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Why a great deal of writing about work/life balance is sadly off the point

Posted on 18 September 2020

Work/life balance is NOT what you think

It’s easy to assume working less will inevitably make you happier or that spending 60 hours or more each week working is BAD. What is bad is betraying your identity: working longer hours that fits who you are; pretending to be a hard-driven, achievement-oriented workaholic to win approval, when you’re nothing of the kind. The true meaning of finding the correct work/life balance—correct for you that is—comes from selecting a game plan for your life that correctly fits your identity.

Work/life balance isn’t simply about allocating time: it’s mostly about creating a game plan for your life that works for you in your present circumstances. It’s about your identity and authenticity.

How much of your identity, your sense of self, and your self-esteem, is linked to your work?

For many people starting out on a career, the answer is nearly all of it. That’s understandable, since work is usually a continuation of education in terms of a field for achievement, and most young persons long to establish themselves as people of worth.

Later, especially if you gain family commitments, things get more complex. You likely want to be able to give your family a good life, which usually means higher earnings and probably regular promotions. At the same time, if all you do is work, they’ll hardly see you—except as some exhausted, harassed person who appears late at night and spends the weekends locked away catching up with work. Being a “good provider” isn’t sufficient. You have to be able to give your family regular, quality time. What was your authentic identity earlier (the rising star), no longer works. A new game plan is needed.

Later still, you may find yourself dissatisfied with your life so far. Many people find that what seemed such an obviously desirable career path in their 20s appears, in their 40s, to have been the wrong choice. They long to make a change, even if that means sacrificing some financial benefits. Yet another game plan is needed, with a different balance between work and other life goals.

Job or vocation?

Work has considerable advantages as a forum to establish personal standing: objectives and criteria for success are clear; lots of people are keeping score; rewards are well-known and visible to others. It has many disadvantages too: you are rarely in control of your own destiny; the criteria for success may change without warning; economic downturns half a world away may suddenly deprive you of your job; your organization’s goals will never include more than the most incidental interest in providing you with the avenues you need to meet your personal goals.

It’s much less easy to judge success in many other parts of life. The time-scales tend to be longer. How long will it take to know if you have been successful as a parent or a spouse? How can you judge whether you’ve fulfilled your potential as a human being outside the purely economic realm of existence? How can you compare the benefits of basing your personal identity on things outside of work with the benefits you can expect for making work your life?

I suspect many people focus on work success as much because it’s easy to estimate as because they truly see it as the center of their lives. In our achievement-dominated world, deciding not to pursue a path of economic and financial success is usually represented as something of a cop-out: an excuse to cover the fact that you knew you wouldn’t make it. We claim to admire those who follow a vocation rather than hard cash, but fail in many cases to translate this supposed admiration into a living wage.

It’s as if society assumes that those who aren’t primarily motivated by money don’t need the stuff anyway. Most of the jobs that are classed as vocational—teachers, social workers, police, fire, nurses, and the like—are abysmally underpaid. In contrast, guys assumed to be interested solely in money, like hedge-fund managers, are allowed to take home oodles of the green stuff.

How to set your own game plan

What are your standards for a successful life? It’s a question many people rarely consider in any depth. Most simply accept the conventional standards offered by society. That’s a one-size-fits-all approach that really doesn’t fit anyone too well.

Establishing a satisfactory work/life balance for yourself means first answering these basic questions:

  • What are your fundamental values? What matters more to you than anything else? If your actual game plan—the one you use, not the one you claim to use, but only aspire to—is at odds with your fundamental values, you will never feel satisfied, whatever you achieve.
  • What kind of achievements give you the greatest pleasure? If you ignore these, you may earn a great deal of money, or even reach the executive suite, but life won’t be fun or enjoyable. Why sentence yourself to 40 or more years of hard labor doing something that doesn’t even please you?
  • What do your current circumstances seem to demand? As I noted above, peoples’ game plans need to change as their circumstances change. What worked in college likely won’t work for you as you close in on retirement.

These are vital, life-altering questions and it’s always best to reach your own conclusions, whether or not they fit with what society expects, other people demand, or even what you expected yourself when you began to try to answer them. You won’t be satisfied with any game plan for work/life balance unless it accurately expresses your true sense of your own identity.

Take some time out to ponder (and discuss) the kind of person you see yourself as being and what game plan and type of work/life balance that implies.

You may really love your work and enjoy nearly most of the time you spend doing it. Equally, you may come to realize that work is a substitute for facing up to life’s other demands: it’s always there, it’s easy to get lost in it, it’s socially acceptable, and it prevents you from ever having the time to deal with whatever you’re set on avoiding. You may find that work, for you, is simply an economic necessity and your real love in life is something far from your working environment.

Whatever you find, act on your discovery. Look at the game plan you are following—the one that’s clear from your actions, not the one you maybe talk about—and see if it matches up to who you are. Every game plan implies its own unique work/life balance. And that’s the only one that matters.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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