The path to work-life balance often begins by being willing to take time for yourself…
Does work-life balance exist?
Is there such a thing as work-life balance? Or is it just a figment of our imagination?
I can assure you that work-life balance does exist because I know a handful of people who have achieved it by the classic definition (working and playing in equal amounts). Generally they are entrepreneurs of one kind or another (mostly involved in real estate in my experience, though some run online businesses), and they have achieved the mythic “4 Hour Workweek” or something close.
Great. They are the unicorns… What about for the rest of us? Is it possible to actually have work-life balance in the context of a corporate career or as a small business owner?
I would argue yes, it is possible to have work-life balance, but it requires one key ingredient: time for yourself.
Taking time for yourself
The key to solving work-life balance issues is realizing that balance is a function of perception rather than reality. I’m going to explain what I mean in a minute, but let’s start with some facts. Most of us sleep around 7 hours a night and work 9 hour days (or more). Figure in another hour for commuting and you have spent 10 hours at work, 7 hours asleep and only have 7 hours in a day remaining.
In other words, you are already out of balance at the word go, before you figure in time for getting showered and dressed, preparing and eating meals, and dealing with household obligations. -And this assumes you don’t have a more demanding job that requires 10+ hour days, as many of my clients do.
-And if you have young kids, you know that at least a couple hours are going to be lost to getting them fed, dressed, tucked-in, etc. In other words, you probably only have a few hours to yourself each day.
So what do most of us do with this precious time? Well, we tend not to invest it in doing things we enjoy but in low-energy activities like watching TV, playing games on our iPhones and other mindless tasks that keep our minds busy and our bodies at rest.
In other words, the time exists but we squander it on things that have no meaning to us. Yet, if you were to ask, we would say we have no time for ourselves… we work all day and end the day exhausted.
The key then is to ensure that we use the precious little time we have to take care of ourselves and do the things that rejuvenate us, energize us and that we enjoy.
An act of selfishness?
For some of us, the idea of taking any time for ourselves instead of giving every ounce of time and energy to our jobs, our kids and our spouse seems like an act of selfishness.
I would argue that taking a bit of time for yourself is absolutely necessary. Without taking the time to refresh yourself, you come across as partially engaged to all those around you. In other words, you don’t seem to have the energy for your work or your family… and both suffer.
To a certain extent, I think this is a unique function of society in the US. If you ask someone how they are doing, they are almost always going to tell you how busy they are. It is like a badge of honor.
In any sane country, and perhaps most countries, the badge of honor is about time spent experiencing life with friends and family. -That is, after all, a much more appropriate measure of a life (see Career Coaching: 101 years of perspective).
In any case, we feel the need to be martyrs for our jobs and for our families, even when we know we really need a break for ourselves. How many times have you thought to yourself, “you know, I really could use some alone time” and then gone on to continue pushing through without a rest.
The challenge is to ask the people around you for the rest you need so that you can perform at a higher level. You may hear this referred to as “sharpening the saw” but the point is that we need to take time for ourselves so that we can perform at a higher level.
Earlier in this post I mentioned that work-life balance is about perception rather than reality. Let me explain what I meant. As much as we would like to evenly distribute the waking hours our life evenly between things like work, family, our pastimes and causes that have meaning to us, for most of us, work is going to take the majority of our time.
The key then is not the amount of time spent doing all the other things, but rather the quality of that time. An intense, totally focused hour playing with your kids is worth far more to them (and to you) than three hours of you being partially focused.
An hour spent doing something you thoroughly enjoy (e.g. gardening) is worth more than two hours gardening while checking your phone every time it buzzes.
An hour a month doing volunteer work that really matters to you may be better than spending hours a day juggling that work with all your other commitments.
In other words, work-life balance is about being truly engaged in doing the things you are doing, bringing your full attention to the task at hand, and savoring that time by understanding that once a moment has passed, it is gone forever.
So take some time for yourself to rest, recover and recharge… and then go back out and engage in life in the most fulfilling way possible. It’s what begins to make work-life balance truly attainable.