Ah, the Work-Life Balance. Every time I hear that phrase I shake my head. People speak in the abstract about some Zen-like experience where you can effortlessly find a perfect blend of your career and personal life. What you hear about is a calm and tranquil spa setting with classical music in the background; your personal and professional lives are in perfect balance with each other and peacefully co-exist. The reason why I shake my head is because anyone who is trying to achieve a work-life balance, and that is just about every person that I know, has never experienced this utopia.
Instead, what I’ve discovered is that most people are engaged in a constant struggle between two incredibly consuming areas of life. With today’s technology people are expected to be available 24/7, to respond immediately to messages and emails regardless of when they were sent, and as a result there is a near constant overlap of work and personal time. The converse is true as well, with personal matters demanding attention during the work day. This conflict between the personal and professional aspects of life seems to be especially true of parents with young children, where the demands of your family are front and center.
For most people, any kind of balance just doesn’t happen naturally or on its own. Despite what countless articles argue, there isn’t a quick fix or a one-time perfect solution. I believe that balancing your personal and professional life is an active endeavor. It is an ongoing activity, one that is individualized and changes as your priorities and obligations do. That said, below are some things that I have found helpful in trying to find my own balance, and hopefully will help you as well.
Understand Your Priorities
What is important to you? Is it a new promotion? Is it a weekly family dinner at your aunt’s house? Is it both? That’s OK. You shouldn’t have to choose a successful career or a close relationship with your family and friends. Unfortunately, there will be situations where your professional and personal obligations overlap. Here you are forced to make a choice, and having a clear understanding of what is most important to you will help. Sometimes, this will need to be done on a case-by-case basis.
For example, you get a last minute call to come into work on a Saturday when you are not scheduled to be there. Would it make a difference if you already had plans with your best friend? What if she had travelled a long distance to see you? How would your decision be different if you were called in because of a mistake you made? Or if a promotion hinged on you fixing whatever the problem happened to be? In each instance your answer may be different, given the circumstances and your own priorities. Actively evaluating the things that are important to you can help you make these difficult decisions in situations where your work and home life come into conflict.
Actively Manage Your Schedule
Some people are detailed planners and some aren’t, but either type of personality can benefit by taking an active role in scheduling. Be aware of your obligations, especially the time consuming ones and plan accordingly when possible.
If you are consistently missing something that you deem important, say being home in time to read your kids a bedtime story, then you have to make time to be there. If, for this example, that is accomplished by bringing work home or by making it known you leave the office by a certain time no matter what, so be it. By taking a stance and not letting yourself out of the obligation, you can do those things that are important to you and avoid feeling guilty about missing certain events. Some people even work better under a little pressure with a self-imposed deadline. For more time management techniques, see this blog post.
To Each Their Own
My idea of a perfect balance may not be the same as your idea. It probably isn’t, and to be fair my own idea of an appropriate balance isn’t the same today as it was a few years ago before I had kids (when the bulk of my time was spent at my 9-5 job and law school at night). Does that mean that I don’t take my professional life seriously? Absolutely not, but my kids take center stage in my own balancing act. Whenever possible I schedule my professional obligations around their routines so that I can spend as much time as I can with them. Does this mean that I keep odd hours sometimes to get everything done? Yes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of the worst approaches to finding a work-life balance, in my opinion, is to take someone else’s idea of what your perfect life should be and to pursue it. Nothing says that you have to split your time 50-50 between work and home, that you have to be professional from 9-5 only, or that you are only allowed 40 hours per week to work. Everyone is different, so it stands to reason that each person is entitled to a different goal regarding their own personal work-life balance.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, one area of your life will become dominant, and that is OK. There will be times when your personal life will demand a large amount of attention, whatever the reason, and there will be others when it seems like you are chained to your desk working on something. This happens to everyone, and there is nothing you can really do to stop unexpected things from messing up even your best laid plans. There is always another crisis or emergency around the corner, just try to get back to your own version of balanced and striving toward what makes you happy.
No plan is perfect and no person’s priorities stay exactly the same. Take time to see if your strategy is working. Are you spending enough time with your family? Have you been achieving your goals at work? Do you believe that you are content with the amount of time you have to dedicate to each area of your life? These are big questions to consider, and they should be asked regularly. If something isn’t working for you, then try to change it. Even great plans need a little maintenance now and again.
Yes, you need to balance work and home life, but rarely, if ever, is it a passive exercise. More often it is a brutal battle within yourself to live up to your goals, ideals, and how you envision that “perfect” balance. Striking a balance that satisfies both your personal and professional needs will take some work, but you will be happier in the process. Is my system perfect? Nope, but it’s a work in progress.
Featured Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net