Has Work-Life Balance Finally Become Life-Work Balance?
Now, it would be so easy for me to give you a comprehensive list of tips, tricks and techniques to improve your work-life balance. And we certainly need a re-boot given post-pandemic changes to working environments, the marketplace and our own expectations. But surely the place to start is discerning what work-life balance actually is, hence my rueful header: does not, the ‘whole of life’, trump the consideration of mere work, alone? Wouldn’t life-work balance be a more appropriate moniker in the twenty first century (or indeed any century)?
So, let’s start with the ‘what’ before we delve into the how: what do we really mean by work-life or life-work balance?
Of course, it depends. It is a very individual equation, which evolves, within context, and over time. Consider the needs and preferences of your twenties compared to your forties or fifties. Life balance will always pivot around what matters to you most, both short and long term and what drives you, that is, your personal values, against the backdrop of your individual life requirements and expectations, all viewed holistically.
The Wheel of Life
I often get clients to start off with a simple pictorial representation of this holistic view of their life. Sometimes called the ‘wheel of life’, the diagram above shows a circle divided into 8 equal segments, each representing an element of a ‘balanced’ life. In this case, the individual has chosen relationships, family, career, finances, social life, wellbeing, future planning, hobbies and interests. They might equally have allocated a segment to studying or health or a specific personal interest or sport. Everyone’s pies will be different. In this example, life is divided into eight same-size segments, but you could equally give a bigger slice to career and a smaller one to family, or indeed any other combination you feel is appropriate. There is no need to have exactly eight slices; there could easily be more or less, and how you define the segments is completely up to you. For example, as I get older, I find my health and wellbeing segment becomes more important and needs more focus, while my finance slice shrinks as I’ve paid off my mortgage and my kids are fending for themselves.
The beauty of this model is that it is easily designed on excel and can then be reviewed, at least yearly as priorities change. And of course, it helps to define exactly what we, as individuals, mean when we talk about balance. It defines the individual elements of our own take on what’s important to us and gives us the opportunity to view the whole, while figuring out the relative size of the components. While career may represent more than an eighth of the pie at any one time, it’s highly unlikely to be a full seven eighths of your life – hence my call for a move to ‘life-work’ balance to ensure proper proportionality!
Protecting your Pie from Hybrid Working and Other Animals
Many of us continue, and will continue indefinitely, to grapple with changing work modes and patterns. The possible combinations are magnificent but also mind boggling: flexible working, job-sharing, seasonal-work patterns, four-day weeks, compressed hours, working from home, hub working, hot desking, hybrid working, client-based working and combinations of all of these… How on earth can we hope to navigate through this complexity without having some inkling, some vision on what we would like to achieve? So, once you’ve designed your personal pie and carved the slices to represent where you are now and where you would like to get to, then you can look at techniques to achieve balance. Here are a few ideas:
- Boundaries – macro and micro. Your wheel of life is speaking loudly, and it needs to be heard. You are going to have to make the space to fit in all the things you want to focus on; they may not all take up the same amount of time, but you do need to reserve and protect a specific slot for your chosen priorities. For example, it is very easy, especially with hybrid working, for work to seep out into the whole of the pie (like a rich, gooey filling that can’t be contained). It can, and it will, if you let it. But you can protect your other segments by granting them equal importance. They may take up a smaller segment, but you do need to make the space available and protect it. This could be as simple as creating a boundary around your lunch-break, and making the effort to go for a walk for exercise and well-being. It might mean saying no, either to a particular work task or an event, a decision made with your conscious awareness that saying yes might drive your social time to zero. Similarly, booking in your contractual holiday entitlement protects a space which demonstrates that you are giving equal importance to other aspects of your life – friends, family, hobbies or interests.
- “Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Voltaire. It’s all very well having a plan but what do you do when the unexpected, the emergencies, the unforeseen opportunities get in the way? In other words, the chaos and complexity of life in the twenty first century! My simple advice is that you do what you have to do, and then you revert to plan. Your plan is your wheel of life, backed up with a calendar that schedules in time for your holistic life priorities. When urgency trumps your planned activity (a sudden new deadline means cancelling dinner with your significant other), use your professional judgement to make a decision and if you have to go with the deadline, then find a way to make good on the social/relationship priority, don’t just let it go. For example, you may be able to do a straight reschedule for the dinner date or you could consider a less than perfect compromise – a late film and a takeaway instead – which is still good. Get the picture? This is all about protecting what’s important to you – even if you can’t do it perfectly, good can be good enough!
- Time Management – 21st Century Style. It’s one of the key components of achieving your life-work balance, and in particular making sure that your work time doesn’t swamp everything else in your life. Take a look at some of our other CareersinAudit.com articles for more advice. Here are just three to start you off:
I’m making an assumption here of course, that work is the dominant, and often, uncontrollable variable in your life balance. It’s a reasonable assumption, since for most of us, our work does take up the biggest slice of the pie. But if that’s not the case for you, then the general principles of a balanced life are still equally applicable. For the heavy-working amongst us, however, let’s finish with a salutary reminder:
“No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business”, (attributed to Paul Tsongas). Now that’s a wake-up call!