Ah, the elusive work-life balance … It seems like everyone has an idea of what the ideal balance is and how to achieve it. A quick Google search of “work life balance” yields over 2 billion – yeah, that’s billion with a B – results in 0.69 seconds! Some people, like my friend Joshua B. Lee, boldly declare that the whole idea of “balance” is bogus.
I’ve been fortunate (?) enough to have a ring-side seat for much of the debate around this topic, and I’d like to share some hard-won insights of my own.
A Personal History
When I was very small, the expectation for a woman was that you would work for a few years until you met a nice man, got married and starting having children. At that point, your focus would switch from work to family. (Men, it was assumed, would focus primarily on work.) Even at the time, of course, there were lots of women for whom this ideal wasn’t a practical choice. Their families needed their incomes to make ends meet. But lots of social cues, especially the popular media, made work-life balance seem like an either-or choice.
By the time I was in high school, things had CHANGED. The Women’s Rights Movement made a full-time career not only an option, but almost a moral obligation. Nothing summed up this new take on work-life balance more than the classic Enjoli perfume ad. 24-hour women were now expected to do it all with grace and style – and apparently in heels.
Not Just a “Woman’s Issue”
In 90s corporate America, you were expected to put in 60+ hour weeks. Stories out of Silicon Valley of employees living in their cubicles in order to meet project deadlines regularly circulated … and were admired. Work regularly bled over into home life as the increasing availability of pagers (remember them?) and then cell phones, home computers and remote access, and especially email made it nearly impossible to escape work.
An entire generation of adults, men and women, began to feel the stress of never having down-time, let alone “quality time” with friends and family. For working parents, the guilt was particularly devastating as they watched their children being raised in daycare. A healthy work-life balance seemed more unattainable than ever.
Great Recession, Greater Change
Oddly, the Great Recession proved to be a turning point. While certainly no less stressful in many ways, the recession often meant fewer hours at work for many employees – albeit, often involuntarily. People, especially parents, furloughed or unemployed were able to reconnect with their personal lives. As the economy slowly rebounded, employees were reluctant to go back to the old company-first mentality. They had learned the hard lesson that deferring the gratification of a rich personal and/or family life in order to give a 110% at work didn’t necessarily pay off.
Today, work-life balance seems (to me, at least) to be less about pleasing others and fitting a commercially-packaged expectation. It’s about finding what works for you as a human being. That generation that grew up in childcare – you may know them as Millennials – are demanding options that seemed totally unrealistic to previous generations of workers. And they’re getting them! AI and other technologies seem poised to help employees actually get work done, rather than just providing electronic nagging. The line between at work and at home is blurring, but in a more positive way.
A 3-Step Approach
Because no article on work-life balance would be complete without some how-to advice, here’s mine:
1. Set Boundaries – Get together with those you love and discuss what goals you have, what commitments you’re willing to make to achieve those goals, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to meet those commitments. For example, I love volunteering with charitable organizations in my community. I know myself, though. It’s hard for me to say, “No,” especially when it’s such a worthy cause. But when I get over-extended, it doesn’t help anybody. My rule: I can participate in two weekly activities or one weekly activity and two monthly activities. The activities can change during the year, but I can’t take on something new without letting go of something else. That’s my rule; what works for you may be completely different.
Remember, too, what you want changes over time and in response to a myriad of factors. Having children alters your priorities, for example; as do health issues for you or a family member. Be prepared to re-define your boundaries as needed.
2. Defend Them – If you thought Step 1 was hard, the next step is defending those boundaries. It’s easy to let things you’ve placed outside your boundaries sneak in. Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t mean you’ll never deal with a home issue at work, or that you can’t write down a great idea for work that you have at home. (Is it just me? I get the best ideas in the shower!) It’s more about focusing 100% on what you’re doing at the moment. (If work-life balance is a myth, true multi-tasking is a fairytale.) Don’t try to talk to your doctor while typing a business email. Force yourself to put a hectic day behind you as you settle in to spend time with friends or family binging Netflix. Believe me, all that stuff will be waiting for you when you get back to it.
Check the price tags in life, both literal and metaphorical. If something comes at too high a price, don’t let anyone talk you into doing it. I’ve had lots of opportunities I’ve turned down in life for just that reason.
3. Let Go of the Guilt – Ah, here’s the real kicker. Once you’ve made your choices, and proved to yourself that you’re willing to defend them, don’t feel guilty about what you AREN’T doing. Yes, there will be times when you wish you’d done things differently. You’ll occasionally slip back into bad habits and need to course correct. Sometimes circumstances will override your carefully laid plans; there are genuine emergencies.
When this happens, forgive yourself … and mean it. Make adjustments if you need to. Then live your life in the way that brings you – and the people you really care about at home and at work – the greatest happiness and fulfillment. If anyone has a problem with that, it’s their problem.