The Five Myths of Work-Life Balance
By: Jessica Gendron
Everyone seems to be chasing the idea of work-life balance, yet many of us aren’t really sure what it looks like or how to achieve it. Let’s unpack the Five Myths about Work-Life Balance and what you can do to move closer to your ideal.
MYTH #1: Balance Equals Perfection: There’s a fallacy that achieving balance is the same as achieving perfection. Let’s begin with fundamental truth #1: Perfection is unattainable because perfection doesn’t exist. When we attach “balance” to “perfection”, it makes the idea of achieving work-life balance unsurmountable.
Balance isn’t perfect, it’s honest. Achieving balance requires us to look at our lives and our responsibilities, honestly. It requires that us to make decisions that are hard, uncomfortable, and unpopular. It requires us to be in the muckety-muck of our lives and make choices that we sometimes don’t want to make. Balance is about choices.
We have to make choices about where we place priority in our lives, when we place priority on them, and why they have priority. Do I want to work on that report, on a Saturday? No. Does that choice allow me to take my child to dance class on Tuesday? Yes. Balance isn’t about perfection, it’s about navigating around choices to find your ideal.
MYTH #2: Balance Means Everything is Equal All the Time: Envision for a second a tight-rope walker. He or She is hundreds of feet in the air, walking across a cable, the width of a quarter. In her hands she holds a long pole. As she navigates the rope in front of her, the pole moves back and forth, up and down, with each careful step. The pole’s single purpose, ever changing, is to help the tight-rope walker maintain…balance.
There’s a myth that to have balance your time must be equally spent, and that those two things are “work” and “life” (a.k.a. everything that’s not work). Life is much more intricate and complex than 50% work and 50% everything else. This takes us back to “choices”. We first have to choose the buckets we want and have to give time and energy to: work, partner, children, family, church, hobbies, fitness, friends, self-care, volunteering, going Marie Kondo on your closets, and everything in-between. Then, we must regularly assess what needs the most time and/or our attention – right now. Sometimes, our work takes a critical chunk of our life – and sometimes it’s family. The important part is to understand that just like a tight-rope walker’s pole; it’s never equal and it’s never stationary.
MYTH #3: Balance is Easy: Okay, maybe this isn’t a myth. We all know achieving balance in our life isn’t easy – at all. What many of us don’t understand is why it’s not easy. Balance is about making choices (I know I am beating a dead horse here) AND THEN setting boundaries. In order to set boundaries, you first have to know what it is you want and are trying to achieve in your life, what it is you’re willing to sacrifice (when necessary), and what you are not willing to give up.
We can’t have it all. It’s impossible to have all the time you want with your family and be high-achieving at work and volunteer as much as you like and be at every baseball game and take care of your aging parent and cook dinner and train for a marathon and, and, and…it’s impossible. Balance is about choosing which of these things are non-negotiable, which of them you’re willing to concede on, and which of them are a “someday” kind of dream. Then you know where to set your boundaries.
Not all of us have the luxury of setting boundaries in every part of our lives. We all can’t say to our employer, “I’m going to work from home every Wednesday so I can pick my kid up from school at 3.” Or to a partner, “Can you watch the kids while I go for a run?” We all have life circumstances and jobs that impact our own version of balance and boundaries. However, we must advocate for ourselves and what we need and desire for our lives. If your employer isn’t responsive or respectful of your boundaries, it’s probably time to consider if it’s the right place for you to work. If you don’t have support in your personal life, time to find some people you can rely on for help.
Boundaries also mean getting comfortable with the word, “no,” and the guilt that often accompanies it. So much imbalance in our lives occurs because we don’t want to disappoint others or we feel guilty for not helping every time we’re asked. Empty buckets have nothing to give to others. Working toward better balance allows us to fill our buckets as often as we’re giving its contents away. If you’re on empty or running low, it’s time to get acquainted with the word “no” and begin advocating for ourselves and our own needs, as much as we’re probably advocating for others.
The important part is that we evaluate regularly, communicate openly, and advocate for what we need to feel happy and balanced. That’s definitely not easy, but its necessary.
MYTH #4: You Can Do It On Your Own: Finding balance requires help. It requires allies, advocates, supporters, and helpers. It also requires you to get really comfortable stating what you need and asking others to help you.
