No such thing as “Work/Life” balance

There is an ever increasing struggle for people to find their balance in a time of constant change and frequent stress. Not that this has ever been easy, but it seems today that there is such continuous flow between what we do for work, what we do at home, where we check our email, who we text, and how we socialize that the ability to maintain personal balance is nearly impossible.

Work Life Balance is actually Life Balance I believe our conception of what we are trying to attain is part of the problem we have in attaining it. (Wow. That’s a really deep sentence!) In other words, part of the problem we face, not just as leaders but as participants in the 21st century, is that we conceptually see “Work” as something different than “Life.” The term “Work/Life Balance” implies a scale with Work on the far left side and Life on the far right side. Our objective then is to somehow bring the activities of both extremes closer to the middle—or perhaps more on the side of “life” than on the side of “work.” But there are some problems with this conception.

First, work is not separate from life. Work is an integral part to most of what we call Living. With a few exceptions, most of us will spend at least half of our lives pursuing some sort of career or work activity. While we all like to say that we would not have this problem if we had enough money, it doesn’t seem that money is actually the issue. Work provides a sense of value and contribution. In our adult years, work is not only serving an economic purpose, but a psychological one as well. It is not outside of our lives…it is in many cases central to them.

Second, it is likely that our real issue is with our own ability to manage time and priorities. I would argue that what we actually mean in most cases of work/life balance concerns has to do with where we are spending our time and how we are prioritizing. It is not that we need to offset work…it is that we need to integrate it better into the other priorities of our lives. Admittedly, many of us are compelled by bosses or expectations to spend more hours than we want involved in our work activities. But that is an issue within our lives, not outside of it.

So, if all of this is true (and it’s just opinion…you judge for yourself), what exactly can a person do about it? Whatever you want to call the phenomenon, the apparent inability of people to stop their work activity at a reasonable point to engage in other activities is a real problem and a real source of stress. Given our experience with leaders from around the world, some of whom managed this well, I would suggest the following three tips for your to consider:

1. Consider the problem to be “Life Balance” rather than “Work/Life Balance.” I think the first step is to accept and understand that our work activities are, in large part, our life activities. The first thing is to not isolate “work” as some sort of external experience that happens outside of our existence. Once you accept that this is one life you are living, you can take the second action.

2. Own the issue of balance. If you see that work is not a balancing act but rather an integrated part of life, then you also can see that you have control over the outcome. Remember, it is YOUR life. And life is about consequences. You should check your assumptions regarding the time spent on work activity. Are you absolutely sure that your boss or colleagues expect answers to their emails immediately regardless of time or day? Do your customers truly value your 24/7/365 accessibility or do they use it because you offer it? Which brings us to the final but related issue.

3. Be honest with yourself. Many of us engage in way too much of one aspect of our life versus another because we either enjoy the activity OR we are avoiding an activity we do not enjoy. Do some soul searching and see if it’s possible that your focus on work is a way of avoiding focusing on things you either do not enjoy or want to stay away from for some reason. If this is the case, the strategy for life balance is not so much reducing the demands of work as it is facing the demands of other areas of our lives.

Whether you call this issue Work/Life balance, Life Balance, or some other phrase, it is likely that in some way, it is an issue that affects you right now. It is an issue worth reflection and honesty. And, as a leader, it is an area where you can provide coaching and modeling to help those who follow you adjust their own balance.

What do you think? Am I oversimplifying the issue?