Nanci’s Blog

Work-Life Balance—A Myth? 

August 25th, 2006

Whenever I address a group of professionals, the issue of work-life balance always crops up as an area that people want to improve. What is work-life balance–what does it mean to you? Does this exist? Who is responsible for creating this?

When changes occur in your work life or circumstances, they will invariably affect your home life. To expect or imagine otherwise is naïve. Often we grasp new opportunities which appear exciting and filled with all kinds of promise without really envisaging the impact that this will have on our home lives. We may think of the extra commute if we change our place of work, the extra travel or responsibilities and very quickly come up with all kinds of justifications for this newly-earned nirvana. But after a few weeks or months when the initial euphoria wears off we wonder, “What have I done? Is this worth it? I never get to see my family anymore.” These are silent entreaties of course, as we are never going to openly admit that we did not foresee the complexities this new opportunity brought with it.

The good news is that no matter how you much you think it through and plan for it, life has a way of throwing the odd ball at us which carves up the neat field that we have laid out. An unexpected merger, a new boss, divestment of a division, product recalls, new legislation are just some of the things that we are not ready for. Given all of this, what can you do?

Firstly, you have to understand what ‘work-life balance’ means for you. Does it mean that you are home every night for family suppers, that you spend 2 hours per night with your children, that weekends are free, that you only do emails once everyone has gone to bed? Work-life balance means different things to different people and it’s crucial that you understand what this means for you. Because you are the only one that can create it for yourself. Not your boss, not your company, not your spouse—–just YOU.

Sometimes we try to aspire to achieve something normal. One of my favorite quotes:

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”

[Ellen DeGeneres]

So, how can you introduce balance in your life?

On a personal level, I believe that work-life balance is a state of mind. It’s not the amount of time that you get to spend off work or with your family; it’s what you do with your time and how you feel while doing it. By this I mean that if you feel engaged and energized while at work or at play, then you don’t need ‘down-time.’

1. Be present. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow” describes how people get more satisfaction and meaning when they are fully engaged in a task–when they are in ‘flow.’ You know how sometimes you are in the midst of something and time just seems to pass? Then you were in flow. Try to introduce this into as many activities as you can during your day.

I know that many of us have myriads of things to do everyday but if we just focus completely on the task at hand rather than being distracted by the list or the next thing on the list, we will reduce our state of mental exhaustion and stress. So, be ‘present’ (give your full attention) to whatever you are doing—whether you are in a meeting, writing a report, talking to a colleague, playing with your children, having dinner with your spouse. Do not let your mind wander to the ‘next thing’ to do. We are so busy focusing on the ‘next thing’ that generally we don’t enjoy what we are presently engaged in, which was the ‘next thing’ of the previous thing that we were distracted from. Life then becomes a series of ‘next things,’ perhaps explaining why we don’t have a sense of accomplishment and meaning at the end of the day, and keep seeking.

2. Make changes to your routine. Sticking to ‘traditions’ like daily family suppers may not be possible for you at this stage of your life. Instead of feeling guilty, accept it. Speak to your family about what is going on in your life and work out a plan with them. Perhaps you are now home for dinner two nights a week and decide to spend every Saturday afternoon between 2-4pm engaged in some activity just with your kids or spouse. There are loads of solutions out there. You need to look at what you are doing, why you are doing it and what changes you can introduce. These changes don’t have to be permanent. When things free up for you, make adjustments accordingly. Go with the flow.

3. Make time for yourself. It is vital that you find time to do things just for yourself such as walking, biking, gym, yoga, swimming, jogging, or dancing (you can do this with your partner too!)—anything that you enjoy. Doing something physical (it does not have to be strenuous) a few times a week calms the mind. Really try to find an activity that you enjoy as the chances are greater that you will stick to it. Don’t promise yourself to go to the gym just because that seems to be the thing to do. In addition, do things to indulge yourself— take art classes, singing lessons, go for a spa treatment, a massage. These so-called indulgences remove stress from your life and celebrate who you are, and in so doing, introduce a sense of balance and well-being.

4. Let go of some things. We tend to introduce more and more stuff into our lives without examining what we need to let go of. If you have a heavy travel schedule, then ensure that the weekend is not filled with activities. If you are working under pressure, don’t have social engagements during the week. Look at some of the things that you still have in your life and ask yourself why you are still doing them. Afraid of not being liked, not being invited again, called boring?? I am not suggesting giving up things permanently but make sure that you have ‘white space’ in your calendar. When someone shows me a full calendar I don’t think, “Wow, what a busy person,” but rather, “Wow, what a needy person.” Delegate, outsource, get rid of, say ‘no’; do whatever it takes to create space for yourself.
Here’s a challenge for you: Say ‘no’ to one thing each day for the next seven days.

5. Get help. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things become just a bit too much and we feel trapped, despairing and overwhelmed. At times like this, a friendly ear or a helping hand is invaluable. Find yourself a mentor (within or outside your company) or get a coach to help you through those tough times.

True work-life balance means not feeling stressed and under pressure. It’s enjoying your life and work, feeling calm and in control of things, and knowing that you have the space if new things show up for you.

Go create it.

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