Work-Life Balance: It’s Not What You Think It Is

When people complain about work/life balance, their major gripe is that they work too many hours and have too little free time. In other words, they almost always see it as a quantity issue.  But is it really?


Like most working professionals, I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking about how to best achieve a healthy work/life balance. Clearly, there is enough research to convince us all that doing so will certainly lead to a happier, healthier life.

Over the years, though, what I have noticed is that this elusive “balance” actually has very little to do with quantity. Instead, it has more to do with quality, with how your time is spent when you are either working or playing.

In my mind, balance is determined by how energized and engaged we are, regardless of whether we’re at our desks or in our dens. There is no hard-and-fast formula for how much time you should spend at work and at home to be happy.

Think about it: if you’re on a roll and accomplishing a lot, a 60 or even 70-hour workweek can be exhilarating. On the other hand, if you’re bored, apathetic, or discouraged, a 40-hour workweek can drag on…and on…and on as you become progressively more exhausted.

For most high achievers, I think the real reason why we feel a lack of balance isn’t that we don’t have enough free time; it’s that we spend the free time we do have feeling frustrated and angry. And when our “life” time is stressful and draining, we bring that misery with us to the office, which decreases professional satisfaction…and creates a vicious cycle.

So, what’s to be done? Here are some ideas to incorporate into your personal time that might help you find some of that elusive balance you’ve been chasing for years:

Stop treating your loved ones like employees… If you’re an ambitious high achiever at work, you have a certain personality type. Plus, you’re used to everyone on your team pulling their weight, acting with initiative, meeting deadlines, etc. So you carry these “professional” expectations home with you. You expect your spouse and your kids to be high performers too. And when they aren’t, you spend all your time explaining, convincing and nagging—in essence, giving them bad performance reviews. Not only does this hurt your relationships and create a tense environment at home; it also means that in some ways, you’re never off the clock.

…and adjust your expectations of others. Accept the fact that in your personal life, you can’t force your friends, neighbors, spouse, and even kids to have the priorities you think they should. You can’t force them to complete tasks in the way you would complete them. You can’t even ensure that others will fulfill (what you see as) their full potentials. I’m not saying that you should accept failure or condone mediocrity, but do realize that it’s not your “job” to micromanage how others live their lives. You might be surprised by how much weight this mental shift lifts from your shoulders!

Instead, focus on preserving and nurturing relationships. The next time you find yourself focusing on getting things done at home or fixating on how they’re getting done, ask yourself: Is what I’m doing right now helping or hurting my relationships? Is it pushing me closer or farther away from my loved ones? Is it energizing or draining me? If the answer isn’t positive, follow up with: How important is this task or action, really? Is it more or less important than my relationship?

Keep your family in the loop. When you’re busy or stressed at work, the tension tends to mount at home, too. And if it feels like your family is uncaring or oblivious, you’ll be that much more frustrated. Help your family help you by putting them on notice whenever possible. If you know the Friday before vacation will be stressful and you’ll probably have to work late, make sure they know they shouldn’t expect you to do all of the packing. If you’re on deadline for a big project and you’ll have to do some work at home, explain that it’s important for you to have peace and quiet. Often what goes “wrong” (and disrupts your balancing act) is that your loved ones get a surprise and aren’t prepared to help you guard your sanity.

Unplug as much as possible when you’re at home. Yes, you’ve heard this one before, but be honest: are you really unplugging? Thanks to laptops and smartphones, most of us are only a scroll, click, or swipe away from the office. Even if you “only” check your email after the kids are in bed or send “just a few” texts to a colleague, for instance, you’re still bringing work home. Instead of focusing on all of the activities you want to accomplish in your free time, you’re forcing your brain to think on two different tracks at once, which depletes your mental, emotional, and even physical bandwidth. Of course you’re stressed and irritated! Use this rule of thumb: if it can wait until the next workday, let it.

Don’t forget to nurture yourself. Think back over the last few weeks or months. Is there a recurring thought of, I didn’t get to do this enough? (I’m not talking about chores; but about activities you enjoy.) Whether it’s journaling, reading for pleasure, playing with your kids, or indulging in a hobby, it really is important to do things that make you happy on a regular basis. For me, that activity is working out. I need to be active to feel healthy and balanced. Don’t buy into the notion that your needs and wants can wait. If you want a healthy work-life balance, they really can’t!

Develop a spiritual awareness. I’m not talking about religion, per se, but about doing something for your soul. Serve others, attend church services, meditate, take a solitary walk in nature—whatever is most meaningful to you. In a world that’s full of noise, distractions, and responsibilities that are constantly competing for our attention, it is so easy to be sucked dry. (And often, you don’t even notice that it’s happening until you’re completely burned out.)

Staying connected to yourself, to other people, to your values, and (if you so choose) a Higher Power will help you to live with more balance.

One more thing: don’t forget that your balanced life won’t look like mine or anyone else’s, because the root of balance is centered in what fuels, energizes, and revitalizes you.

If you’re not sure exactly what that is, well, you’ve just hit upon one of the biggest benefits of embarking on the journey to work/life balance.  You get to learn something new about yourself. If you’ve been too you’re busy trying to control and shape everyone around you, you’ve probably been too busy to discover what brings you joy. It’s time to change that. Enjoy the ride!

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