I’m not an avid subscriber, but I always find the January issue of “Real Simple” to be a must-read for getting the new year off to a good start. This January, the issue included short blurbs from various people on what work/life balance means to them. The fact that everyone has a slightly different interpretation is a clue to how conceptual it really is. It’s a theory, which really means nothing until it’s been put into practice, and everyone’s practice is different. So I thought I’d write my own little blurb about what work/life balance means to me.
Like so many things in life, work/life balance is a frame of mind. We tend to think about “achieving” a work/life balance, as though it’s this tangible goal, and we’ll feel great when we get there. We also tend to think about it as this state where we have the time and the energy to do everything that we want to do, as though that’s in any way realistic.
Two years ago, this was how I thought about work/life balance, and I took this way of thinking to the extreme. I can’t remember now if it was following a bout of guilt for spending too much time on my personal life, or a stressful spell of over-time on my work that prompted this, but I decided that the solution was to split up my day, in measurable increments of time, each allotted to some activity related to either my “work” or my “personal” life. I wish I still had the post-it note that I wrote this down on, but I think basically came out to something like this:
- Client projects – 4 hours
- Professional development – 2 hours
- Business development – 2 hours
- Puttering/tidying up – 2 hours
- Gardening/cooking – 2 hours
- Chilling/seeing friends – 2 hours
- Personal projects – 2 hours
Convinced I had found the answer to achieving my perfect state of work/life balance, I stuck to this schedule rigorously. For about two days.
The problem with the schedule wasn’t that it didn’t address all of the things that I did, or needed to do, in a typical day. I don’t even think it’s that it was too rigorous, as surely I could’ve internalized it after a few days and then given myself some leeway in estimating the exact amount of time I spent on things.
What I realize now, is that problem was in the designations themselves. It was in the the division between my work and personal life at all. As though by working on client projects and doing professional development I’m not also improving my earnings and my career happiness, which in turn improves my personal life and my relationships with the people in my life. Or that, by spending time on things that I happen to enjoy or find personally fulfilling, whether that’s by reducing distracting clutter, eating well, or giving myself a creative or meditative outlet, I’m not also making it easier for myself to focus on my work. Or, as though my personal projects don’t also offer potential lessons or perspectives that I can take with me into my work. Or, as though there is any way to distinguish between a business development call that leads straight to direct client work vs one that leads to a social connection. Etc. The lines are just so blurred, the thought that I could somehow even the two out mathematically, I realize now, was just ridiculous.
I once read a fashion advice column where the writer’s advice (paraphrased) was to “Go through your closet and separate your work clothes from your party clothes. Now throw all of your work clothes away. Now it’s a party all the time!” I loved this advice, so I took it, and I haven’t regretted it since. (There isn’t a single thing in my closet now that I look at and think “God, I really hate this shirt. But…it is a good work shirt…”)
As it happens, my new approach to work/life balance has turned out to be quite similar. The less that I differentiate between my “personal life” and my “work”, the less that I make the two compete with each other for my time and my energy, the less guilt I feel for spending too much time on one or the other, and the more “balanced”, well-adjusted, and happy I feel.
The first step to the mindset of work/life balance is to admit to yourself that your life is work. I don’t mean that to sound discouraging. Friendships are work, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a good time when you’re doing the work of nurturing the relationship. Having fun with your friends is doing the work.
I believe this way of thinking is very hard for Americans, and particularly, in my experience, for people who live in New York City. New Yorkers apologize for spending time on their personal lives as though it’s this terrible thing that they’re not supposed to do. This is a city where people would rather stay at the office all night than admit that they need to go home and cook dinner or do the laundry, as though they don’t require nutritional sustanance or clean clothes in order to make it into work each day.
I don’t make excuses anymore, and I don’t feel guilty. If I have to leave the office at 5:00 so that I can go to the grocery store and get dinner on the table by 8:00 then that’s what I do. I don’t let the fact that I happen to enjoy cooking obscure the fact that, in order to be healthy, feel good, have energy, and live my life the way I want to live it, it is also a chore that I need to do. It is both an unpaid job that I do for the good of my household, and a hobby and creative outlet. I know that there are certain things – having a clean and comfortable house, eating well, having friends who are smart and fun who I can talk to about both work-related and non-work related subjects, having clients who I can regard as friends, having creative outlets that don’t carry career-related consequences, having new experiences and gaining new perspective by traveling, just to name a few – that I need in my life, and that without them my “work” will suffer.
So here is what work/life balance means to me. Your work and your life are not separate. Your life IS work. Your work affects your life. Life does not always equal fun, and work does not always equal no-fun. You should not feel like a martyr for spending most of your time on “work”, and you should not feel guilty for spending most of your time on things that others may designate as “personal.” The designation is not the stuff that you have to do vs the stuff that you want to do. The real designation is the stuff that you do to improve your life and the stuff that you do to sustain your life. You both need to live and you need to enjoy the living. Is “balance” really the issue?