In a recent magazine interview I was asked to give my views on whether I have a good work / life balance and, if so, the secret to my success.
At first I was unable to answer. I stared at the question for ages, answered the others and circled back to it again.
On the face of it this is not a stupid question to ask: the interview was for a business magazine on my career experiences post graduation. But for the first time since my graduation the concept of work / life balance seemed obviously stupid.
I realised that I don’t believe in work life balance at all.
To rewind a decade to the start of it all, the idea of a work / life balance was something I was very vocal and passionate about. After long nights at the large law firm where I started my career anything that did not involve filling in a time sheet and working through weekend got my full attention.
My colleagues and I spent hours bemoaning our circumstances. The notion that it was possible to have a life outside the parameters of our beige cubicles was a fantasy. So much so, that almost ten years later I can with heightened clarity recall a cocktail party at an overtly marble-clad investment bank where a client somewhat cruelly (after hearing several of us ‘young ones’ lamenting our woeful existences) announced that no one in their twenties should be striving for a work/life balance and should be prepared to sacrifice their personal lives for success. I was outraged. It deepened my belief in the importance of WLB even further. But as I stared at the interview question on my screen, I realised that all these years later, I agreed.
At first this realisation shocked me. Had I, over time and having experienced a small amount of success, become hardened, bitter even? A person who started sentences with the aged “in my day”? Given that I still work long days with more responsibility, it seemed unlikely. No, it wasn’t that.
I spent time exploring it within myself and realised that the reason I don’t buy into a WLB, is because I don’t believe the concept should exist at all.
It’s a myth!
Let’s unpack that: Believing in a work / life balance implies that these things (your work and your life) are inherently different and separate. Because of this dissatisfaction creeps in when you perceive work to be taking over and other areas (i.e. your life) to be the victim (and don’t get me started on my thoughts on the victim theory).
But having lived through the long hours, constant illness, unfortunate accidents, divorce and near burn-out, its hard to argue against the notion of having a balance between what you do to earn a living and living itself.
And therein lies the key.
Everything we do: our work, our hobbies, our relationships form the very fabric of our life. These things are not separate from us, they are us. Work is an aspect of our life!
So where did I go wrong?
I believe it started with being unbalanced myself. The probability is that if you have not identified and live in accordance with your personal boundaries, have difficulty saying no, are a people-pleaser, or believe success to look a particular way (being in a career for the wrong reasons perhaps), then you will feel unbalanced. I also truly believe that passion is a key ingredient for success.
My conclusion is that if you do not know yourself – intimately – you are more likely to become unbalanced and be swayed by external factors like work pressures and other people.
Speaking from my personal experience, unbalanced individuals become stressed, unhealthy and unhappy. The more stress you encounter, the more you react to say a horrible boss, which leads to even more stress. What can you do to realign your life and regain the balance within yourself?
Here are a few things I wish I knew then, but know now:
- Understand your personal boundaries and why these are important to you.
- Learn the art of pushing back but more importantly understand why its difficult for you to do so. Often this is due to the way we were raised: family, cultural and societal pressures. What fears come up when you explore this?
- Spend time getting to know yourself. Spend a few quiet moments a day, reconnecting. My favourites are taking a walk alone during a coffee break, and commuting to work in silence.
- When examining long-held beliefs (e.g. you really don’t like to disappoint people) try the ‘continual questioning method’ (my phrase). It works like this:
“Why don’t I like to disappoint people?” (your answer here),
“And why is that?” (your next answer here)
“And why is that?” (you get the idea).
This usually takes you to the core of your belief, for example, a fear of disappointing your parents.
- Don’t make the hard experiences the enemy. Be gentle and grateful to have the opportunity to learn about yourself.
- Its hard to practice this all the time. We all go through periods where we move slightly further away from ourselves and that’s okay. Everything that goes up, must come down. It takes patience. It takes time.
- The most important truth for me: trust that where you are right now is exactly where you need to be. This always proves to be true, and is the one thing you can rely on when things get tough.
Finding balance within myself has been a constant project. Even now, in extremely busy and testing times, I find myself slipping back into old, victim driven thought patterns and suffering with stress and unhappiness. Bringing my focus back to who I am ultimately brings me back.
So do I believe in work / life balance? No. It’s a myth that makes us feel worse when our situation spirals out of control and we perceive others to be perfectly coping with all life throws at them.
My answer to the question: WLB does not exist, but personal balance does. And that is the secret.
I hope this post helps and inspires you! I would love to hear your thoughts.