“The secret to work-life balance is to have no life” is the advice Wally gives to a colleague in the comic strip Dilbert. And as ridiculous as that might sound, we all have had a boss, who if they did not say it, thought it. Maybe there have been times when you contemplated the notion?
In a recent Harvard Business Review survey of over 4,000 executives most participants, male and female, agreed they couldn’t compete at a high level if they lived a life with the classic idea of work life balance. Rather, they believed focus, on either work or home, at any given time, was more effective. In reality work got most of their weeks’ time. No wonder the US ranks 28th out of 36 developed nations in getting these two aspects to balance.
I don’t pretend to have the answers, nor do I claim to have achieved total success in this category but I have given it thought, done some research, and attempted to practice some of my findings.
Here are a few work life balance tips from an executive coach.
For a number of years I have attempted to live what I call a “blended life.” Taking into account the life phase I was in – my career building and wealth accumulation years, vs. my family first times, vs. my “How about me?” moments and so on, I would mix all the elements together to create the life I wanted. I’ve always had a career (more than one actually) and have almost always been in a committed relationship. Both are very important to me, so they are forever in my blend.
The question I always had to ask, “What are the proportions?” If I wasn’t vigilantly mindful of risk, one would always dominate the other and I would feel guilty in both locations. So, as I commute home, I intentionally focus on what I want my mindset and behavior to be when I enter that apartment and I monitor myself so as not to be distracted by the sound of another arriving e-mail (I turn off the alert) and do just the same (alert on) as I travel to the office. I always remove my work clothes as soon as I get home and I never wear casual clothes to work. It sets a tone – this is where you are and this is what you need to do – limit the conflict. Some of my friends come from my work world, most don’t. I rarely talk shop outside of the office, yet I am forever curious about the talents and choices of others. The ingredients of this blend are distinctive yet compatible. When I step back, I see both aspects, but where the moment’s focus is would never be in question.
I am also very comfortable living with a certain amount of conscious imbalance. Earlier in my career, when I travelled extensively for business, I knew home and I were getting the short end of the stick even though I tried hard to make the most of every off work hour. My husband and I had dates, I had “no fly” days on my calendar, we even had a television commitment where we’d choose one weekday program per week and enjoyed it together, religiously – even if I was lying in my hotel bed and he was home on our sofa, each of us with a phone to our ear. Sometimes we’d have a weekday, Jane’s on the road, dinner – both of us ordering in – me from room service, he from whatever takeout place struck his fancy. We’d have our normal dinner conversations just miles apart. The point is I knew this was not the ideal but it was conscious compensation for being apart. It also had restrictions and a time limit. (I ultimately quit that job and switched careers to one with zero travel.) We had many a laugh about those days and fondly remembered how strange it appeared to others who had never tried our version of together time.
I prescribe to what the psychoanalyst, DW Winnicott, called the “good enough mother.” The mother who wants the best for her child but admits she is flawed as a parent, makes mistakes, and rather than despair, tries again and again, mostly loving, sometimes hating, the child and herself. I expanded it but in a much less elegant way. I decided to be the good enough wife, child, parent, worker, friend, neighbor, executive coach, citizen, and all the other roles I play. I admit, I can’t be all things to anyone, nor do I want to be. I try hard to do my best but not give my all. I often don’t succeed and generally need to get something from it to make me content and fulfilled. I regularly ask, “How does this fit?” into my vision of a well-lived, complete and rewarding life.
Is a balanced life a zero sum game? I hope not. Can the attempts to have it all produce overwhelm, make you feel depleted or torn? Sure, at times. On the other hand is there the possibility that home can be the enhancer of work and the office the enhancer of home? This I am quite sure. It takes focus, commitment, restrictions, and most of all practice. It also requires an ability to say “no,” a sense of dedication and wonderment, and a willingness to walk away when the people and things that mean the most to you are threatened. The big winner in all of this is not your company, your family, or your friends – it’s you.