The Work/Life Balance Myth
Does work/life balance exist?
Posted Oct 05, 2011
Wake up after too little sleep, think about exercising, hit the snooze button, drag yourself out of bed, wake up the kids for school, start the coffee, take a shower, wake up the kids again, make breakfast, pack lunches, read email, quickly kiss your significant other goodbye, answer emails and deal with the first crisis of the day on your way to the office, get to the office and realize you're not going to have the day you thought you would, answer emails from clients who want answers now, do some actual work, make a mad dash to a local restaurant and buy some lunch, rush back to your desk, eat quickly while working, spend several hours on the phone talking to clients, put out a few fires, talk to your significant other because one of your kids has become sick and has to go home, answer more email, drink more caffeine to keep going, attend post-work client development event, eat something at the event, head home, put the kids to bed to bed, relax for ten minutes, significant other wants some "alone time..." WHAT? Sound familiar?
Last year I attended a luncheon where the keynote speaker was Marie Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project, and co-creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. She was there to talk to us about women and leadership. Surely, I thought, this champion of women's rights would back up the notion that work/life balance existed and regale us with her wisdom of how women can and should have it all. Instead, she leaned forward and said, "You know, work/life balance doesn't really exist." As much of the audience cheered, I nearly jumped out of my chair and called her out right on the spot. How could that be true, I thought?
Since that luncheon, I have realized a few things about work/life balance, and I now see that Ms. Wilson was probably right.
Balance isn't either/or
I used to think of balance just like I used to think of happiness or resilience - you either have it or you don't; but, in reality, those constructs are made up of so many smaller parts. Dr. Edy Greenblatt has spent years studying the effects of overwork and exhaustion on employees. She cites a common theme that many people think of work as depleting and non-work as restoring, so in order to achieve balance under that model, you would either have to quit work or work as little as possible. Not exactly an option for most people. Rather, Dr. Greenblatt suggests you put work and non-work on one axis and what restores you and what depletes you on the other axis. The key is to identify what restores you and depletes you both at work and non-work, then do more of what restores you (Greenblatt, 2009).
Balance isn't a destination
When I heard Ms. Wilson's presentation, I was growing my business after years as an unhappy attorney, so I was happy as a clam. I thought I was at destination "Balance," population one; however, my new work journey, with all its ups and downs, was just beginning. Balance implies that there is some end point, and as high-achieving individuals, you likely fight to find that elusive sweet spot; some days you'll be close; other days, on another planet and that's because balance is fluid. Balance is also self-defined. What works for you and your family may not work for other people, and that's OK!
Let's ask a different question
Instead of wondering whether you have balance or not, look at all the facets of your life and ask how you are performing. Are you fully engaged? Are you physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused, and connected to something significant in your life? If the answer to any of these is no, one of your "muscles" likely needs to be developed. Do you want more confidence? More focus? Are you connected with friends? How frequently do you work out? What kind of foods do you eat? What do you value?
Put another way, how do you maintain your personal resources - that blend of physical, psychological, emotional, social, and other domains that keep you going and functioning in peak condition? In order to more fully explore what barriers might exist that would prevent you from performing at your best in work and life, I've developed a short questionnaire called the Personal Performance Barriers Inventory. It also includes several questions to help you reflect on your results. If you would like a copy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You have many things competing for your time and energy, and I agree with Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz's assessment: "Full engagement begins with feeling eager to get to work in the morning, equally happy to return home in the evening and capable of setting clear boundaries between the two" (Loehr, & Schwartz, 2003).
Greenblatt, E. (2009). Restore Yourself: The Antidote for Professional Exhaustion. Los Angeles, CA. Execu-Care Press.
Loehr, J., & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement. New York: Free Press.