The Work-Life Balance Myth

What do you do when you start to feel stressed about how stressed you are?  

When you hear your GOOP-loving friends talking about how balanced and zen they are, it’s easy to feel like you’re not where you need to be.  “I’m just trying to get through the work day without pulling my hair out” you might think. Winning by 5 PM would be a win.

Work-life balance is a funny term.  It’s a bit of a myth, and sometimes that extreme calm attributed to balance seems like something reserved for those who work far fewer hours than you.  So where did the idea of work-life balance come from, and why are so many people getting it wrong?

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A majority of the issue with the term “work-life balance” comes from the word itself.  Work-life balance was coined when work and life were two different parts of life. Before iPhones made it possible for that line to blur.  Before it became more common to get a text from your boss outside of the office, or for you to read that client email right before you were about to go to bed.  Now we work in a time where that’s no longer the case, yet we still use the term work-life balance as if it’s something we need to uphold.  It still rests on the assumption that as an employee, it’s better for you to keep those parts of your life separate.  

In a workshop I ran a few months back, I asked attendees what work-life balance meant for them.  I received a range of answers, starting out with “not having to do work after 5PM” and evolving to “being able to make dinner plans without having to cancel them”.  Based on how much that boundary had been encroached upon, it meant something different to everyone. There were a lot of emotions connected to this term too. A majority of the women in the room felt guilty about how much or how little balance they had.  They felt like they weren’t being the best friend, mother, or employee they could be.

The issue with these assumptions was that they didn’t take into account how the office dynamics have changed over time.

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So how do we fix it if the term as we believe it is a myth?

Start by figuring out what works for you.  Reframe the idea of work-life balance to be more of a delicate dance and a deliberate trade off.  Don’t draw your line between work and life in black and white, look for the shades of grey. Are you OK with working later at night, as long as you’re able to do school pick-up at 3 PM?  Do early morning hours with international teams work if you can get your lunchtime workout in?

I know this because I’ve gone through this same process myself.  While I currently own my own career coaching & development business so I can create my own hours, I originally came from the advertising world which is notorious for struggles with balance.  The ad agency model is based on client billable hours, which means that employee time is maximized; often to over 100% utilization which doesn’t give much time for all the work in between. When I was struggling to figure out how to make my hours work for me, I considered a third option.  Maybe I could stay at the company and work hours that were a better fit for my needs.  I considered what I was willing to give up and what were my non-starters.  I went to my manager and said to him, “I work a lot with the New York team and I know I do my best work in the morning.  What if I start earlier and end earlier. Would that be OK with you?”.

And guess what?  He said yes!

While I was lucky to be at an agency and on a team that respected and trusted me enough to give me that opportunity, I considered something that was a win-win for both ends and made it happen.  While I would sometimes get online later at night if an email came through, I knew I could always make my 5PM workout class and that kept me going.

The reason this worked for me was because I started to make more conscious decisions about how and where I wanted to work.  That’s just one of the building blocks which got me to where I am today, helping professionals with the very same thing.

My suggestion to you is to think about work-life balance as something different all together.  What are you willing to give up, and what are your non-negotiables? From there, the possibilities are endless.