“How’s your Work/Life Balance?”
“We care about your Work/Life Balance!”
“Call HR if you’re not happy with your Work/Life Balance.”
These statements and questions ring out at us from posters plastered in every breakroom and cafeteria across America. They assure us that our benevolent overlords care about our wellbeing and that of our families. In order to prove they care, they’ve created the concept of “Work/Life Balance.” This “Balance” is supposed to be the equilibrium maintained between our personal lives and our career lives. There’s only one problem with this.
Balance is bullshit
The above characterization of the corporate world’s idea of “Work/Life Balance” is a little hyperbolic for the purposes of comedy but, as a person’s professional life becomes more entrepreneurial or leadership focused, balance does become bullshit.
The concept of “Work/Life Balance” originates from the old wives’ tale that 1/3 of your life should be spent working, 1/3 of your life should be spent sleeping, and 1/3 of your life should be spent doing everything else. This everything else includes family, hobbies, eating, worshiping, etc. That’s a pretty paltry amount of time to actually live your life. If a person is working a time metered job, like factory work or any other vocation where he punches a time clock and can leave his work “At Work,” this framework may work well and be possible.
For entrepreneurs, salesmen, business development professionals, or those in leadership, balance becomes a more nuanced situation. Dave Ramsay, personal finance guru, stated to the effect on his nationally syndicated radio show that “Balance is impossible on a daily basis.” Basically, what Dave was saying is balance is impossible in the micro but possible in the macro.
When I moved to business development and application engineering from my previous position in R&D Engineering, I had to get used to a new rhythm of work. Instead of being at my desk 10 hours a day, I was on the road, meeting customers, conducting demonstrations, and generating solutions. I traveled 2 weeks minimum out of every month.
When I finally did come back to the office for the first few months, I still had the feeling I had to be at the office, even though I hadn’t been home for weeks. My new boss would tell me, “Don’t get caught in the vortex.”
That was his way of saying, “Get your paperwork done and go home” or “Don’t get caught up in the busywork.” He’d been in the game long enough to know that balance was found in cycles at this level of business and a two-hour visit to the office to get time cards and expense reports updated before punching out early on a Friday was a way to maintain equilibrium. After my position moved to a work from home arrangement, understanding the cycles of Work/Life Balance became even clearer.
My wife recently made a similar transition from an office environment to a work from home arrangement. She expressed many of the same concerns I had when I first moved from The Fishbowl to the road. She was used to being “Busy” 8+ hours a day. I say “Busy” because working in The Fishbowl is more about seeming busy than being effective.
Once she realized that there would be times when she was so busy she wouldn’t have time to brush her hair, then when she could put in 2 hours of work and meet all her commitments, it didn’t bother her much.
The secret to surviving and thriving in this environment is getting used to the idea that balance will be cyclical, and you won’t be able to do everything in a day or even a week. There will be times when you are so busy you’ll not have the time to watch your favorite show or read that book you’ve been working on, and you’ll have to miss out on some family time.
These periods will be balanced when you can meet your obligations to your company and your customers with a small amount of time and focus more on your family and personal pursuits. The trick here is making sure that the scales balance in the long term.
In order to make the scales balance, there are three key concepts that a person with freedom and autonomy in their work must understand. First, we need to be able to see when the cycles are changing. If a person is not careful or perceptive, the tempo of work can increase, and they can be caught unaware, and work responsibilities can pile up.
When this happens, they will need to work even harder, longer, and more feverishly to dig out of the hole they created. The opposite is true when the work cycles to a slower pace, and a person could focus on busy work and lose out on the opportunity for equilibrium. Experience and guidance from senior supervisors and coworkers can help a novice read the cycles of the work environment.
Draw the line
The second item is to set in stone your daily standards of conduct, which you will satisfy regardless of the cycle of balance. What is your morning ritual? Do you work out, and at what time? Creating systems and processes around these immutable tasks will help you create a framework for your day, which will provide stability as the cycles of work change.
Check out my article “Help Systematize The Life You Want” for tips on creating systems and processes to make your day more productive.
The final item is to decide what you will not compromise, regardless of the cycle of work. Is Jimmy pitching in the playoff game tonight, but you’ve got a proposal due? Does your wife have a doctor’s appointment, but you’re supposed to be visiting a client? These are examples of occurrences that, no matter what the cycle of work is at the time, you will not compromise for work. Identify what these are upfront and make sure your senior leadership knows that they are inviolate.
The concept of “Work/Life Balance,” as we’re fed it by the HR department, is flawed and unrealistic. It’s even more so for workers whose flexibility and autonomy take them away from the desk ridden landscape of The Fishbowl. If we widen our perception beyond the 1/3-24hour paradigm and understand the cycles of “Work” and “Life,” we may have a chance at actually finding some balance.
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