I've come to the conclusion that work-life balance is fundamentally a flawed concept. The problem with balance is that it implies giving an equal amount of time and attention to every area of my life - and that is simply just not possible. It's not possible to give in equal measure each week the same same amount of time to, say work; the same amount to family; the same amount to exercise or to friends or to other meaningful activities.(I've explained more on this in a previous post).
Perhaps a better way to think about work-life balance then is in terms of work-life integration. What do I mean?......
When I use the word integration, I mean spending an appropriate amount of time in each of the important areas of my life. In that case the analogy of the orchestra conductor is better as I seek to create a symphony from all the different aspects of my life. Do all the parts appropriately come together to create a life of beauty or a disjointed cacophony of noise that leaves me and those around me stressed and exhausted?
Notice it is the word appropriate. The point is that there is no gold standard you can go to and find out what the right amount of time is to spend, for example, with your family or at work or exercising or with friends. When I am at work, I want to be fully absorbed at work, not thinking about things at home. And when I am at home, I want to be able to give those around me my full attention. Do I always succeed? Absolutely not, but it doesn't mean its not an important goal to strive to towards.
Here are 5 suggested ways to live according to the most important priorities in in your life and move towards creating that symphony:
- Get absolutely clear what those priorities are in the first place and then rank them in order.
For me those priorities and the order is:
1. My relationship with God: He is my creator and the source of everything in my life. If I get that foundation wrong, then everything else will fall apart. (If you are interested in why I have come to that conclusion do see the 15 minute video Just As I Am).
2. Myself. That may well surprise you, but it comes from a realisation that the one person I have the most control over is myself. I cannot change others, but I can seek to change myself. As Gandhi succinctly put it, 'Be the change you seek in the world." In the same way that on an aeroplane we are advised in case of decompression of the cabin to put an oxygen mask on ourselves before seeking to help anyone else, there is the realisation that attending to my own health and well being empowers me to give my best self to the challenges and needs around me.
3. My spouse. Sally, my wife, has to come as the most important human relationship in my life. She is certainly the first to know when I am not doing well. And if things are not going well between us then it quickly begins to affect everything else! One of the best pieces of advice I also came across was if you want to love your children well, make sure you love their mother first! Which leads to..
4. Our children. They are God's gifts to us. Unnerving as it is, our happiness is tightly tied up with them and as parents we both have huge influence on the way their lives will go.
5. Work. Its with that foundation in place, I can then give myself to the work I am called to.
- Schedule time for those things that matter most.
With the increasing complexity of life and distractions coming in so many directions, unless I am clear on what my priorities are it is so easy to be carried away by what is latest and loudest. (See Should Living In A VUCA World Matter To You? and Time Management).
- Establish a brief set of non-negotiables.
These are things that you will not compromise on and do without. Period. There are no ifs or buts. So on one level there are obvious things for all of us like getting sleep, brushing teeth and washing, but there are other more personal values. For me that includes activities such as daily time for prayer and meditation each morning; regular exercise; being home with family by 6pm; not taking paid work over the weekends unless it is really necessary; getting to church every Sunday.
- Strive for alignment between your stated priorities and your daily practice.
We all know that life happens. The unplanned and unexpected can so easily take us off track. However, so long as I know what my priorities are I can keep returning to them. I'm often reminded that it is better to be guided by the compass than the clock. So long I am going in the right direction, even if it is not at the speed I want, I will eventually get there. Which leads to...
- Learn to accept that there will always be tension.
In other words work life balance rather than being a problem to be solved, it is a tension that has to be continually managed. None of us ever fully master it, because there will always be people, priorities and projects that will need our attention.
The key is how can I bring that harmony from everything going on in my life to create a symphony which is coherent and consistent with all I am called to be?
What questions, thoughts and comments does work-life integration create for you?