Popular advice on how to achieve work life balance is plentiful. Prioritize yourself. Set boundaries. Disconnect. Just say no.
I say if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it.
On its face, work life balance seems like an easy ‘yes’. Balance between our work lives and our lives outside of work is said to reduce stress, protect against burnout, and lead to more overall satisfaction. Who wouldn’t want that?
I’ve noticed something among the professionals I work with who want greater work life balance. They’ve tried the popular advice, the tips and tools that they found on social media or in books or that loved ones, friends or colleagues suggested.
They’ve scheduled ‘me’ time. They’ve signed off of Slack and email and put their phones on ‘do not disturb.’ They’ve delegated. They’ve taken a vacation.
Guess what? Many of them still feel overwhelmed, unable to achieve balance among the competing demands clamoring for their attention. So they regroup, recommit and try again, perhaps this time using a new set of ‘top 5 tips’ or a different approach offered by the authority du jour.
Over time, while the problem persists, the pressure generated by failed effort builds. And nothing torpedoes motivation and wellbeing like failure, especially for high achievers and those with perfectionistic tendencies. Blame and self-criticism often enters the mix – after all, the tips and tools were hailed as surefire ways to achieve work life balance.
I say enough already.
When tips and tools fail, it’s time to consider maybe it’s them, not you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of tips and tools. Concrete do’s and don’ts can be grounding, help us feel in control and allow us to feel hopeful that change is within reach.
But when we go straight from acknowledging a problem (work life imbalance) to trying to solve it by modifying our behavior (with tips and tools), we leapfrog over the vital territory of understanding. It’s in this territory that the opportunity for meaningful change resides (more on how change really happens here).
When I help clients with work life balance concerns, we go back to the fundamentals. As a first step, I help them acknowledge what work life balance means to them. Their responses often come back in the form of question like:
How can I keep work from hijacking the rest of my life?
How can I give my life outside of work as much time, energy, or attention that my life at work gets?
How can I feel better about what I have to give to work while navigating what I want and need from my life outside of work?
How can I make everyone happy? All the time?
Now we’ve begun to understand what lies at the heart of their work life balance predicaments (and what may have made balance elusive.)
From there, I help clients assess their environments to understand what conditions are present and may make work life balance more feasible or difficult to achieve.
At work, we explore vital considerations including:
Power and control: Your LinkedIn profile says you’re in charge but are you? Who’s responsible for setting your deadlines? Determining your workload and priorities? Are you empowered to make tradeoffs? Recognizing that you don’t have as much power or control as you thought can be frightening. Thinking that you have more than you do can be risky.
Culture, norms and values: Here I’m talking about the lived experience in your organization, not what gets printed in the annual report or touted during interviews. It can be a vital survival strategy to know whether there’s a difference. What behavior gets rewarded in your organization? Who gets promotions, bonuses, the plum assignments? What happens in your organization to people who say no? Ask for help?
Expectations of role: What happens if you don’t check Slack or email or voicemails? Will your client or other stakeholder wait patiently or start looking for someone who will respond now? Will you have a bigger headache than if you’d just answered in the first place? Does your organization help you make up for personal time lost to accommodating stakeholders in different time zones or traveling for work during “off” hours?
Pitching In: Who’s expected to do the work when a colleague or staff member is sick, on leave or resigns? Who does the work when open staff positions go unfilled? Who says whether or not you get pulled into crises? Are you expected to serve on or chair a committee? Be a mentor? Plan an offsite?
Our work includes a similar assessment of life outside of work. We explore questions like who does what at home? How did that arrangement come about? How’s it working? Who’s telling you what about your current state of work and life? What are your non-negotiables and what could be subject to tradeoffs? Is there a difference between change that may be realistic now versus in the future?
When it comes to work life balance, asking only “what do I want to stop doing and what do I want to start doing instead?” is self-defeating because it presumes it’s all up to you. Like it or not, your options are informed by your environment. When we assess and explore it we increase the range of options available to address your work life balance concerns.
Now to my best advice for work life balance:
Ditch the cliche.
I have a problem with the phrase ‘work life balance.’ It suggests 50/50 or equal distribution or proportional, concepts that may not be realistic. It also reduces to clickbait what is often a complex system of basic needs and higher order aspirations with roots in the past and pressure in the present and future.
As an alternative, I’d like to help you arrive at your response to the question “what does work life balance mean to you?”
From there, we’ll work towards the change you’d like to see. We’ll assess your environment – at work and at home – and identify opportunities and constraints. Along the way, you better believe I’ll be inviting you to also acknowledge what comes easily to you (our strengths are often overshadowed when a problem is present.) We’ll figure out how to put them to work to help you get what you really want.
Sure, our work may include making a game plan for how you can practice perfectly reasonable concepts like prioritizing, saying no, or disconnecting. We’ll put them in the context of your life, your demands and how you’re made.
If you’d like to explore how we may work together to get your version of work life balance, please contact me. I’m here to help.