Are you one of the people who have been striving to achieve the infamous work-life balance for years and somehow it did not quite work out?
Too much work, not enough life. And all getting mixed up?
Well, I was definitely there. I remember telling my children when they were home for holidays: “Sorry honey, I’ve got no time for playing now, I really need to get this done, can you wait until after 6 pm?”
Most of the time I work from home. I was a single mom for about 14 years and accompanied my kids into adulthood on my own.
Being on the phone to a client with a daughter or son bursting into the office, wanting to tell me about this “stupid” teacher or asking for sweets or demanding an immediate answer to a request was more the rule than an exception. Despite clear rules.
This was normally accompanied by outbreaks of stress sweats, trying to usher the kid out of my office, and using the most silly body language to make clear that this is the wrong moment for them to be here.
After all, this is serious business and no kindergarden, right? And how unprofessional to have a child talking (or even screaming in the background). I won’t be taken seriously if that happens, so went my thoughts and fears.
Keeping work and life apart was a real challenge and often left me exhausted and with a massive feeling of guilt and anxiety when it did not work out. This famous work-life thing.
I am not even sorry to say that I will declare work-life balance having died. Possibly it was never there and we were only trying to build an artificial construct which had no substance.
This epiphany did not come from one day to the next. In actual fact it was always directly staring me in the face, however, there were all these specialists and experts talking about this work-life balance, so there had to a solution, right?
The more I tried to keep those areas apart – “life” and “work”, the messier it got and the more I put myself under pressure. Compartmentalizing was obviously no solution. Whatever I tried, drawing this hard line between work and life was just not working out.
And it began to dawn on me: There is just… life.
Work is not separated from our lives, but is an essential part of it. Regardless if we are employed, run our own business, do unpaid charity work or manage our homes.
And there are other areas: relationships, parenthood, friendships, hobbies, school, spirituality…you name it.
All these areas (and others you may highlight) are important and make up the entirety of our lives. We are in it with everything we have and represent .
I am still a mom when I am sitting at my computer and typing, so during a (boring) conference call the thought about what to get for my son’s birthday can pop up. Or that I still need to get coriander for the curry tonight.
The same applies to work issues when I am sitting down for dinner with my family. “How the heck can I find a solution for the integration of two web applications?” - which has been bugging me for days.
There is no switching off of work or other parts of my life – they are intertwined and influence each other. If I want them to or not.
Thankfully, we’re living in a world where even managers and leaders of corporations have understood (or are starting to) that we always show up as who we are with all parts of our lives in tow. While being interested in and knowing your story, more and more employers give their employees room to manage their lives - not just the working life – in their own way.
Years ago when I was still working in the corporate world, this was unheard of. Going home early while saying openly that this is because of a drama performance of your 10 year old daughter? No way.
Thankfully this has changed.
If this work-life balance does not exist, what is the solution then to balancing life?
That is a good question, and quite a challenge.
As per usual, awareness is always the first step to basically anything. If we can see and accept that there is just life with various, often competing roles, this is the first step to getting to a not just manageable, but satisfying situation.
We all have these different roles in our lives: At work as manager, leader, team member, in our family as partner, lover, father, mother, child, in our communities (church, club, neighbourhood, charities….), scholar – the list can be long.
All these roles demand some of our time – some more, some less. The danger of dropping one or even more of these balls is quite large, if we don’t pay attention.
This clearly happened to me when I started building up a new part of my own business and organized the renovation of my house at the same time.
I was incredibly efficient, got things done, worked late and a lot. I had very focused calls and conversations with my daughter, who lived in the house at that time, to organize what had to be done, in what fashion, and with what materials.
Until one day after a visit to the house came to an end my daughter said: ”You know, you never really have time for us anymore. We have not done a single thing together which was fun while you were here”.
Sh**! Ball dropped. Clearly. The one of being the mom I want to be. While trying to get a job done, I became efficient, transactional in my communication and forgot about being loving, caring and having fun with one of the most important people in my life.
Getting consumed by the one or the other area in life often leads to a falling out of balance. Work is overwhelming and demands lots of time and effort. If for example, your child is being bullied in school it can create lots of worries, sleepless nights and requires a lot of attention.
This can happen.
Critical is to notice it and to be able to address the imbalance towards the unimportant stuff eventually.
To find a balance it makes sense as a first step to break our life down into those specific role areas and goals we would like to achieve.
This includes professional roles – you might be a sales manager, a department leader, a product developer – as well as personal roles.
Asking the question what we are about in these roles, meaning what values we are driven by and what we’d like to be or achieve (long-term) in those roles, gives us a good clue about the direction.
Even better, write it down. “Writing is a kind of psycho-neural muscular activity which helps bridge and integrate the conscious and subconscious minds. It distils, crystallizes and clarifies thought and helps break the whole into parts”. So Stephen Covey in his popular 7 Habits book.
In other words: Writing it down creates clarity and helps making it stick.
It kicks of thoughts about who we want to be…and why.
Am I striving for the CEO position to purely please my ego or is it because I love to lead and inspire? Or maybe my objective is the higher salary as it allows me to build a better life for my family.
What kind of parent do I want to be? Loving and caring I guess, like most of us who have children. What does that mean in more detail? Allowing everything or setting boundaries?
Who do I want to be in my intimate relationship? Do I have clarity about that or do I neglect the most precious relationships in my life in the name of professional success?
An effective goal focuses rather on results than activities, as it clarifies where you’d like to be and probably also where you are currently – your starting point.
Your roles and goals – and with it the balance you’d like to achieve – might be completely different to mine.
Identifying these roles and goals basically leads to finding where we really want to put our time and energy. In other words: what is important to us.
Balance does not mean giving everything the same time and effort. You might decide that your balance means working more. Or spending more time on writing this book you are writing. Or spending more time with your loved ones.
Whatever our life balance turns out to be: Having a clear idea about our roles and goals helps us to translate those into daily activities.
If you want to be this caring and romantic partner for your spouse, arrange a weekly date night (and make space for it in your calendar). Or just flirt with your partner (don’t we all love it!).
If you want to be that open and reliable team leader, find ways of creating transparency in your team and keep your promises (and don’t overcommit).
You get my point.
It helps to have those, let’s call them statements, somewhere where we go back to on a regular basis. I have those reminders in my phone with an alarm. You could also stick it somewhere on the wall in your office. Not necessarily recommende in a big office environment with lots of people - that might be a tad too personal - it would definitely be for me!
…nor am I and nor should you be. We won’t be able to plan our life through to the last detail. We’re so much more beautiful with all our flaws anyway…
We live in a very busy and complex world with a massive overload in terms of information and demands pulling us in all sorts of directions – often at the same time.
That means that clarity about ourselves, our mission and goals in life is more important for guidance and direction and an overall perspective in life than ever.
It helps to define the things that really matter. To make sure that life is in balance.
We’ll all experience glitches from our “ideal” and that is absolutely normal. What is important is to come back to the balance rather sooner than later. That is only possible if we have created awareness for where we want to be.
Who wants to discover at the end of their lives that they have not really lived? Or mattered where it was most important.