There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”
―Alain de Botton
A few years back I decided to take stock of my life and see where I was making an impact and where I was just kidding myself. Up to that moment I had been a card-carrying tree grower. I was a farmer who grew trees for landscape use, shipping them up and down the east coast. I was stressed, struggling with a changing market and industry and just generally disgusted with my lot in life. Horticulture, like any form of agriculture, is a 7-day, full-time job. Any thought of work-life balance came from the thought that this was my life…period. Then I read the book Halftime and realized that I needed to consider changes to my life. In time, I stepped out of my business, selling it to my partner and started again with a new direction. I spent a year taking care of my aging father, and what I learned about being in halftime, and work-life balance was that it was easy to balance things when you have little to occupy your time.
Work-Life Balance Myth
I took to writing and life coaching, received my certification and now I work with clients dealing with, among other issues, the ubiquitous work-life balance. I have a few things that I have learned from my own life and from my clients that is worth sharing with you.
You Hate it But You Do It Anyway
There is so much crap out there about work-life balance that it makes you ill. From flextime, to comp time, to dog-at-the-office Friday, paternity leave, and dress down Tuesdays; these things only hide the central issue. That issue is there are just some jobs out there that are at their core, incompatible with being a good parent to a young family or marriage. It is just the case, period. My own life coach told me once that the first step to figuring something out is to acknowledge where you are at the moment. Don’t dwell on it, but you have to at least acknowledge it. A Wall Street attorney right out of law school has no life other than work. The reality of our world is that there are lots of people out there franticly working long hours at jobs they sometimes detest in order to buy things that they think will impress people in their social circle, many of whom wouldn’t even let into their homes. It has always been my thought that just because you can dress down on Friday, or bring your dog to work on Tuesday doesn’t mean you have a real grip on the problem.
Take Responsibility for Yourself
Businesses or governmental entities aren’t going to fix this for you. You have to be willing to solve it yourself. You have to stop looking for someone or something to save you. It is up to you, the individual, to exercise personal responsibility and take control of your life. If you don’t plan your life, someone else will. You can be sure that their idea of balance and yours won’t be the same. It is really important to never put the quality of your life in the hands of the business that employs you.
Don’t confuse me with some rabid paranoid who distrusts all corporations. Corporations and the people who run them simply have different priorities than you. They are entities created solely to make a profit and you are part of the machinery of income production. Read Adam Smith if you have doubts. Even places with the best of intentions will eventually select employees for their own profit, not yours. Your company has childcare you say? That’s great, except from another perspective, they just made it easier for you to work longer hours without complaint. Good boundaries are great for relationships, and they are even more important for your relationship with your work.
Make Time for Non-Work Activities
Be sure you that you have a good grip on the time frame you use to judge what you are calling work-life balance. Regardless of what you define as “balance,” you need to be realistic. You simply can’t do it all in one day. Be at breakfast with your wife, walking the dog, sex, picking up kids for practice or music, do your 16-hour a day job, work out, and meditate. It all takes time and you fool yourself and cheat your family, or your work when you say you can. Please don’t say that you will have a “life” when you retire. I will have a life when I retire, friends, hobbies, etc., is just silly. As I said, one day is too short, but when you retire is much, much too far in the future. It is up to you to find a better way.
Emotional and Spiritual Balance
You have to be more balanced in a consistent and “balanced” way. Just because you add something to your daily list of things to accomplish, i.e., dinner with the kids or going to the gym, doesn’t mean that your day is balanced. It is just longer. There is a spiritual side to all of us; there is also an emotional side as well as an intellectual side that needs recognition. To be balanced, you have to pay consistent attention to all of those areas.
I can hear some of you start to say, geez Frank, you want me to do all of that and church too? I get it, it It’s not easy, and in fact it can be really challenging. Something happened the other day that is a good example of what I am talking about. My son came into my office and told me that he needed to be taken an hour and a half away to a neighboring town to interview at a local college. I rearranged my schedule and off we went to see his next choice in colleges. We drove and just talked. He interviewed and toured the place—Tulane really is a lovely college—and had a wonderful experience. We had a “diner lunch,” and a good drive back, talking all the way. At the end of the day he said that it was one of the best days we had ever had together. I hadn’t done anything…no big trip, no giant vacation…just us on a college tour.
It was a small thing; just a college tour and lunch, an hour and a half from home and back. With just a little time, focusing on the right areas, you really can improve the quality of your life and that of your family. If we all started living that way, the world would surely change and over time, our definition of success would change as well. We could leave that silly simple-minded notion of “the one with the most toys when he dies wins” behind. How nice would your life be if you had a thoughtful balanced definition of what a “good” life looks like.
That would be a balance worth maintaining.
Frank Hopkins is a certified Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). He is a certified Master Practitioner (ELI-MP) of the iPEC proprietary assessment tool, the Energy Leadership Index and offers seminars on Energy Leadership. He maintains memberships in the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and the Institute of Coaching (ICPA).