The work-life balance debate is anything but new. In fact, it has evolved to become a buzzword when it comes to the matters of workplace wellbeing, employee engagement and satisfaction, and what makes an organisation a better place to work than others.
As good as it has been at encouraging us to think of how much time we spend doing work-related stuff versus how much time we invest in doing the things we enjoy outside work, the term has also been sometimes used in ways that suggest it’s an unattainable utopia, rather than a reasonable reality. I have to admit, when you are the mother of twins, the wife of an executive AND an executive yourself, as is my case, the thoughts of it being a fantasy can often overweigh those of it being achievable.
I hope you’re not reading this blog seeking a magic answer for a perfect work-life balance, because if you are, I must be upfront: I don’t have it. Truth be told, I don’t even think there is such a thing. What I am willing to share today is what I consider to be a good starting point and framework for those who, like me, are constantly trying to thrive both on a personal and professional level.
Define work-life balance
If you Google ‘work-life balance definition’ you will find there are around 200 million results, and given the fact that the term has been around for a few decades now, I think we all have a fairly good idea of what it’s all about. However, what I mean by ‘defining work-life balance’ is realising what work-life balance means to you. What does your ideal of work-life balance look like?
Understandably, the differences could be stark if you ask a 25-year-old rather than if you ask me, or if you ask someone without children versus a mother or a father. Without going too far, there would be a huge difference if you asked the 22-year-old Distie compared to the Distie writing this blog. The point is, each individual’s definition of work-life balance should be very personal, as it depends on what our priorities are and our aspirations both career-wise and on a personal level – hence my first piece of advice: don’t leave it up to somebody else to define your work-life balance.
Keep it real
From exploring the meaning of work-life balance to setting our goals and tactics to achieve it, it remains essential that we are honest with ourselves and that we keep it realistic all the way. When we establish our priorities, it’s not about what’s important for society, it’s not about what other people think to be pertinent for me - it’s about what is truly relevant for me: what are those things I can’t or don’t want to give up and that make me happy?
I’ll start by opening up and stating my reality: first, I’m a bit of a workaholic, but on the top of my priority list are my kids/family and my health. Before anything else, I am a mother and a wife. Next on my list is my career. I am a career-focused woman, and I have been since very early in my professional journey. That acknowledged, I can now sketch a work-life plan that is coherent with those priorities, and to do that, I’ll need to think of it as whole.
As much as I love spending time with my kids, taking them to school, and having date night with my husband, I also have a position at work that involves 25-30 percent travel. With all three things at the top of my priority list, how to get them all worked out? For me, it’s all about making commitments and even compromising when needed.
I know it’s unrealistic to tell my kids I will take them to school every single day (or making myself feel guilty about not doing yoga every single day), so how about committing to taking them every day that I am not travelling, or if that is too optimistic, maybe start with at least a set number of times per week/month. The same could work out with my husband – committing to have date nights three times a week wouldn’t be realistic, but three times a month seems fair and doable.
Setting these types of commitments will not only help you better allocate your time and attention, but also assess yourself and see how good or bad you are doing at sticking to your word, and what could you be doing better.
Make others aware
No, I don’t mean putting up huge posters around your workplace about what work-life balance means and why it’s important. What I mean by making others aware is communicating your concept of balance with those around you, those whose support you will need to achieve your work-life goals: your family, your peers, your manager. Tell them the plan you have set out and how you aim to achieve it. It might not only help as they will remind you of your promises and encourage you to do what it takes to keep them, but it may also inspire them to think of how their work-life balance is doing and draw their own plans – then you can hold each other responsible to stick to your ‘balance commitments’.
A never-ending trial and error exercise
Although those steps may get you started on working out your balance plan, I have to warn you there is no perfect state when it comes to work-life balance, so don’t beat yourself up when your balance is not at its 100 percent. In an ideal world, the promise to attend your kids’ football match will never conflict with that end-of-year meeting that went on for longer than expected – but here’s when those commitments you realistically established become handy: use them to look back and understand if this is a one-time thing that you can easily make up for, or if it’s happening more often than you thought. Once you have your answer, you can either reconsider your priorities and commitments, or correct in time what you’ve been doing wrong.
I must also say that people have different timings when it comes to realising the importance of work-life balance, and that’s fine too, so don’t feel bad when someone else is more or less passionate in the way they talk about balance. I am one of those who was hit by reality when I lost a loved one unexpectedly, that’s when I started thinking of balance – and then several years later found myself in hospital for seven days; that’s when I was reminded to reconsider my balance. While I’m proud to say I’ve gotten better at it, like most things in life, it takes practice. In the end, it’s not about finding the way to a work-life balance but making work-life balance the way.