WORK-LIFE BALANCE AND OTHER MYTHS
The last in the four-part blog series on empowerment will tackle a sticky subject. This isn’t going to be another article about whether or not you can “have it all” or whether we should call it “work-life balance” or “work-life integration.” The more people I talk to about this subject, the more I realize how individual and varied this concept really is. Someone who is annoyed that they have to work until 6:00 might suggest that their job is cutting into their work-life balance, because they define it simply based on the number of hours they spend in the office. Someone else who always works the standard 9-5 might desire more “balance” by being allowed to come in an hour late once in a while to be able to walk their child to school without having to take vacation time. Yet another person might complain that their email buzzes 24/7 and they can never truly shut down. Once any catchphrase becomes commonly tossed around it starts to fragment into our individual definitions, so in the spirit of “words matter,” I like to challenge people when they mention work-life balance and ask them: “What is it that YOU actually want?” The true essence of empowerment is to first know what you want, then make a plan to get it.
Thinking of it as “work-life balance” makes it seem as if these two areas are at odds with each other, but in a world of such variety and opportunity in the workplace, so many people are building careers that they truly enjoy. Maybe we’re not thrilled with our jobs every second of every day, but for the most part, many are getting the majority of their basic needs met that equate to job satisfaction. Instead of work-life balance, I like to think of it as “Life Stage Empowerment.” Many people go through similar experiences at similar stages of their life, whether it’s starting a career, getting married, having a family, moving to the burbs, addressing health issues, caring for aging parents, etc. Being able to acknowledge that you are in a specific life stage that will require you to prioritize things differently is the first step to embracing Life Stage Empowerment.
Years ago I did an exercise where I identified the main buckets of priority in my life. Mine were work, health, family and friends. I wrote them on magnets and put them on my refrigerator. At the time I was in my 20’s and in great shape because I had no responsibilities and worked out 7 days a week. I had a fabulous network of friends and a supportive family, but I really wanted to advance in my career. I sorted the four areas by putting what was going the best at the top (health), what was going well on the next row and the area that needed the most work (career) on the bottom. My vision was that I would eventually be moving “career” up to the same line as family and friends, and someday have them all on the same line. But that never happened. Over the 5 years that I kept those words on the fridge, they constantly moved up and down. As my career took off and I started traveling more, my daily workouts took a hit, so “career” took the top spot and “health” moved to the second row. I got a boyfriend and realized that some of my friendships were suffering so that moved to the bottom. I came to realize that I still had a very full life with everything I wanted in it, but as my priorities shifted with each life stage, so did the amount of time I could dedicate towards each area.
I’ve observed many people wrestle with work-life balance who often forget to ask themselves what they really want at EACH stage and decide what they need to do to get it. Once you’ve dug deep and answered that question, you must give yourself permission to do (or not do) the things that will deliver that outcome, embracing the sacrifices (temporary or permanent) that go with the decision. When our lives become more full and less and less of our free time is really “free” to us, but rather focused on other people or pursuits, it’s hard for some people to accept “good enough” for their efforts or put their own needs and desires on a temporary backburner. This is why it’s important to embrace the little victories along the way and let go of the small stuff. If a client would be just as happy with a proposal outlined in an email versus a PowerPoint presentation, embrace it and use that extra time on a project that you can really take to the next level. If you decide to bake cookies with your kids but that means you have dirty dishes for two days, so be it. Your kids will only remember the time you spent with them and the dishes are really only bothering YOU, so get over it. If you can’t make it to the gym because you have a long commute and you decide walking the 10 blocks to/from the train station is going to be your weekday exercise for a while, skip the morning bagel and call it even. When you mourn your past life stages and all the things you used to be able to do, you won’t really be embracing and enjoying all the beautiful things that are the reality of your here and now. Embracing each life stage with an open mind and open heart is a phenomenal form of personal empowerment.