work-life balanceWhat is balance?

Balance, the noun, is defined as:

  1. An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.
    “slipping in the mud but keeping their balance”
    “I tripped and lost my balance.”
  2. A condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.
    “overseas investments can add balance to an investment portfolio”

Balance, the verb:

  1. Keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall.
    “a mug that she balanced on her knee”
    synonyms: steady, stabilize, poise, level
    “she balanced the book on her head”
  2. Offset or compare the value of (one thing) with another.
    “the cost of obtaining such information needs to be balanced against its   benefits”
    “you need to balance cost against benefit”

As a noun, it’s something we can find (achieve) or lose. We can add it to something. There are correct proportions.

As a verb, it is an activity. It keeps us—or something—from falling (although why she is balancing a mug on her knee, or a book on her head is beyond me).

It’s a process. One of comparison and judgment. This being balanced against that.

We recently discussed whether you work to live or live to work.

The Big Question has also addressed why so many of us are unhappy at work (and by association, why so many of us love what we do).

Surprisingly though, we’ve never actually asked a big question about work-life balance.

When the idea for this first came up, we noted that the definition and idea of balance is simple enough. Defining what it means to you is anything but.

Since then, the massive number of responses have made it clear that defining balance isn’t the issue… more on that later.

Is That the Right Question?

This week’s Big Question asks:

What does work-life balance mean to you, and what do you need to do to achieve it?

Respondents had no problem identifying or defining what balance means for them.

Control. Freedom. Fulfillment. Sustainability.

But, without exception, it is a question—a goal—in flux.

Perhaps we were asking the wrong question.

Let’s look at some of the answers and circle back at the end and see if it becomes any clearer.

Work-Life Balance: Working from Home

For many, the idea (the practice?) of work-life balance is about setting boundaries and following rules.

This can be especially hard for people who work remotely.

From Veronica Bark:

I work remotely, so I’m both at home and at work at the same time. I follow these simple rules to maintain fulfillment in both areas.

  1. Never work on weekends. (I don’t even log in.)
  2. Walk away from the computer several times a day. (To switch a load of laundry or simply go for a walk, etc.)
  3. Block out family time on my work calendar and never compromise that time.

Emily Brereton finds (consistent) balance elusive:

I work from home part-time and I am the mother of two very small children (two years old and four months old).

I have no childcare on the days I work from home, so the concept of work-life balance is significant to me.

For me, achieving work-life balance means everyone’s needs are met.

It means I’m aware of how my actions impact my own emotional health, and that of those around me. It means I cannot prioritize any one aspect of my life, and I have to make compromises.

Some days I get up extra early to work. Some days I need the extra sleep. On some days my toddler watches too much TV while I try to finish a project.

On others, we go to the park and I don’t work much.

To achieve work-life balance, I have to turn off.

Once I get the hours in for the day, I have to make myself stop working and be present for my family.

When they go to sleep, I have to consciously take an hour for myself to decompress.

I could work all day, from sun up to sun down, nursing the baby while writing blog posts, tossing trivial activities at my toddler to keep her occupied while I stare at my screen.

But achieving work-life balance means I need to slow down, to understand that I can’t do everything simultaneously, to get as much done as possible, but to understand that there are limits to what I can do.

It’s a conscious effort. I want to keep going, constantly, but when I do that, I drain so quickly. My work then suffers, my kids pick up on the stress, and everyone is miserable.

Striving for work-life balance actually ensures everything gets done. It keeps everybody sane.

But it’s definitely difficult to consistently get right.

Work-Life Boundaries

Many of this week’s Big Q respondents included the need for boundaries, but also having a sense of our own limitations.

From Nicolas Straut:

Over the last few years, as I interned part-time while going to school full-time, I developed a more clear understanding of my limitations and the boundaries I need to succeed.

Work-life balance means having a mutual understanding between you and your manager and co-workers of when you will and won’t be available for work.

If you try to be available 24/7, your personal relationships will suffer and you’ll probably burn out.

If you say that you’re always available when you’re not, others won’t know your limitations and you’ll end up disappointing someone when you drop the ball.

Be clear with co-workers that you’re available from say, 8 to 6 Monday through Friday and that your Slack or email notifications will be muted at other times.

When you go on vacation, lay out clear boundaries once again about your availability.

It may be better to err on the side of caution by stating you won’t be available at all.

If you’re in a different time zone and co-workers expect that you’re available, goals may not be met because they’re waiting on your contribution.

Work-Life Blend

Per our definition at the outset of this discussion, balance is often about weight. Attributing (or assigning) more (or less) weight to one thing in order to balance things out.