When I started my job at The Center for Leadership Excellence, it sent my work-life balance totally out of whack. I just left a job where I worked mostly from home, except for the intermittent overnight travel almost weekly. Generally, however, I had flexibility during the day to take the kids to school, workout before they came home, and get some other things like laundry done while working during the day.
That all changed in the job transition; I now found myself starting my day 3 hours earlier than normal, just to get myself and my daughter out the door in the morning. My evenings were now tied up with shuffling kids, cooking dinner, and the regular bedtime routines. Somewhere in all of that transition, my sacred time for fitness – a yoga class, a run, a bike ride, a walk with the dogs – disappeared. Finally, after desperately feeling the need to put some physical activity back into my life, I said to my husband, “I really need about an hour at night to work out. Can we figure out how I can sneak away to do that?”
I needed help to find my balance. I needed to rely on others to help me find better balance. Turns out, you can’t do everything yourself.
Recently, I asked my Facebook friends to tell me what work-life balance meant to them. The opinions were thoughtful and varied. Some referred to work-life balance as a “myth” or “social construct”. Others lamented that it isn’t ever 50/50, so “balance” was probably the wrong term. All-in-all, what I was able to ascertain from the collection of responses was this: The pursuit of what makes you happy and fulfilled takes many forms in people’s lives. It’s a deeply personal exercise to identify what will make you fulfilled. Whether it’s “balance” or “peace” or “a blended life” or “fulfillment,” each of those things require us to be thoughtful, intentional, and aware of the things we need and how to ask for them.
MYTH #5: Work-Life Balance is Attainable: So here’s the truth, work-life balance is probably attainable, but only for tiny fractions of time – and then something in your life will change or someone in your life will need you – and you will need to readjust. For most of us, we don’t even notice that our life is out of balance until it’s almost chaos; our stress it at an all-time high, we’re sacrificing things we don’t want to sacrifice, we’re saying “yes” way too much, and every little fire burning has become a volcanic eruption. At that point, if feels like we’ll never get back on track.
The truth is that “balance” isn’t an end-point. It’s probably more of a journey. It is a constant state of evaluation, reflection, communication, and reevaluation. It’s a series of daily choices you make to prioritize the things in your life that are important or necessary to you. It the boundaries you set and the negotiations you make around those boundaries, based on the needs of every day. The important thing is that you take the time to reflect and identify what your ideal balance is and that you work to make choices in alignment with that goal, daily.
Okay, so how do you do that? Start with these steps:
- Reflect: Think about the times in your life when you felt “balanced”. What were the things you said “no” to? What were the things that got your attention? Are those still your priorities? What is the life you are trying to live? Identify the things that are important to you and then rank them in order of importance and necessity. Put it somewhere you look at it regularly (a screen saver, a post-it on your mirror, in a frame on your desk). Reevaluate regularly.
- Set Boundaries: Draw the hard lines around what is important to you. What are you willing to sacrifice for them – and what are you not willing to sacrifice? What will you say “no” to for them?
- Communicate: Talk to the people in your life that you need help from to achieve your balance. Your boss, your coworkers, your partner, your family, your friends. TALK to them about what you need, the boundaries you need to set, how that impacts them, and how they can help. The worst that could happen is that they can’t support what you’re trying to achieve – then you know who you can rely on and who you can’t.
- Let Go of Guilt: Instead of toiling in your guilt when you say “no” to someone, ask yourself, “What did I gain by saying, No?” What were you able to do instead of that thing you probably didn’t want to do anyway?
- Get Out of the Way: The only thing standing in your way is you. Don’t let the excuses pile up and stop you from finding balance. Job not flexible? What’s stopping you from looking for a job that is? No time for self-care? Look harder at your schedule or ask for help. Too tired? Too stressed? Too broke? Too overweight? To sad? I get it. I’ve been there. We all have. The journey to balance begins with the choices we make, every second of every day, that will bring us the life we’re looking for. Stop explaining why and start asking why not?
Jessica Gendron is President of The Center for Leadership Excellence. She is an author, award-winning curriculum writer, and expert on leadership, specifically women’s leadership, and workplace harassment.