“Are you making old choices? Or are you making bold choices?”
I’m sure you’ve already asked yourself this question: what the hell is work-life balance anyway?!
If so, I’m with you on that.
In our performance-driven society of today, “work-life balance” seems to be an expression that is bandied around by everyone and anyone, a bit like those bold “___ is the new black” statements. So much so that it has become a vague and distant concept that can leave us feeling rather perplexed, a bit like after a wet-lettuce handshake at a networking event.
Nowadays, references to work-life balance are hiding on every street corner and behind every magazine stand, like an old forgotten friend, ready to jump out at you and make you feel guilty that you didn’t greet them with open arms.
So what’s wrong with work-life balance?
The problem is that many people have no idea what this type of balance looks like (apart from the fact that “it’s not the new black”). And even if they did, they don’t know where to start to achieve it.
Well, hopefully, you’ll agree that in order to know what this illustrious balance looks like, the first thing we need to do is to take a peek behind its mask. In other words, define what it looks like to us, without the fancy terms and jargon.
Step 1: We need to define what “balance” means to us
Cambridge dictionary’s generic definition of work-life balance is:
the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.
(did you notice that “doing your job” and “doing things you enjoy” are considered to be two different things?!).
Ok, let’s look at this formula and do our own calculations:
X x hours of work / Y x hours of family & leisure time = % of work-life balance
Did you get 100%? I didn’t. It’s more likely that your imaginary scales were tipped way over to one side, a bit like when you’ve got a huge bag of shopping in one hand.
What if we had a different scenario? Let’s take out our magic ball and look into the possible future.
Imagine if these imaginary scales were (more or less) aligned with each other.
- What would your daily and weekly life look like?
- What time would you get up?
- What time would you finish work?
- What would your schedule look like?
- How much time would you have for you and the things that matter?
You need to start being more specific and picturing your “ideal” life design, otherwise, it will be as easy to get there as trying to follow directions given over a bad phone line by a heavy-accented stranger.
If you find it hard to visualize, simply start with what you don’t like about your current lifestyle and what you do want will then become easier to put into words.
- Example: I don’t like finishing work at 8 pm. = So I want to finish work by …..
- Example: I hate having meetings over lunch. = So I want to spend my lunchtimes doing… (complete as appropriate)
“What you do is more important than how you do everything else, and doing something well does not make it important.”
Have you set boundaries in your lifestyle?
The other difficulty is that “work” and “life” have now blended, they’re no longer distinct. With the technology we have today, we can be connected 24/7 and this constant “availability” has blurred the limits between our work and home life. Whether we’re talking about a corporate professional or an entrepreneur who works from home like myself – where the line between professional and personal life is even fuzzier – the challenge is the same:
how can we ensure that work doesn’t encroach too much on play?
(which also raises another important question: what if we could make work feel more like play?)
Adam Fraser, an Australian performance consultant, recommends creating “a third space” between work and home to enable us to press the pause button and plug back into the mains with our family: creating a third space between work and home. According to Adam, it’s not when you show up, it’s how you show up.
In my view, both when AND how are important. If we’re consistently showing up so late in the evening that our children wonder who the stranger is at their dinner table, there’s a problem that is begging to be solved!
However, his talk highlights the importance of setting up fences between work and home.
What fences could you build to ensure your work life doesn’t become your whole life? Make a list and take that first step.
How do we define our priorities?
This might seem an obvious question but if the answer was simple for everyone, none of us would be feeling stressed, overwhelmed or frustrated by spending too much time on activities that lack meaning for us.
I’d say there are two possible perspectives to take into account when defining our priorities:
1. If you’re looking for a change of direction in your career, why not try “the Hedgehog Concept”. This process was developed by Jim Collins in his leadership book “Good to Great”. Rich Litvin, Coach & Author, calls a similar method “your zone of genius”.
In his recent interview with Tim Ferriss (see here: Jim Collins interview ), Jim confirmed his belief that when we really focus on one or a few really big (aka essential & important) things, making very disciplined decisions over time, these things will accumulate and begin to build some real and impressive results.
In a nutshell, the Hedgehog Concept is the intersection of three circles:
- what you are deeply passionate about and love doing
- what you are naturally and incredibly gifted for &
- what you can get paid for.
2. If you’re happy with the career you’re in and just want a more general overview of your current lifestyle in order to locate the gaps, my suggestion would be to use the “Wheel of Life” exercise to decide on the areas that are the most important to you and what changes you would like to make in them. (Message me for a free copy of this exercise).
