Rethinking Work-Life Balance So It’s Actually Achievable
In a time of constant access through technology and evening calls with global counterparts replacing the typical 9 to 5, and life moving at a faster pace than ever, what has traditionally been called ‘work-life balance’ has never felt so far away.
And yet, it’s never been more important. Research keeps showing work-life balance and its alter-ego, burnout, have a huge impact on work engagement, turnover and productivity as well as personal stress, physical health, relationships, life satisfaction, and mental health.
In light of all this, it’s not surprising that on some level we have all bought into the idea that overwork is bad and that it’s not worth the impact on our relationships, health and ultimately productivity and life satisfaction. But few of us would be able to successfully achieve that balance we crave. Why?
Too often when people are struggling with work-life balance, they are actually struggling with unrealistic expectations. The problem lies with how we have defined work-life balance and in the name itself.
Work-life balance, as it is popularly understood, means a perfect equilibrium between the demands of work, and the demands of home and self – the Goldilocks of lifestyles, wherein we are only required to give the exact right amount of our energy and selves to any given sphere.
There’s something very alluring about this possibility that speaks to the child inside us. Our notions of what work-life balance should look like are formed in childhood through our family contexts — from how our parents balanced things, to what we think is attainable. And we are all geared, from a young age, to embrace the idea that perfection is attainable. At first the rewards are stickers and praise, and later, certificates and awards. Then, we become adults, and it’s hardwired in us that if we work hard enough we should be able to pull of this whole, perfect balance while continuing to get ahead.
Except we can’t. Unfortunately, like Goldilocks, this version of work-life balance is a myth, and the cost of chasing it gets steeper as we grow older, leading to feelings of disillusionment and defeat. This concept of balance is too static for the complications of life that require momentum, movement and an ever-evolving solution.
Work-life balance isn’t a state, which is why all of those strategies and tips wear out, one after another. Rather, it is a value that we have to strive for with each decision. Thinking of work-life balance as a series of choices that enable us to take decisions aimed at maximizing control and flexibility, the two biggest determinants of life satisfaction, is a better path to actually achieving it. People who think of work-life balance as making deliberate and intentional choices and accepting the limits of those choices are more likely to be happy in pursuit of work-life balance than those that think they can easily have it all.
The choices we make to create space and connection into our lives need to be deliberate and personal. At any given point in the day, we are faced with choices that can give or cede control over our lives. And each of these choices have their consequences, a fact that often feels burdensome, but can actually be liberating. Because once we accept the consequences and take a decision, we are then free to make more choices toward control and flexibility and that creates the movement that takes us towards the value of balance.
A key part of this is acceptance of limitations and the necessary price tag rather than a delusion that balance can ever be free. No choice is perfect, so accepting the limitations of a decision allows you to enjoy its consequences and move forward, rather than the focus on what might have been keeping you stuck. And that’s what really feeds the control – the balance — that we are all searching for.
It sounds more complicated than the one-size-fits all, try-these-five-tricks-and-get-immediate-zen concept of work-life balance. But it’s actually not; thinking of balance as a never-ending re-prioritization of competing things means it’s highly individualized and easier to recognize. Your balance shouldn’t and won’t look like someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean you’re not living it.
Work-life balance, far from being some kind of perfected equilibrium, is about making deliberate, incremental and intentional choices aimed at having more control in life. Thinking of it in this way and taking the time to do something, anything, about it can make us happier, healthier, and more productive.