Work/life balance is one of the most elusive and sought after values in business today. Employers recognize that out of balance or burned out employees can impact morale, engagement, attendance, productivity, retention, quality and even customer satisfaction so the stakes are high. With so much at stake why has work/life balance been so hard to figure out?
The problem is that balance is not something that can be provided as part of a benefits package. One organization can’t offer more work/life balance to its employees than another. Some employers offer a flexible work schedule, child care, financial services, etc. but these things can only help you manage life more efficiently, they can’t give your life direction, momentum or the feeling of balance.
The term work/life balance itself suggests that work is what we have to do and life is what we want to do, and that these are two opposing forces between which we must constantly make choices. It suggests that when we choose to give time or thought to one, the other loses. This is an unfortunate suggestion because you don’t have a separate professional life and personal life, you just have a life. This dichotomy leads people to say things like they want to work really hard and retire at 50 and have the rest of their lives to do what they want. Would that produce balance? Would it be wise to wait until your life is half over before you start living it? Would your spouse or friends even wait around that long to enjoy it with you?
Trying to manage the clock on an everyday basis doesn’t guarantee balance either. Spending half of each day in the office and half at home can’t guarantee that you would leave stress behind when you left work for the day. It can’t guarantee that you would have satisfying personal relationships just because of the number of hours spent outside the office or because you turn your smartphone off during dinner. Balance is not a quantitative measure.
Think of the last time you had the thought that your life is better today than it was yesterday. Maybe it was a graduation, a new job offer, a promotion, a new client, an award, a magazine or TV appearance, a great vacation, running a marathon, hosting a great party, a new relationship, a new volunteer opportunity, helping a child with a new milestone, solving an old problem with a fresh new thought, even just getting a great workout or receiving a compliment on a job well done. These are times when you felt balanced. You worked towards a goal and your hard work produced real results and made an improvement in your life. Movement in our lives towards goals and improvement is what creates balance. It creates the excitement and energy that we need to keep going. At the end of the day it offers peace of mind that we have not wasted time, that we have identified where we want to go and we have done something about it instead of just standing still and aging through another day. The momentum and results created by improvement motivates and inspires us to do even more the next day.
This is a different understanding of balance. Balance is a feeling you get when you are satisfied with where you are and where you are going in life. You are satisfied with where you’re spending your time and resources. It’s the balance of maintenance and improvement. Balance comes from pursuing and achieving goals and seeing improvement in your life, rather than continuing to put forth effort toward maintenance or standing still.
The balance and satisfaction that come from pursuing goals and improvement is unique to each individual. What makes one person’s life better might not be what someone else wants. It could be someone’s goal to buy a bigger house and another’s goal to finally downsize. It’s not always bigger, better, more. It’s about movement. It’s about taking your life in the direction you want it to go and experiencing the excitement and exhilaration that goes with it.
Both personally and professionally you have opportunity for improvement, ingenuity, new adventure and new growth. The best way to combat burn-out and stress and achieve a feeling that your life is balanced between what you have to do and what makes you feel alive, is to continuously seek improvement in some area of your life.
This is important because there are parts of life that continue to get worse all the time. The reality of aging is that health becomes more of a challenge and keeping up our physical appearance becomes more time consuming. The responsibilities and worries of life never stop, in fact they seem to grow as we get older. Without continuous effort toward goals and progress you will spend all your time and tremendous efforts on maintenance and just trying to stay where you are and not lose ground. Over time this can cause burn-out, depression, resentment, regret and stress.
As you identify goals and plan even small steps to work toward them each day then the feeling of burn-out begins to fade. With each small step you see improvement and gain momentum. You are moving… progressing… the purpose of your efforts becomes more evident. You have something to talk about and develop ideas about, you find your thoughts always gravitating toward how to reach the goal, and how your life will improve once you have accomplished it. You are using your resources toward improvement instead of fighting to stand still. That feeling of life in motion is creating balance. Moving toward something meaningful that will make life better for you, your team at work, your organization, your family, etc. is what makes burn-out and stress fade away and lets balance and satisfaction move in.
The key to getting started on this journey of improvement and achieving balance in your life is to plan. Managing survival or maintenance items is challenging and time consuming. The daily maintenance tasks that cause burn-out and stress come from personal and professional issues and include everything from paying bills, cleaning dishes, getting haircuts and putting gas in the car, to submitting expense reports, attending long meetings and keeping up with endless emails. Then you wake up the next day and do it all over again. If you wait until these items are completed each day before you get to improvement, then improvement will never happen. Instead, while you are in the midst of frenzied errands and tasks, take a step back and shift gears a little. Squeeze in steps toward your goals on your calendar every day. Without planning these steps, your brain will always prioritize survival tasks first. Having a written plan will influence the way you make decisions about your time and help you fit in goal steps along with everything else you have to do today. It will keep your goals at the forefront of your mind instead of letting you bury yourself in survival mode.
Take some time and make a list of goals, large and small, that would improve the quality of your life. Consider professional and personal goals, long term and short term. Look at the list every day and find a way to get some small step toward achieving one of them onto your calendar each day. Schedule time to make a networking call, read an industry magazine, take a class, find a mentor or write an article, brainstorm ways to improve a process, or offer more value to an existing client. Contact a financial planner, exercise, plan a date, play a game, fix that squeaky door at home, etc. Movement toward goals and improvement, even small steps, can keep you from burn-out and will keep you balanced and improve the quality of not just your professional life or your personal life, but your whole life. We don’t need to balance work and life. Work is part of life. We need to balance surviving today with progressing toward a better tomorrow. This is what truly creates the feeling of balance and it’s not something that can be given to you by an employer or something you achieve by watching how much time you spend working versus not working. If you can identify ways in which you are improving an area of your life all the time (no matter how small) then you have a credible claim to balance.