Monday, January 08, 2020

The Plain Truth About Work/Life Balance

Achieving an acceptable degree of work/life balance is never going to be easy, but it won’t even be possible unless you first understand clearly what that balance is and how it works. Unfortunately, much of what has been written on the topic misses out this stage. Worse still, it misunderstands the term “balance” completely. What follows will set you on the right track.

Work/life balance is an ambiguous idea. We all think that we know what it means, but I would take a large bet that few of us have exactly the same thoughts in our minds when we read those words. Of course, we act as if we do, but that’s mostly because we each assume that our idea of work/life balance is the correct one.

Work is part of life, isn’t it?

Talking about work/life balance seems to imply that work and life are in opposition to one another; that work isn’t part of life, and you only start to live once work is finished. This is a very odd notion, but it’s easy to see where it comes from. If your viewpoint is that work is, at best, a necessary evil (with the emphasis on evil), then you will believe that life only begins when work stops, and vice versa. In the old days, when work for most ordinary people meant hard, physical labor in the fields or the factory, there was a measure of truth in that. Few had much choice about what work they did and starvation was the only alternative. That’s hardly true today. Nearly everyone has a wide choice of work, limited only by their educational background and skills—and even those can be changed and improved with a little effort.

So here’s the first plain truth about work/life balance: if your life only begins when work ends, you need to find another job or career. Until you do that, nothing else will have any effect. Work is not only an integral part of life, it can—and should—be an enjoyable and fulfilling part. A wage packet alone is not a sufficient reason to go to work.

Think about what you enjoy doing most and set out to find work that includes it. If you need to, go back to school to get whatever qualifications are required. If you hate your job, change it. Period.

All balance is dynamic

Balance is never fixed or rigid. You can prove that by spending a moment balancing on one leg. If you try to stay absolutely rigid, you’ll fall over almost at once. The only way to stay balanced is by continually adjusting the distribution of your weight.

Work/life balance is no different. Many people make the mistake of trying to set some kind of global, unvarying pattern for their lives. It won’t work. There will always be times when you simply have to “violate” your resolution to cope with the normal ups and downs of living. If there’s a rush job, or an important customer needing urgent help, and everyone else is pitching in to deal with that need, you can’t simply walk out of the door at 5:00 p.m. with a cheerful wave. Not unless you’re ready to be extremely unpopular and an immediate candidate for the next pink slip.

Forget setting global patterns. Forget rigid behavior and unyielding resolutions. All they will bring you is heartache and frustration.

The next plain truth about work/life balance is this: balance is something you’ll need to vary on a daily, maybe an hourly basis. Achieving a balanced life means doing it one way today and a slightly different way tomorrow. You’ll need to make small shifts all the time to stay upright.

We all need boundaries

Let’s go back for a moment to standing on one leg. If, while you are balancing like that, you lean too far in any direction, you will lose your balance and fall over. There are natural limits on how far you can move from being upright and still keep your balance.

The same is true of work/life balance. While you need to be constantly shifting your balance in small ways to cope with daily demands, you also need to set boundaries to avoid becoming so flexible that your desired balance is lost.

That leads to our next truth: the goal of work/life balance is to keep within your chosen boundaries, while staying flexible to short-term needs. Don’t compromise too far, or you might as well give up on seeking balance altogether.

Setting priorities matters

If you are going to have boundaries to how far you’re willing to move away from an ideal balance, you’ll need to have some clear priorities to back them up. Besides, even the non-work parts of life contain all kinds of competing claims. If you spend every non-working moment on a single activity, you’re as much of an obsessive as any workaholic.

Not only that, but your priorities are bound to change as time passes. Someone in their 20s, just starting out on a career, will not have the same priorities as a person approaching retirement. If you have a young family, or a sick relative to care for, you won’t have the same priorities as a single person who has only him or herself to please.

Sadly, too many organizations still ignore this plain truth. They take the easy, thoughtless route of demanding that work demands should always come first, regardless of personal circumstances. As a result, most women—especially single mothers—and a significant number of men with a sense of duty towards their families, find themselves excluded from promotion, regardless of merit. If that’s your current experience, you should think hard about whether your current job is worth compromising all the other parts of your life to retain. If the answer is negative, find another job with an organization that isn’t run by Neanderthals.

This plain truth means that it’s well worth taking time out to re-evaluate your priorities on a regular basis. Unless you do, you may find your out-dated ideas on what matters most in your life are blocking you from reaching any kind of acceptable balance.

“Having it all” is nonsense

You cannot have it all. I know this has become a mantra amongst some groups, but it’s still nonsense. As soon as you set priorities in your life, something has to go to the end of the line. And the reality is that almost no one has the time, money, energy, or talent to have everything they want during their life time. The disgustingly rich probably get to have more than the rest of us, but even they don’t manage everything smoothly—sometimes not at all. The most casual glance at the news media is enough to prove that.

So the final plain truth is this: you cannot have everything you would like in life, so get over it. For all ordinary people, keeping an eye on major life priorities, and achieving a majority of them over their three score years and ten, is a huge accomplishment. Life is uncertain. Things go wrong. Luck plays a greater part than we like to admit. So always coming close to your ideal work/life balance will be exceptional. Getting close more often than not is extremely praiseworthy. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss quite frequently. So does nearly everyone else. Just put it down to experience and keep trying.

Those are our plain truths:
  1. Work is simply a part of life, but it needs to be an enjoyable part. If it isn’t, do something about that right away.

  2. Look for balance on a short-term basis only. Stay flexible. Remember it’s like balancing on one leg: rigidity will quickly bring you down.

  3. Set boundaries and try to stick to them. If you compromise too much, your balance will be lost. The ideal is to shift flexibly within your boundaries without going past them.

  4. Have priorities that reflect your stage of life and personal circumstances. Change them in line with life’s changes. Don’t cling to out-dated choices.

  5. You can’t ever have it all. Be willing to let some aspirations go with a smile. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t Wonder Woman or Superman. At least you get to wear your knickers underneath your pants.
Too many gurus, coaches, and marketers have jumped on work/life balance as a way to make a quick buck. You don’t need any of them. All you need is a clear idea of what true balance means, the courage to set and keep your boundaries, and a little luck. None of those will cost you one dollar.

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Steve Roesler said...

Your post was so thoughtful and on target that it prompted me to return to the topic on my own post today, along with a related story.

The notion of Slow Leadership is so important in a world of one-liners and the lure of instant gratification.

Keep up the fine work.


6:14 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks so much for your kind comment, Steve.

I'm glad you found the post interesting.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:32 AM  
Sujatha said...

Thanks for a fresh perspective on this topic. I've struggled a bit with this - not because I don't like my job or I'm expected to work long hours on a regular basis, but because of my own personal situation (young kids, travelling husband etc). Some weeks I do good and try to imbibe the "magical formula", but as you pointed out so well, it requires a variation.

7:18 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Glad my words could help, Sujatha.

Being flexible helps us stop blaming ourselves when we don't quite make the balance we want this week; and allows us to try again next week. In time, we'll probably get there that way.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:34 PM  
Nick said...

I agree with the thrust of your comments. The main problem with the abstract concept of work/life balance is that it assumes that there is some predetermined law as to the definition of the term. In my experience, balance must always be contextual. For someone starting a business, you had better be prepared to do whatever it takes. Balance always has to be evaluated in relation to clearly defined goals. It is usually a lack of clarity as to what you really want that leads to confusion, frustration and burnout. If you can gain clarity about what's important to you, then achieving balance in your life the can become a real possibility.

10:19 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Nick.

I'm glad that you enjoyed the post.

7:41 AM  

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