For Laura Craven, finding that is difficult, so she redefined what she needs:

I use the word blend rather than balance. Balance conveys an even distribution of time, which is difficult to achieve. Blend is more dynamic.

My work-life blend changes based on the situation.

Some weeks I need to allocate more time and effort to work-related projects. At other times, I need to spend more time on family matters.

And when I get those two aspects of my life in harmony I can have some time on myself to do something or nothing at all.

The trick is being able to adjust at a moment’s notice.

I do this by trying to stay a few days, or even weeks ahead of all deadlines, both personal and professional.

That requires a certain amount of discipline but it makes life a lot easier when something unexpected occurs. And, it always does!

Christopher Penn is on the same page:

I like Mitch Joel’s work-life blend.

At a certain point, if you’re deeply in love with the work you do, it blends into your life.

Likewise, if you love your life, it blends into your work.

Work-Life Balance: Something is Going to Suffer

Amanda Subler has a pragmatic perspective:

This is the philosophy that’s taken me 10+ years to figure out and of course is still a work in progress.

How I achieve balance is by realizing that on any given day, something is going to suffer, and I have to be okay with that.

One day it may be work, one day the kids, one day my exercise routine.

For example, one day I may get a ton of work done, but not spend much time with the kids.

The next day I may plan an outing with the kids but that means I skip my workout. Just as long as you don’t neglect the same thing every day.

The key is being okay with not being all things to all people all the time—and that’s still a struggle sometimes!

Work-Life Balance: Prioritization

Sarah Parker has a similar point of view, but frames it a little differently. Instead of one thing suffering, it’s about timing and prioritization.

Everything has its season.

Work might take priority during a big project, just like running takes priority if I’m training for a big race.

Other times it’s spending more time with friends and family.

It’s more about balance in the long term than thinking you’re going to have time for everything every day.

We discussed this a little further in the Spin Sucks Community. I asked about prioritizing the priorities… meaning, how do you determine what to focus on?

There are certain things that likely keep getting pushed down the priority list, whether it’s exercise or tasks around the house.

From Sarah:

You schedule a day for the thing that keeps not getting done to take priority, or you delegate it (or outsource because you’re lucky enough to be able to pay someone else to do it or call in a favor).

And, until that day comes, you just learn to let it go (thinking of the holes in my office wall I haven’t patched yet from the IKEA wall-mounted project…).

Work Around Life

Katie Robbert loves what she does, and that means work can, sometimes, take over. So she has some simple rules she has to follow:

To keep my sanity, I have to carve out one to two hours a day to walk my dog.

Depending on the weather it’s before I start working, or mid-morning.

That’s non-negotiable for me.

I’ve decided to work around my life, versus having a life around my work.

I still put in ~10 hrs a day, but then I don’t feel like I’m not living. I know that’s not a luxury everyone has.

You can do it all, you just can’t do everything, everyday

A mentor once told me “the key to happiness is managing expectations” – which stuck with me every day.

For me, I have to decide what’s the most important and what can give that day.

Balance Shmalance

One thing I love about our Spin Sucks Community is their ability to tell it like it is.

With that in mind, I give you Greg Brooks:

I think I’m going to be an outlier but: I don’t need balance.

For whatever reason, my particular wiring is such that I need affirmation—the “Greg, you’re so pretty/smart/amazing” bullshit—the way some folks need, I dunno, water or air.

If I can get that in a balanced manner, I do; but if getting it means diving into work for 60+hour weeks for long stretches or diving into a new friendship/hobby/distraction with the same amount of abandon, I’ll do that.

I’m not sure any of it is healthy, but I give myself credit for, at this old age, understanding my priorities.

What’s Missing?

At the outset, we acknowledged that most of our respondents had little problem identifying what work-life balance meant to them.

Nor was there any difficulty in defining what they should or could do in order to strive for, or achieve it.

What I found most interesting? Very few spoke to how they measure success.

Katie Robbert referenced a great quotation: “The key to happiness is managing expectations.”

Sarah Parker spoke to the long term.

So is the measure of success happiness? Or is success simply found in the journey? By taking it…

For me, I know I won’t always “achieve” balance. Striving for balance (but not necessarily regretting a particular lack thereof), and acknowledging that I can do/be better is what success looks like for me.

And you? You know what balance can, could, or should look like (for you), but how do you know if you’re winning? Let us know in the comments below!

Next Time

Speaking of balance, even if you live to work we all need downtime. Or at least time off from whatever we are doing most often.

The next Big Question asks:

What’s your favorite lazy-day activity? What do you do for “down” time?

You can answer here, in our free Spin Sucks Community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

Mike Connell

Mike Connell is the director of client services at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He is also a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks, the leading source for modern PR training, trends, and insights. Find more of Mike's musings on his blog, Communative. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

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