the puzzle, your original medicine […] Maybe you can’t quit your day job or fire your kids to turn that into your full-time vocation. But here’s the thing: A little tweaking can do wonders.
Now, let’s put it into action. Pick the three things you spent the most time on today and plot them here.
What did you put in your upper right quadrant? How can we spend more time there? What tweaks can we make?
Strive For Both: Achievement and Enjoyment
Jim Bird believes that at the core of work-life balance are two concepts: achievement and enjoyment. “If you try to get all the value from one side, all the value disappears,” he says.
“We assume that if we seek achievement, enjoyment will follow automatically. But it doesn’t.”
That’s how things slip from the top two quadrants into the bottom two. Instead, strive for both achievement and enjoyment every day.
Sometimes they’ll be contained in the same activity: nailing a product launch that was your brainchild. Other times they’ll be separate: a productive but draining day at work, followed by kickball with the kids.
You can have both.
But here’s the catch…
Don’t Put It Off
Bird urges us to “avoid the ‘as soon as’ trap.” We’ve all done this. It sounds like: “I’ll spend more time with you, honey…as soon as I get the promotion” or “I’ll take some time off…as soon as I sign this big client.”
This goes back to Marsh’s ultimatum to “take responsibility” – don’t let your happiness be dictated by others’ priorities.
So, don’t put it off. As our biohack expert Mark Moschel explains, it can be easy if you start small. Begin with a microhabit.
Those small actions grow to form consistent life changes. Like the “floss one tooth” method. “Once we start, momentum often keeps us going. Who really flosses just one tooth?” Mark writes.
Want to start running? Start by stepping onto the front porch. “If you are already outside, might as well run a little bit, right?”
That first step turns into a 15-minute walk, which turns into a 10-minute mile. Now your work and life is 10 minutes more balanced. As Mark says, “it’s so easy to do it’d be silly not to.”
But here’s the most important thing to remember:
It’s a Life’s Work
We need to consider the time frame. Work-life balance is like fitness or meditation: it takes daily practice.
In order to be effective, it has to be a part of your routine. This reiterates Thurmon’s handstand analogy. Balance is a state of flux; it takes constant readjustment. Those small changes every day help chip away at the imbalance.
Each small change helps recalibrate life with one flossed tooth, one more minute around the dinner table, one less email refresh.
In his Harvard Business Review op-ed Stew Friedman writes,
One can cultivate a life in which values, actions, social contribution, and personal growth exist in harmony. It’s a life in which disparate pieces fall into place, not every single day — that’s the impossible myth of “work/life balance” — but over the course of a lifetime.
And one last thing…
You Gotta Slow Down
A “balanced” day doesn’t mean you accomplish more. Another work-life fallacy is that it requires superhuman efficiency.
But the key is not to cram more things into your day, but rather evaluate what matters and reallocate time to those things. What’s beautiful, Thurmon explains, is that by slowing down you feel like you have more time, not less.
It’s not about increasing your pace, because life speeds right up with you. Ironically, by slowing down even a little, you begin to notice those spaces, those opportunities, and they expand for you.
You can actually stretch time.
Our perception of happy moments is longer and richer, because we’re savoring the bliss. You may spend only five minutes with a friend, but those peels of laughter are more of an investment in your health and happiness than thirty minutes of overtime.
With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life.
So while work-life balance is important, don’t get caught up in the buzzword.
- Stop believing it’s something you have to struggle your whole life to “achieve.”
- Don’t make false promises to find balance “as soon as…” or “later.”
- It’s the small changes you can make today. It’s a fight you can win every day.
- Strive for both achievement and enjoyment in the little things. Do this every day.
- You’re empowered to set boundaries and reallocate time to your priorities.
It’s as small as flossing one tooth. It’s as big as taking your fate into your own hands.
What actions help you maintain balance? Have you figured out how to balance work and life? If so, share your secret in the comments below.