The Myth of Work-Life Balance and How to Focus on What Matters
How to get clear on your values and prioritize them (when you can).
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
As the leader of a company, a single mom, and a well-documented fitness enthusiast, I'm no stranger to the question, "How do you manage it all?" In most cases, the people asking are looking for suggestions to find more balance in their own lives. They may aspire to lead a company but think it means giving up their personal lives. Or perhaps they worry their friendships have taken a hit because of a busy travel schedule.
They're looking for the secret formula to doing it all.
Whenever I get this question, I tend to laugh it off. There is, of course, no way to do everything while still keeping our health and happiness in perfect balance. No matter how many articles we read on productivity, healthy sleeping habits, or flow states, at the end of the day we're only human.
So then, how do we decide where to focus our energy? And what happens when life inevitably calls your attention away? On these two questions, I have plenty of advice to share.
Deciding Where to Focus Your Energy
Most companies have a mission statement. I've written before about the importance of individual employees having their own mission statements, but why shouldn't we all have a personal mission?
A successful mission statement incorporates a company's core values and gives employees a guiding light for all of the decisions they'll face. A personal mission does the exact same thing, helping you to wade through the hundreds of decisions you'll make each day about how you spend your time.
The first step in crafting your mission is to identify your personal values, which requires introspection and honesty. What are the non-negotiable parts of your life? When you picture your ideal future life, what does it look like? What values rise to the top--Independence? Compassion? Empowerment?
For me, spending quality time with my daughters is non-negotiable, so I take great care when managing my travel schedule to make sure the opportunities are worth the time away and that time isn't wasted.
Another non-negotiable is fitness. For many of us, this is the first thing to go when life gets busy. But for me, fitness not only keeps a history of chronic pain at bay but also sharpens my mind and makes me feel happier.
Another is my professional success. When I think of an ideal future, I see myself at the helm of a company. For that reason, it's another non-negotiable. (For the women reading this, it's worth explicitly stating that it's completely acceptable to value your professional life above a family. Men have been doing it for centuries. Providing for your family is important. And it doesn't mean you can't have one.)
Spend some time thinking about your own non-negotiables and what will bring you the most happiness. Once you have identified them, it will be easier to decide how to spend your time. If you've been neglecting one area, you'll make choices accordingly to make up for it.
I know what you're thinking. What a luxury to decide how we spend our time. What do we do when work demands we stay late? When the kids have twelve soccer games in a weekend? When a relationship needs attention?
Rolling With the Punches
This is where I typically start chuckling when explaining my thoughts on work-life "balance." Throughout my career there have been periods when twelve hour days were simply needed. There was no cutting out at five to make it to an OrangeTheory class.
On any given day, my life can feel completely off balance. There's no getting around some of the demands that leading a real, multifaceted life can place on us. But if life is tilted in one direction for several weeks or months, you'll feel it. If I work twelve hour days for a month, I feel it--literally. It's the prolonged lack of balance that you need to watch out for.
This is where those personal values will be a big help. Look for opportunities to shift things back to your ideal balance, where you are giving more time to the other areas of your life that you value.
Not finding any options? Then it may be time to get real about the choices you made that have led you to this point. Rather than thinking that if you could just do more, you'd be happy, evaluate what takes up most of your time, what makes you most unhappy, and what, if anything, you can do to change it.
This isn't always easy or even possible. But if macro, lifestyle changes like changing jobs or hiring childcare aren't a possibility, look for small ways to change. Do you value spending time in nature but don't have time to go on hikes every morning? Starting a small garden that you could tend to for 10 minutes in the morning may be just enough, at least for now.
So while the idea of complete work-life balance is a myth in my opinion, bringing awareness to your personal values, making changes to your lifestyle accordingly, and allowing yourself some grace and flexibility will help you to enjoy the things you spend your time on and to not beat yourself up about your "imbalanced" life.