The Problem With Work-Life Balance, And What To Strive For Instead

by | Oct 25, 2022 | Personal Sustainability

Forget work-life balance. Expecting it creates the teetering and angst we experience when we try to juggle everything and please everyone through:   

  • Jobs that are 9-to-5 (or more). The current workday comes from a combination of Industrial Revolution expectations and post-World War II norms. It’s not a fit with the creative and strategic demands of today’s knowledge-based workplace.  
  • Always-on technology culture. Dalton Conley wrote “Elsewhere, U.S.A” over a decade ago, referencing the allure of endless connectivity and the always-on lifestyle. Today’s technology is even more attractive and insidious, and seeps into every aspect of our lives.  
  • More demanding parenting expectations. Parents want more time with their children, but struggle with juggling two-career households, childcare, and personal time. 
  • Stress levels have greatly increased for workers compared to previous decades.  

A Lack of Balance is Inevitable   

Competing priorities combine with high expectations to reduce the potential for balance at the same time it’s being held up as an ideal.  

In this situation, striving for balance only leaves you feeling guilty and inadequate. Instead, aim for something different, more attainable, and ultimately more fulfilling: work-life imbalance.  

Intentional Work-Life Imbalance As A Solution To Fatigue and Burnout 

What happens when you try to slice up your time between several projects or competing priorities? You end up half-doing everything, feeling unsatisfied with your efforts even though you invested time and energy into each area.  

Trying to make everyone happy doesn’t make anyone satisfied. Instead, everyone gets the short end of the stick – especially you. Remember, you can do anything. You can’t do everything.  

Instead of dividing up your time, energy, and focus to give equal, inadequate shares, go all-in on your top priority, then switch when you’re ready. Ranking and switching requires consideration of what’s important now alongside an understanding of how prioritization decisions support your long-range goals and priorities.  

Wondering how work-life imbalance works in real life? You may have experienced these situations:  

  • The beginning of school: When parents are getting kids prepared for a new school, they shift their central concern and focus. They commit a greater portion of their energy bandwidth to emotional preparation that will support their children’s confidence and equip them for success.  
  • A major project deadline at work: When every bit of energy is going into a new product launch or global sales campaign, your exercise routine may fall by the wayside or (if possible) shift to shorter, higher-impact workouts. You may have to pull back from family or social obligations for a time so you can fully dedicate yourself to your project.  

When these situations occur, people often feel guilt for prioritizing one area over another. Our society is notorious for creating this false dichotomy, so we feel if we prioritize one choice, it’s the only thing we value.  

However, you can do what you need to do with less stress and guilt when you focus on communicating and coming back. Clearly share your priorities with those around you, so they understand where you are and how you’re shifting your responsibilities.  

Then, come back. Prove your commitment by switching focus when the time is right and being fully present with your other set of responsibilities.  

Choose The Life You Want, Not the Guilt You’re Willing to Live With  

I recently had a coaching session with a general manager from a national franchise. He’s passionate, loves his work, prioritizes it, and is energized by it.  

With support from his family, he made the decision to rank work at the top of his priority list during this season of life. He knows this choice means he won’t always be physically present with his family; he instead chooses to focus in on quality time and connection when he is.  

The idea of work-life imbalance like this can sound too good to be true, especially for working parents conditioned to feel they’re never doing enough for their kids.  

However, research shows that there’s not a correlation between children’s optimal development and the amount of time parents devote to them. Stressed out parents aren’t fully present when they’re with their kids, or may be frustrated and reactive if they feel pulled in multiple directions. They may be able to give a higher quantity of hours, but are they quality?  

Guilt is distress related to something contrary to our internalized standard of conduct. It’s a powerful word, and there is power in naming its grip on us. 

We don’t have to fall prey to guilt if we have a clear understanding of our values and how they translate to priorities. It’s up to us to decide where our priorities fall, live according to those values, and lead with the same expectations to our teams?  

How to Lead And Affirm Work-Life Imbalance 

Driven leaders may struggle to comprehend or implement work-life imbalance. Many leaders reached their roles by “paying their dues” – using long hours to produce stellar results, then using time as their unconscious standard of dedication.  

Leaders who base success on performance, not time spent, are the ones who empower their teams to use their time and resources in a way that makes their life work. They:   

  • Create priorities and define expectations. You can and should challenge them and expect great things from them.  
  • Care for and inspire them. Look out for their interests when they’re too in the weeds to look out for their own.  
  • Walk the walk when it comes to managing energy and priorities, so you inspire them to do the same.  

Your work and life are never going to be fully balanced. That’s not what you’re striving for.  

As a high-performer and the leader of a high-performing team, choose reality over idealism. Choose the imbalance that fits your life and choose it without guilt over others’ expectations. Guilt is designed to make you doubt your choices. When you own your choices and priorities, you give yourself the freedom to build the career and life you truly desire.

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