Work-Life Balance is a Myth, Aim for This Instead
There is no such this as work-life balance. Life is too complicated for that. Learn a different way of thinking about it and what to do instead.
There is no such thing as work-life balance.
Yes, you read that right. That elusive state that so many people aspire to attain is straight-up unattainable. There are no productivity tips, tricks or hacks that will make it so you feel like your life is in perfect harmony. There is no morning routine or meditation practice that will make it so the scales or seesaw are in balance.
Why? Because life is so much more complicated than that.
The 2 problems with work-life balance
Problem 1: Work and life are treated as separate things
The phrase work-life balance implies that “work” and “life” are separate entities that should be approached as different things. But the reality is we only get one life, made up of many different facets, with work being one. All of these facets are interconnected with each impacting the others all the time. They can’t exist in isolation.
For example: if your kid is having problems at school (bullying, low grades, etc), you will have meetings with their teachers, maybe other parents. Maybe your kid needs to talk to a therapist or start Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. You might need to have serious conversations with your kid as you support them through whatever is going on.
There is no way that this situation doesn’t impact how you feel, your sleep and energy levels, and your ability to concentrate. Unsurprisingly this will impact your ability to work because the challenges you are dealing with at home don’t suddenly disappear when you start work.
Problem 2: Balance is not a state you can attain
The phrase work-life balance implies that it’s possible to reach a point where you feel that your time, energy and attention are evenly distributed between “work” and “life”, whatever each of those even means.
It’s simply not true. You are constantly shifting your time, energy and attention depending on your:
- Particular life circumstances
- Specific priorities and values
- Season of life
It’s sort of like the never-ending pursuit of happiness. If I do/achieve/attain X thing then I will finally be happy. Happiness is not an end goal but rather a constantly changing state. So is “life”. Endlessly trying to “get in balance” is an exercise in futility.
Here is another way of thinking about it:
Life as a pendulum
Instead of the scales or seesaw metaphor of “work” on one side and “life” on the other, think of a pendulum.
You are the pendulum, constantly swinging between any number of different areas of focus. What these areas of focus are will depend on many of the factors listed above. The time, energy and attention that you give these areas are never in any particular balance but instead in regular flux.
There will be times when you are more focussed on work, and then you will swing to your kids, and then your partner, and back to work, sometimes all in the same day. This is normal. It's when the pendulum (you) gets stuck in one area and stops swinging to the others that problems start to crop up.
How do I know when my pendulum is stuck?
When you have spent too much time focusing on one area, you will start to notice warning signs in the other areas of your life. You also might experience things like:
- More frequent conflict in relationships
- Isolation from your friends and family
- Financial troubles
- Health problems
For example, for many entrepreneurs and business leaders, the pendulum often gets stuck on work. This might look like working long hours, missing family time or events, and being distracted by work when you are doing things other than work.
Aim for movement, not balance
You will always have several different priorities competing for your time, energy, and attention. Instead of trying to attain that elusive and unattainable balance, shift your effort to keeping the pendulum moving and making sure you are never stuck on one priority.
How do I get (and keep) my pendulum moving again if it’s stuck?
It’s easy to feel caught in the habits and activities of a particular area of your life (most often work) and not know how to shift things so that your pendulum keeps swinging.
The following 4 strategies will help you get your pendulum swinging again and keep it moving going forward.
1. Map your ideal week
The ideal week is how you imagine your week happening, assuming it goes exactly the way you want it to. The purpose of mapping your ideal week is to see how you want to spend your week and compare it to how you actually spend your week.
When you have that information, you can make different decisions about your commitments.
- Brainstorm the activities/routines that you ACTUALLY spend time on. Wake up, bedtime, get ready, eat, commute, drive kids around, bath time, workout, recurring meetings etc.
- Brainstorm the top activities that you WANT to spend time on (but maybe aren’t.) Time with friends, family, or your partner, self-care/self-growth, exercise, hobbies, reading, or recreational activities.
- Map everything you brainstormed in Step 1 in a spreadsheet or create a separate calendar in Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar.
Use the week view to see where the gaps are and where the things in Step 2 fit, if anywhere.
- Evaluate when you WANT to be doing certain types of tasks or activities like deep work, meetings, fitness, family time, etc.
- Decide if anything needs to change.
Once you have created your ideal week, you can use it as the basis for planning time-blocking your actual week. Overlay your ideal week with your actual week to help make decisions about what you are going to work on, when, given that week’s schedule. (See Time-Blocking and Imagining Your Ideal Week for a full article on this).
2. Obligation elimination
Once you have more clarity on what you want to be happening in your week, you can review your current obligations and decide which one of the 4 Ds they fall under:
- Declined - What can be removed entirely?
- Delegated - What can be assigned to someone else?
- Deferred - What can get pushed back?
- Done - What do you have to keep?
The purpose of obligation elimination is to break out of the cycle of commitments you have made in service of a single priority and make space for the others that you have been neglecting. You can read more obligation elimination strategies here: Obligation Elimination and the Power of Saying No.
3. Daily priority reflection
I have written at length on how powerful a daily reflection practice is (here and here). The daily priority reflection is a variation of a daily reflection that focuses on getting you to:
- Articulate your priorities
- Ask yourself every day if you are making them a priority
The steps for a daily priority reflection are:
- Brainstorm 5-8 priorities in your life that you want to make sure you are giving time, attention, and energy to.
- Consider the parameters for what “counts” as time, energy and attention on each priority.
- In a notebook or spreadsheet, list the priorities you chose horizontally across the top of the page so you have columns and the dates vertically along the left side of the page.
- Reflect each day and mark what you did
By reflecting back each day on where you spent your attention, time, and energy, you start to see patterns. These patterns will give you clarity on questions like:
- What do I spend my time on?
- Are these the right priorities for me?
- Am I happy with how I spend my time?
- Am I neglecting something that is important to me?
The answers to these questions help you notice if your pendulum is stuck. Read more about the daily priority reflection here: You Don’t Need to Have a Near-Death Experience to Change Your Life
4. Communicate and take care
Sometimes our pendulums need to stay on a specific priority for longer than we want. Be it a family illness, a big project launch, or a change in financial security…life happens.
The best things you can do to prevent the problems and challenges that come up when your pendulum gets stuck are:
1. Communicate what’s going on with the people you care about
Your loved ones are a lot more likely to be understanding and supportive if they know what is going on with you and why you might be neglecting them. Talk to them and set expectations as best you can.
2. Be intentional about keeping up your self-care
The first thing that often gets dropped when you get stuck on a particular priority is self-care. Good food, sleep and exercise all get pushed off the to-do list, but these will be the things that help you endure and get your pendulum swinging again when you are able.
Life is constantly shifting and there will always be more things vying for your time, energy, and attention than you can fit. Instead of trying to achieve the unattainable and binary work-life balance, imagine your pendulum and get clear on the things that you truly want to prioritize.
Once you know what those priories are, try the strategies above to keep your pendulum swinging so your time, energy and attention are spent on the right things.
Need help getting that pendulum swinging again? Book a free consultation!
Productivity consultant, writer, speaker, serial entrepreneur, chaos calmer, introvert, cat-lady. Lover of books, fitness, old fashioned’s, basketball, and video games.
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