You’ve got a lot on your plate, are respected at work for your achievements, but often feel overwhelmed, stressed, and may sometimes feel guilty about whether you give enough time to your family. When someone talks about having work-life balance, you laugh and say, “What’s that?” You’ve probably resigned yourself to thinking “this is just how it is.” I know, because I’ve worked with many people just like you who struggle with whether “balance” can be successfully achieved when you have a demanding career.
There are a few inherent problems with how most people look at work-life balance that create issues, conflicts, and ultimately failure to gain or maintain balance over time. One is having unrealistic expectations about the timeframe within which “balance” can be achieved. Another is a lack of respect for the complexities of work and life, and all the moving parts that exist in today’s professional lifestyle. Third, the simplistic view that “balance” is purely an allocation of time. And finally, awareness of the individual’s priorities, needs, and definition of what successful balance looks like.
The fact of the matter is that work/life balance cannot be molded into a prescribed formula. To illustrate the point, assume for a moment you view balance as a formula in which you think achieving balance means spending 1/3 of your life in each of these areas: work, personal, and sleep. You will probably become very disappointed with yourself when trying to get to this equation in your own life. As soon as an important client project requires some 10-12 hour days, or the kids don’t sleep well, the equation doesn’t work anymore and frustration sets in. Add to this the challenge with how to define each of these areas of your life – is cooking and cleaning work or personal? For one person, cooking dinner might clearly fall into “work” but for someone else, it is how he relaxes at the end of the day.
As you can see, what constitutes “success” in this process is intensely personal. One person may be passionate about work and not desire a lot of personal time, as long as their primary relationships are maintained, while someone else may “work to live” and values leaving the office at 5:00 on the dot. Some people thrive when they integrate their work and life closely, while others prefer clear boundaries between the two. For some people exercise is an important part of self-care and their personal time, while others may need quiet time alone, or time to pursue their hobbies or other interests. Some people’s work schedule is consistent and predictable, for others the demands may vary wildly from week to week.
A successful work-life balance plan is all about personalization and flexibility. Use these tips to determine what you need in yours:
Define what a successful balance would mean to you. What are your work objectives, and personal care goals? What is important to connect in a meaningful way to family and friends? What else do you need to build into your personal picture of balance? What is non-negotiable for you in maintaining balance?
What is a realistic time frame in which you feel you can commit to creating balance as you’ve defined it? Very few people can maintain balance within each day, and many struggle with weekly. Perhaps a 2-4 week window is achievable. If you are in a highly seasonal profession (such as a tax accountant), perhaps you need to look at a longer time frame, knowing that career demands will be quite high during that time, but that you may have a lot of flexibility in the remainder of the year.
Consider the realities of your work and life circumstances and the types of weeks you tend to have, from easy to stressful. What types of situations consistently arise, and how can you adapt for them? What will you commit to during those situations? Do you need to scale up or scale back in these circumstances? Identify what the challenging times look like, and plan ahead so you can schedule your work time and personal commitments accordingly.
Your personal, family, and work needs will change over time. Review and change your plan as needed to ensure it is supporting you in your life goals.
Your personal balance plan needs to take into account your values, preferences, self-care needs, work obligations, demands on your personal time, and definition of successful balance. It needs to have a reasonable timeframe attached, and flexibility in what you commit to and what you are willing to let go based on the demands you will face during that timeframe. Your plan must be flexible over time, and readjusted to meet the needs of your life at that moment in time. Balance can be achieved and maintained with the right perspective and planning.