Work-Life Balance: The Broken See-Saw

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Work-life balance is like pornography. It’s highly popular, but everyone has a different definition of what it is, and it does not exist in the real world.

businessdictionary.com defines work-life balance as, “A comfortable state of equilibrium achieved between an employee’s primary priorities of their employment position and their private lifestyle.” So if work-life balance were a see-saw, it would look like this:

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Sounds great, but if you try it, you’ll quickly learn how difficult it is. Oh, sure, you can stay this way for a few minutes, but eventually, one side begins to go down while the other goes up, simply because no-two people are the exact same weight or always exerting the same pressure. It’s unsustainable and unrealistic, and you’ll just frustrate yourself if you try to maintain it. Ask any child who’s played with one of these:

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Workers have a different definition of work-life balance. Whenever someone explains to me why they need better work-life balance, they never say they are not working enough. Instead, they want more time and flexibility to pursue interests outside of work such as family and friends, hobbies and interests. They aren’t looking for balance. For them, the see-saw should be weighted towards life.

An employer sees work-life balance as the ability to work whenever and wherever the work needs to be done, whether you are in the office, mountain biking or watching your daughter’s dance recital. As one manager told me, it’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life integration. Their see-saw is also out of balance, weighted towards work.

All these definitions are wrong. The trick to being happy and fulfilled in both work and life is to realize that the see-saw is broken and to never get on it at all. It’s not about work-life balance or work-life integration. It’s all about work-life separation.

People have often asked me how I can do my job all day without suffering a nervous breakdown. Dealing with people’s problems, issues and concerns, not to mention having to fire people, can take its toll. Simple, I tell them, I compartmentalize. Sure, I may discuss work with my wife sometimes. She’s a good listener, and can provide me with a different perspective. But when I am with my children, reading to them, making dinner, coaching their soccer team, work is left behind. And if I’m out with my friends, having a couple of beers, work is almost never mentioned. Sure, there is the occasional email or phone call or text that I have to deal with while I’m not physically working, but these are few and far between.

Work-life separation.

“You’re lucky,” I had one manager tell me when I explained this to him. “My job is 24-7. I can’t divide the two so easily.” I had to agree that his job demanded more of his off-hours time than mine. He oversees safety and security, which in his role, is a round-the-clock responsibility. But actual situations in which he received middle of the night calls are rare. Besides, I see it as his choice. He has a team of people he could count on to help him, but he chooses to be the first line of defense all the time. He could just as easily delegate some of his off-hours responsibilities, freeing himself up except in the most dire situations.

Some will say that work-life separation will make you worse at your job. After all, if work isn’t your number one priority all the time, how can you be any good at it? I look at myself as an example. I used to stay up nights worrying about the next workday. Friends complained that all I talked about was work. Sometimes, I’d even become physically ill thinking about it. Was I great at my job? I was good, but I could have been better. I was constantly stressed about it, getting worked up over the tiniest of issues. It stressed out my coworkers, hurt the work environment. Over time, I learned let go, and as my personal life improved, I found that I became more efficient, more relaxed, better to be around when I was at work.

So how do you put work-life separation into practice? Here are some tips:

Don’t let work define you: Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone lists what he thought of as his major accomplishments. President of the United States was not one of them. It wasn’t who he was, it was something he did. If you wrap your identity up in your work, you won’t be able to break from it when the workday is done.

Have transition time: I know a man who works long hours. When he gets home, the first thing he does is go out and putter in his garden. It gives him time to unwind and let the workday go. My Dad used to relax with the afternoon newspaper. Do something that helps you make the transition easier, whether it’s listening to music on your commute home, sitting down with a good book, or just sitting quietly.

Turn off your phone (or tablet, or whatever): When you aren’t working, don’t check emails or texts from colleagues. Unless you are the head of a nuclear power plant or a brain surgeon, there’s nothing that can’t wait until you get back into the office. Likewise, if you are at work, don’t waste time shopping for a Halloween Costumes for your pet cat or updating your Facebook status. Spend it getting your job done. Your employer will appreciate it.

Develop outside interests: I had a project manager tell me that she was one-hundred percent about work. She was proud of the fact, but her desk was a mess, she was always in meetings and whenever I saw her, all she could talk about was how stressed she was. How sad, I thought. What will happen to her if she gets laid off, or when she eventually retires? She’ll be lost. We all need to have more to life than work.

Most of us drag ourselves into work every morning, not because a deep yearning to do what we do, but to keep a roof over our heads and our bellies full. There are those lucky few, however, whose jobs are also their avocations. They are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing, and cannot see a life without it. For them, work-life separation makes no sense. Then again, they don’t have work-life balance, or work-life integration, either. They just have life.

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