“Work/life balance.” Yes, it’s a phrase we hear often. But if you want the truth, I don’t think it really exists – at least not in the way most “experts” say it does.
I, like most people, have never been able to balance the scales of work and life on a day-to-day basis. But I have come to realize that the relationship between work and life is more about rhythm than balance – and that’s made a huge difference in my priorities, decisions, and stress levels.
You see, in nature there’s a rhythm to life and there’s a season for everything, and that includes humans. For me, there’s a time to work hard and a time to rest. There’s a time to be on the road and a time to be at home with my family.
Because we know that our lives are defined by seasons, my wife and I look at our year as a whole, and we plan our schedule according to those seasons. We know that I’ll be slammed in August, September, and October, and that my schedule will be much slower in December and July. We plan for when I’ll be working and when I’ll be more engaged with the family.
You can do the same. Sure, your life may have a different rhythm, and your seasons may be shorter or longer than mine, but you can still look at your life on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. You can plan ahead and schedule times to work hard, recharge, renew, play, and engage with your family, friends, and significant other.
Here’s the key to it all: Regardless of what your rhythm and work schedule look like, you need to fully commit to your seasons.
You see, people tell me all the time that they feel guilty because they’re not at home with their families when they’re at work. And to make matters worse, they also feel guilty that they’re not working when they’re at home.
A double dose of guilt is a recipe for misery.
Instead of living with regret because of what you’re not doing, realize that when you’re working hard, it’s your season to do so. You can make plans to recharge, renew, and spend quality time with the people you love later. Even more importantly, you need to find a purpose in your professional life. You need to realize that your seasons of work make a difference in the lives of others. When you do, you’ll be able to let go of guilt and truly immerse yourself in what you’re doing.
Here are some thoughts to help you get started:
Look at your work/life blend over the past year. Consider it as a whole.
Rather than thinking of your work and life day-to-day, think of it as a whole. How many times did you get away with your family last year? Were there particular weeks/months where you worked really, really long hours? Were there times you were less busy? You might find that, when viewed this way, you did have a balanced year. Or you might realize you need to make a change in the way you do things during the upcoming year
Identify the “seasons” in your company’s work flow.
In nature there’s a season for everything. Spring (planting season) and fall (harvest) are times of extreme work. But there’s a slow down in the summer when plants are growing, and, of course, winter is when farmers do other things (repair work on house and equipment, etc.).
Most industries/companies work this way, too. They have busy seasons (when they’re getting ready for major industry events or peak sales times, for instance) and not-so-busy seasons. It might be easy for you to plan your work/home life flow around these times. Don’t think just in terms of when you plan vacations, but also in terms of daily work hours. During the slow time, it’s okay to leave a little earlier each day if you know you’re going to be working long hours once the busy season arrives.
Keep in mind your family’s “seasons” too.
Of course, you can’t base everything on work schedules. There are times your family needs you more than others: the birth of a new baby, when a child starts school, or when an older parent is having a crisis and needs you to care for him/her. At times like these, you will want to put in the family time and make it up when you can at work. When it’s possible, plan for these seasons, but realize that many might pop up unexpectedly. You have to be ready to adjust and go where you’re needed. If you’re worried about work, you can take comfort in knowing that there will be a period when you can apply more of yourself to the job.
Build up a “hard work” bank account with your company.
When the company needs you to really push, push hard (and do it cheerfully.) This way, when you need to slow down the pace or take time off, they’ll be willing to work with you. It might help to think of your hard work as making deposits into a bank account. By willingly and happily accepting the challenge of a difficult project or client or by working long hours to meet an important deadline, you make deposits in the company’s “hard work” bank account. When you need to make a withdrawal, whether it’s for a family emergency or just a much-needed break, you’ll have plenty of goodwill with the higher-ups in your account, and they won’t begrudge you for needing a personal season.
Really BE where you are.
When you’re working, commit fully to your work. Don’t complain – positivity goes a long way. And don’t feel guilty that you’re not at home. Feeling guilty is a recipe for misery and poor performance on the job and unhappiness at home. When you commit to your season of work, you won’t be tempted to watch the clock, dreading each hour that passes before you finally get to leave work for the day. You’ll be more successful at work and feel more fulfilled.
Likewise, when you’re home with your family or significant other, commit fully to engaging with them and enjoying your personal time. Throw yourself into those precious family relationships. Don’t spend family time thinking about work, checking your BlackBerry, or zoning out in front of the television or computer. Remember, it’s not about the amount of time we spend with our families; it’s about how engaged we are during the time we do have with them. And when you’re not in a work season, use the time to do something special. Read to your child each night. Take your family on a surprise weekend trip.
By understanding your rhythm, planning, and committing to the seasons of your life, you may not achieve perfect work/life balance, but you create a flow and rhythm that makes you happier, more productive, and less guilty.