Should We Rethink the Concept of Work-Life Balance?

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By Robin Madell

The latest results from the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll beg the question: Is the concept of work-life balance a mere fantasy, or is there any reality to it left at all?

Forty percent of the Americans surveyed for the poll in October 2014 feel that, "in today's economy, it's not possible for most people to succeed at work, make a good living and have enough time to contribute to their family and community."

The poll resulted in many other striking statistics as well:
  • One-third of those polled (33 percent) said they would likely work on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Day.
  • More than half (56 percent) work after hours frequently or occasionally.
  • About half (49 percent) checked in with work or read work email while on their last vacation.
Certain fields may lend themselves even more to work-life imbalance than others. A 2014 survey by The Creative Group found that 62 percent of marketing and advertising executives work weekends at least once a month. Regardless of your industry, Scott Eblin, author of "Overworked and Overwhelmed," writes in his book: "For the majority of leaders and other professionals, their circumstances are compelling them to make lots of changes at once on a nearly continuous basis. Sounds like a pretty good prescription for being overworked and overwhelmed."

These are among the reasons the concept of work-life balance remains a fantasy for so many people in the U.S. What's more, many career experts believe that the "balancing" metaphor no longer applies to today's hectic, caffeine-fueled realities. Instead, they advocate terms like "work-life blend," "work-life integration" and "work-life management" to describe finding the right personal mixture that comfortably makes time for work, family, leisure and personal activities.

"What makes the concept of work-life balance seem so unattainable is that many people assume that all aspects of work and life should be given equal weight at the same time," says Libby Gill, executive coach, author and speaker. "Not only is that wildly unrealistic, it's downright exhausting."

"Your balancing act is different every day," says leadership coach Laura Gmeinder. "And possibly your ideal balance isn't achievable with your career and lifestyle. If you don't want to change your career or lifestyle, it is more about blending them to get the most out of both."

Here are four ideas for experiencing more reality and less fantasy when it comes to successfully integrating your career with your family and social life:

Reset your mindset. If you have strong ambition to achieve a specific objective – whether starting your own business venture on a shoestring budget or raising twins alone – thinking you can "do it all" could be a recipe for failure and disappointment. Instead, James Beriker, president and CEO of Simply Hired, recommends shifting how you think about your goals if you're trying to achieve something of major significance. Beriker wrote in an August 2014 LinkedIn blog post that in certain cases, "your work is, and must be, all consuming."

"Chances are, even if you wanted to change, you are hardwired to be that driven," Beriker writes. "Be conscious of that. After accepting that reality, your next step is to manage your life in a way that allows you to be who you are without blowing everything else up."

Author and speaker Anne Grady agrees. "The truth is that some things should take precedence over others," she says. "These are our priorities, and we can only focus on one priority at a time. Instead of stressing yourself out trying to achieve the elusive idea of balance, identify what's most important, and spend 80 percent of your time there, without apologizing for it."

Try a new tool. The word "balance" implies perfectly equal divisions of time allotted for each component – in this case, work on the one side and everything else in life on the other. Yet, it's almost impossible to create situations in which these segments get the same amount of time each day. Work-life balance expert and author Samantha Ettus notes that since most of us don't have flexibility to spend less time at work or caring for a sick parent or child, our work lives and personal lives will never come out equal when measured on a time-based scale.

Instead, she recommends using a new measurement tool that views life more as a pie than a 50-50 split. "Your career, kids, marriage/romance, friends, health, religion, community each get a slice," she says. "Whatever takes time up in your life gets its own slice. Now rather than beating yourself up on time, make goals for each slice, and measure your success based on how you achieve them. Measure your life slice by slice."

Think daily, not weekly. When you look at the bigger picture of your life, it's easy to think that if you stay late at work every night this week, you'll be able to catch up next week and spend more time relaxing. But it's likely there will be just as much work next week. Sp if you keep deferring your downtime until you "catch up," you may be waiting a long time for that elusive vacation.

"Work-life balance needs to be achieved on a daily basis, by setting aside time every day for self-nurturing and pursuing relaxing activities, even if it is just for a few minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening of a workday – and especially on weekends," says Barb Schmidt, author of "The Practice: Simple Tools for Managing Stress, Finding Inner Peace, and Uncovering Happiness." "Protecting your time, saying 'no' instead of 'yes' in many situations, keeping clear boundaries with work and home and really choosing in the moment the things that will take you to where you want to be in the workplace and at home are all key."

Add the "-ing." Because of the difficulty of achieving balance, it's important to keep your expectations realistic and flexible. Even if you have all of the plates spinning today, tomorrow something unexpected may come up that throws off your rhythm. The secret, according to Dawn Gluskin, author of the forthcoming book "Type-A Zen," is to shoot for balancing rather than balance.

"That -ing at the end of the word clues you in that it is a constant strive," she says. "You will never quite get there. But if you take time to evaluate your goals and desires on a regular basis, then adjust as needed, you will get close enough to live a full and happy life."

Robin Madell has spent more than two decades as a corporate writer, journalist and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology and public-interest issues. She serves as a copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. Madell has interviewed more than 200 thought leaders around the globe, winning 20 awards for editorial excellence. She served on the board of directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in New York and San Francisco. Madell is the author of "Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30" and co-author of "The Strong Principles: Career Success."
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