Your objectives in each area will define your priorities, which are rarely the ones on your long to-do lists.
And remember, you don’t need to have all the answers now but it is time to realize that you need to stop using band-aid solutions and start making long-term, life plans.
Achieving a healthier balance might not be easy but it’s worthwhile
In his hugely popular Ted Talk how to make work-life balance work, Nigel Marsh, author of “Fat, Forty and Fired”, describes himself as being the classic corporate warrior up to the age of 40. He had been eating too much, drinking too much, working too hard and neglecting his family. He decided that he would try and turn his life around and address the thorny issue of work-life balance.
Nigel has since spent his time struggling with, studying and writing about this topic. He shares four observations with us that I’ll share with you today:
- If society is to make any progress on this issue, we need to be honest.
As Nigel says, mixing certain job and career choices with having a family is definitely complex and meaningless perks like being able to go to work in jeans and a t-shirt on a Friday won’t compensate for that. He even goes as far as saying that “certain jobs are completely incompatible” with “being meaningfully engaged” with a family.
Much as I love Nigel’s talk, I don’t totally agree with this point. I might be the CEO of a one-woman company and not the head of say 5,000 employees, but I think that our objective is the same: focus on our true priorities and set up our day to reflect them.
I’m not promising that this approach gives you the key to a treasure chest of infinite balance but it’s an obligatory starting point. If you don’t take the time to do this then it will be like running a race in stilettos: you’ll always be off balance, trying to squeeze more and more into your schedule.
Which reminds me: We need to make room for our big rocks
Remember the big rocks metaphor from Steven Covey, the unrivaled king of time management? Here’s a little reminder: Steven Covey’s big rocks & little rocks. As Steven showed, the key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities (your big rocks).
- Governments and corporations are not going to solve this issue for us.
“If you don’t design your life, someone else will design it for you, and you may just not like their idea of balance.”
We need to get out of “that’s just the way life is” mode and stop waiting for someone else to do something about this. It is up to us to take control and responsibility for the type of life we want.
Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism or the Disciplined Pursuit of Less”, talks about the time he had to choose between being present at his son’s birth or attending an important meeting. The “important” meeting won.
That regretful memory has marked him to this day but it helped him realize that he’d lost all notion of his real priorities and that it was time to make a change and focus on the essential.
And another reminder: You don’t just “achieve balance” and stop there, it’s more about gradual alignment
As a mum with a young daughter, I know that this balance is a continual “work in progress”. Even if I’ve accumulated over time the tools and techniques to help others, I sometimes forget to apply them to myself. It’s a daily challenge and one that I have to keep a close watch over, otherwise this potential balance can easily escape my grasp, throwing me a knowing “told-you-so” glance before slamming the door behind it, moving on to find a more worthy recipient!
But, when we know our true priorities, they’re like a trusty anchor, they hold our ship steady when the wind blows into our increasingly busy ports.
- We need to choose a realistic time frame to assess our balance.
You won’t immediately find the perfect solution, it will be a process of trial and error, just like me. But at least you’ll be taking steps to change the situation and show your loved ones that they are a priority and that things can change. Focus on progress and gaining momentum, not on obtaining the perfect balance (which more than likely doesn’t exist).
- Small things matter.
Even though society tries to show us that our worth is more in our bank balance, wouldn’t you agree that balance is more about spending enough time with the people we care about (and creating rewarding memories)?
This might sound like the moral from one of your children’s bedtime stories but it’s true.
Even if we pride ourselves on being hard-working, it isn’t worth neglecting what is really important to us. So let’s take control and start to make a change, step by step, little by little.
I’m off to create some memories.
What about you?
- Everyone’s idea of work-life balance is different as we’re all unique. But it isn’t a myth. We can make it a possibility.
- We need to know what a more balanced lifestyle looks like to us so that we can take clear steps towards it. Otherwise, we’ll just be stumbling around in the dark.
- We need to set boundaries between work and home life.
- We can use Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept (to rediscover purpose) or the Wheel of Life (to gain a general overview) to review our current lifestyle and what we’d like to change. That way, we’ll know our real priorities.
- Achieving balance isn’t necessarily easy but it will avoid regrets later.
- It helps to remember what our big rocks are so that we can make room for them in our daily schedule.
- We need to design the life we want otherwise someone will design it for us.
- Don’t be too impatient as this leads to frustration and reduced motivation.
- Small things matter as do small consistent steps in the right direction.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash: by Thought Catalog, Kyle Glenn, Pine Watt, Jeremy Thomas, Nathan Dumlao, Morgan David-de-Lossy