Work-life balance is a quintessential American ideal, a true juggling act of work, activities and responsibilities in order to maximize a person’s total life experience.
The ideal model of work-life balance includes career ambition and accomplishment, proactive community involvement, health and fitness, social connection, and a deep involvement in our childrens’ activities and education.
However, our approach to realizing this ideal is defined less by “balance” (the process of determining which combination of time and energy demands will reach the point of optimal happiness), and more by the continious increasing of demands into a daily schedule until we reach the maximum tolerable level.
Why do most achievers perceive work-life balance as an effort to maximize involvement, instead of a thoughtful priotitization of the most important demands, followed by the elimination of less important demands to re-establish a healthy balance to our lives?
Well, when there is too much on our plates, and we recognize the need for “work-life” balance, we rarely decide to eliminate demands, but instead calculate how we can “squeeze it all in” by diluting our focus, while opting for maximum participation.
Does this fictional sequence sound familiar?
“Maybe I can skip analyzing some of the preparation material in order to get out of work at a reasonable hour? That tactic may provide momentary balance today, but it may harm my career tomorrow when I am caught unprepared at the big meeting.”
“Maybe to get the work completed, I will add one hour to the daily work routine, and sleep one hour less? This may cause chronic sleep deprivation, although I will be able to complete more work!”
“Since I am sleep deprived, maybe I should start drinking generous amounts of coffee, 5-hour energy or caffeinated beverages? Of course, this will add poor dietary choices to my sleep deprivation problem.”
“Maybe I can hire a driver to pick up the kids at their sporting events? Well, that certainly will allow for work-life balance, but at the expense of missing important moments in the eyes of my kids.”
“Maybe, I will attend the kid’s game, but work during the game using mobile devices? After all, the kid will be chasing around a ball, so she won’t even notice that I missed her big play.” Yes, she will.
“This dally schedule is stressing me out, so maybe I should get a relaxing massage to relieve the stress (ironically caused by his over-scheduling)?” Of course, that will introduce another scheduling demand!
OK, you get my drift. All of these solutions result in less effectiveness in each individual category, without resulting in any real “work-life” balance..more like “work-life tolerance”.
Balance is challenging, but certainly possible to achieve. The obvious constraints of your time, natural energy levels and the human capacity to stay focused, must be considered before creating your customized, worthy, and realistic vision.
However, the way to achieve true work-life balance, without forfeiting the quality of the components, is to prioritize and decide in a thoughtful and deliberate manner on entire commitments, versus simply adjusting the degree to which you are involved in multiple commitments.
Here are a few examples.
Selection of career path:
Your career choice is a very important piece of the puzzle when constructing the ideal work-life balance. Some jobs are nicely suited for work-life balance, and other jobs are far too consuming to pursue IF one prioritizes work-life balance as the ideal goal.
For example, when I joined an Investment Bank after business school, I knew that it was extremely important for me to prioritize work and to establish my reputation and skills at the office. Work-life balance was not a priority at that moment in my life. I was single, and knew the job was characterized by 80-hour workweeks, including weekend hours at the office.
Six years later, I was married with two young children (under the age of 3), and work-life balance became a very high priority to us. Therefore, I took action and transferred to a job within the bank that required far fewer work hours, and absolutely no weekend demands. The work-life balance was achieved through the fundamental change of jobs, as opposed to half-measures to squeeze it all in.
You cannot expect, nor want to alter, the nature of a rigorous, well-defined career path if you cannot seem to “squeeze it” into your busy life. The grueling process exists for a reason critical to the role’s value to the business. Instead, pick a more appropriate job.
We are all guilty of signing up for too many commitments. We want to work out daily, be at all the kids’ events, lead a charitable organization, mentor troubled youth, take a cooking class, work on a PhD, grow a garden, etc.
The truth is, it is virtually impossible to participate in every activity that interests us. So, it is important to organize all activities into an order of priority, and then get involved in only those that truly are important and add significant value to your life, without generating unnecessary stress. Yes, this process will disappoint someone, but that is better than running yourself into the ground, or performing poorly in all aspects of your life.
Stay single or get married?
Yes, I am going there. Remaining single allows one to be consumed with personal and selfish pursuits, and there is nothing wrong with this decision. It allows a person to unilaterally set priorities and follow the plan without regard to how it affects immediate family members. This point should be completely understood by young folks before entering into marriage.
Beyond the most important virtues of marriage, such as love, friendship, loyalty, intimacy, etc., marriage should improve the quality of life for both partners, and allow for synergy in the form of teamwork and burden sharing.
Of course, each couple must determine the nature of individual contributions to the overall family, but I will venture to say that the important roles should be complementary, and not independent.
What do I mean?
Well, spouses should have the same over-arching goals for the family, but it is probably wise not to share the same daily priorities. In other words, it may be more difficult if both are working extremely long hours in the same office trying to accomplish the same work goals. Similarly, it may be unwise if both desire to work at the same charity pro-bono, without generating a sufficient income for the family to meet it’s obligations and save for the future.
I am not implying that anyone should be forced into, or by default assume, a role they don’t want. However, it is wise to come to an agreement on this before taking the plunge and realizing that the union is less additive than both imagined. If the combination will not be additive, make some mutually acceptable changes, or don’t get married.
Don’t Assume Outsized Financial Obligations
Whether it is a house or car beyond your current affordability, or any other material possession, the bottom line is that one of the easiest ways to destroy “work-life balance” is to assume too much debt.
Fear of not meeting financial obligations triggers an increase in mental stress. The mental stress often manifests itself into anxiety that motivates the individual or family to seek additional ways to generate income to pay down the debt obligations.
Either the person takes another job, or puts in additional hours at work in order “to make it”. Of course, this produces incremental demands on the work-life balance, and makes a difficult balancing act even more difficult.
It is far better to live below your means.
Effective self-assessment, prioritization, planning, and creating a partnership of mutual support achieve true work-life balance.