Articles > The Myth of Work Life Balance

The Myth of Work Life Balance
Globe & Mail, January 07, 2011

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

When I ask people in workshops, of all ages and at all levels, what they don't like about their jobs, invariably they complain, rote style, about the lack of work-life balance. Bemoaning lack of balance has become a national pastime, especially at New Year's resolution time. But I (and I suspect many others) am tired of the hand-wringing. These complaints of overwhelming busyness sound like a reflexive Canadian whinge.

Devastating, crushing busyness is not a force of nature, like nasty weather, something bad that happens over which we have no control. In fact, you do have some control. If you are valued, you can say, "No, I don't have time to do that."

Moreover, the search for the holy grail of balance implies there is such a thing as the well-balanced life. Just as there is no perfect weight-loss plan, there isn't a perfectly prescribed life that will meet all needs. No one can say, for example, that you need a certain number of "calories" from different sources - family, friends, recreational, spiritual - to have the ideal life.

The sentiment that we don't have enough time to do things that are important to us is, of course, very real. The key is to reappraise the problem and to think about and pursue what you need to feel good about your life. Here are some ideas:

Forget the pursuit of balance. If you reflect on times when you were happiest and most engaged, chances are your life was wildly out of balance: Other things fell by the wayside because you were consumed by something important to you, whether it was a project or a child. Things that completely engage us make us feel good about our lives. Focus on these activities.

Identify what is important. Right now, what do you care about most: time and energy for work, or your personal life? Many parents who work outside the home tend to answer, "My personal life." But be honest. You aren't a bad parent, or person, if your work is very important. Many parents say that without interesting and demanding work they would be bored, which wouldn't be good for their kids. That doesn't mean they are indifferent parents; if their children were sick or needed them, they would become top priority. If you have difficulty identifying what is most important, imagine yourself 10 years down the road: Which decisions would you be most proud of, and which would you most regret?

Know where your presence is most valued. If you put your work first, over the long-term, how much will your family suffer relative to that of your career, and vice versa? And how much do you care about either outcome? It is a fact of contemporary organizational life that if you put family first, you may not get that promotion. That said, in my research with hundreds of midlife women, only one regretted having put her children first; she felt she paid too high a price in terms of career advancement, with no extra benefits to the kids. On the other hand, many successful women who looked back on their careers cited forgoing a promotion in favour of family time, as being among their proudest achievements.

Once you have decided what you want to focus on, consider the dividends associated with your investment. Will your child benefit more having spent a playful two hours with you, or eating your home-made organic muffins made with ingredients it took you three days to buy?

Be engaged, wherever you are. Many older parents say they remember little about their kids growing up because while they were with them in body, in spirit they were composing e-mails or planning a project. Focus on work when at work, personal things when at home. If you can't set boundaries or compartmentalize your thoughts, ask yourself why these other things are competing for your attention. Is it because you really should act on them, or because you are bored with what you are doing?

Stop playing the guilt game. Many women express feelings of guilt when they are really just trying to avoid the disapproval of others. For example, when asked about business travel, they will tell friends how guilty they feel being away from home, but privately think, as one mother put it: "How cool is this? Lying in bed, a glass of wine, room service, no kids fighting." Guilt is what we feel when we violate our moral standards; if you are really feeling guilty, change your behaviour.

Think life chapters. You can never have it all at any given time. It is almost impossible to spend quality time with kids, at the gym, with friends and family, and still have enough time and energy to devote to climbing the corporate ladder. Consider which needs you want to focus on in this chapter of your life; you will have ample opportunity to satisfy other desires in later chapters.

Forget easy solutions. You may have to make some tough decisions, such as giving up a plum assignment if it conflicts with family time, or vice versa. But no one ever said everything should be easy. Feel good about what you are getting, instead of mourning what you are giving up.

Be steadfast. Keep your desires front and centre. Don't second-guess yourself. Don't allow parents or friends or co-workers to make you feel guilty about your choices.

Accept less than perfect. Don't play the hero, trying to meet impossible expectations to be perfect in every role - parent, partner, boss, employee, friend. Avoid competing in the parent wars: Don't believe people when they boast about how they spend quality time with their kids and partners, are scampering up the work ladder, entertain extensively, and work out every day. They are either lying, deluded, or on speed.