The other night, a business coach at a networking meeting stood up and said “forget about striving for work-life balance because it doesn’t exist.” I aim for a balanced life, but most days I feel like I’m barely pulling it off. And while my office claims to have a work-life balance program, it’s basically PR fluff. So I’m wondering…is she right? Are so many of us looking for something that doesn’t really exist?
The short answer is that she’s right for her, but she’s wrong for me. My guess is that she and I have different definitions of the word “balance.”
Work-life balance is not about birds dressing you in the morning, never having a hair out of place, your boss being jovial and supportive at all times and your kids being perfect little angels who might have stepped out of Stepford.
It is not perfection.
Because balance is open to interpretation, it can often feel like a relatively ethereal concept that’s hard to nail down. It’s like driving toward the horizon. No matter how far and long you drive, there the horizon sits, mocking you, seemingly the same distance away. So it’s only natural that some people are going to yank the keys out of the ignition and decide that they’ll never get there.
But the very fact that balance is open to interpretation means you have to give it your own before you can create it in your life.
What does work-life balance look like for you? It likely looks different to me, your sister, and the guy in the next cubicle. This isn’t Coca-Cola; there’s no set formula. People have different life circumstances and different personalities, so the way they define and approach a balanced life is naturally going to be different.
Maybe for you it’s a certain progression up the ranks at work. For someone else, it may be sitting down to dinner as a family every night. For another, it may be both, and for yet another, it may be neither.
Take the time to think about how you define balance before you attempt to achieve it. And make sure it’s your definition; not your mother’s or mine.
Understand that balance shifts and changes. Balance is not a destination, but rather an approach you establish for the journey. You don’t wake up one morning and say “Aha! My work and life are in total balance now. I will walk forth through the world forever at peace.” Because as soon as you stub your toe at the foot of the bed or burn the coffee, you’ll be echoing the coach from the networking meeting and claiming balance doesn’t exist.
Your perspective will shift and your circumstances will change, so balance can and should be renegotiated from time to time. After all, you may recall that even Coke has renegotiated its “set formula” on a few occasions.
This is your life; you hold the reigns. If you’re overcommitted with volunteer and social commitments, take a break and get to know the word “no.”
If the work-life balance program is PR fluff, take the lead at work and try to change that. If your efforts fall on deaf ears, look for a new company that walks the talk. Once you’ve cleared the hurdle of establishing a clear picture of what balance looks like for you, setting up systems to create it in your life is more often the easy part.
Remember that balance is a choice. It’s not going to happen by accident. Getting clear about the time you have and making informed decisions about commitments in your life and in your work will enable you to live in balance.
This requires being honest about how you make your choices and how you spend your time, which you may not want to confront right away. Maybe at some level you’re committed to the chaos: being the super-volunteer, ideal mother, and leader in your field is perhaps how you calculate your worth in the world. Because what you’re actually doing is basing your worth on the perceptions of other people, balance will be tougher to claim for you.
Or, perhaps you’re out of balance because you over-commit in fear that you’ll miss out on something: a new business opportunity; a great social event; a chance to help someone. Balanced life at a reasonable pace means yes, you will miss out on something from time to time, but the upside is that what you might miss out on could be an ulcer from the stress of your relentless pace, or a car accident because you’re multitasking while driving.
Balanced living doesn’t happen at top speed. Look into this downtime you’ve been hearing so much about. Learn to put prospects on a waiting list. Empower your children by showing them an adult in consistent harmony; not a frustrated mess in perpetual crisis. Remember that you are modeling for them what success and balance are supposed to look like.
Ultimately, if you get a decent amount of sleep, you have approximately 112 waking hours per week to work with. If you’re trying to cram 200 hours of living into these 112, balance will continue to elude you.
Work-life balance is ultimately yours for the defining and the taking. Choose mastery over myth and claim a life in business and in balance.