High achievers have a bad habit of working too much. It’s no secret. In fact, in a survey we recently conducted of more than 200 Full Focus Planner users, more than half said they work more than 50 hours a week even though only 18% said their employers expected them to log those kinds of hours.
The inner drive to work hard isn’t bad. I love to achieve. Writing content, creating new tools, and delivering practical presentations boosts my sense of contribution. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. It’s satisfying to know the world is different because you showed up to work today.
But, if we’re not careful, our desire to contribute at work comes at a cost to the rest of our lives. Often, it’s a cost paid by the people who matter most to us.
As we’ll see, work-life balance can be elusive. We’ve never quite arrived. But it’s not complicated. Grasping it requires understanding three simple truths.
Truth 1: Work-Life Balance Is Distributive
Every part of your life is interconnected. Your work, your family, your health—every domain touches every other domain. I learned this truth the hard way.
Early in my career, I was determined to work harder than all my colleagues. I was the first to arrive and the last to leave. I said yes and did whatever was necessary to deliver outstanding results. And my effort paid off. I was promoted and offered opportunity after opportunity.
I had plenty of reasons to fuel my ambition at work. Financial obligations were building at home. We had five daughters within ten years, and I wanted to provide everything my family needed. And then, of course, there was the work itself. I loved helping people. I loved leading my team. It was inspiring to see what we could accomplish together.
Success was sweet. But as the hours I spent at the office began to compound, it became clear that all was not well.
My body started sending up warning signals. I was getting sick more than I once did. I had a series of heart-attack scares. I ran into digestive issues and had pain in my back that wouldn’t go away. The stress was taking a toll. And the damage was becoming harder to ignore.
At home, my family was getting the leftovers of my time and attention. After family dinner, I was back online, responding to emails and working away on the most recent pressing project. “This is temporary,” I’d tell my wife, Gail. For a while, we both believed it. But “temporary” instead became our new normal.
It would take an emotional confrontation to help me realize my work was costing the people I loved the most. My leftovers weren’t good enough. Something had to change. And the change would start with me.
Truth 2: Work-Life Balance Is Determined
The change in my life would begin with a realization: balance must be caused. It doesn’t just happen. It’s created with intention.
Creating balance begins with taking stock of what matters to you. There are several domains worth considering:
What—or who—do you want to give yourself and your time to? What do you want to make happen in your world? How do you want to show up to the relationships in your life? And what does the way you spend your time right now reveal about your priorities?
When I realized my family was paying the cost of my long work hours, I knew something had to change. I worked together with my coach, Daniel Harkavy, to set boundaries around my workday. I committed to leaving the office by 6 p.m. without bringing any work home with me. Weekends and vacations were work-free.
Creating constraints around my workday gave me clarity about which tasks were most important. It kept me focused. And, gradually, I began building the kind of life I actually wanted. I spent more time at home. I started taking my health seriously. I even picked up a hobby.
It wasn’t an exact science. Moving toward work-life balance means your resources are divided appropriately, not equally. If you’re working eight hours a day and sleeping eight hours a day, you can’t give each of your remaining priorities eight hours of your time and attention. There’s not enough time in the day.
In other words, finding what feels right is messier than simple math. It’s an inexact science. Sometimes, it’s actually more of an art. Like art, it’s unique. Your idea of balance won’t look just like mine. That’s okay. The right fit varies person to person, shaped by personality, stage of life, and individual preferences.
In fact, your right fit will even look different season to season. That brings us to our final truth.
Truth 3: Work-Life Balance Is Dynamic
Our work-life balance is constantly fluctuating. To illustrate this idea, labor economist and Stanford business professor Myra Strober uses a great metaphor about a rocket. She says this in her book Sharing the Work:
A rocket is exactly on target only at takeoff and landing. Between those two points, it constantly moves away from its trajectory and has to be “straightened out.” So, too, with work and family. The two are rarely in balance, and each member of the couple needs to keep an eye out to discern when the imbalance requires correction.
Seasons change. Crises come up. And sometimes we really do enter temporary higher-intensity stretches in our careers. While it’s important to be honest with ourselves, and to have others hold us accountable to keep these stretches temporary, it’s also important to expect that our reality might not match our ideal. The balancing act requires a willingness to lean in.
Others’ expectations will also shape the dance of work-life balance. Gail and I recently had a long discussion when we realized our definitions of “succeeding at life” in our current season differed.
Like us, you’ll often recognize a gap between your ideal and your reality. In fact, the clearer you are about your ideal, the more you’ll notice the gap. In these moments, it’s important to give yourself credit for what’s going well. Then, you can recalibrate. Together, Gail and I adjusted our commitments and our expectations. We gave each other grace. And we kept moving forward.
Our lives are in constant motion. That means work-life balance is rarely picture-perfect. It’s more directional. You’ll find yourself needing to reorient every month, every week, maybe even every day. But bit by bit, your life will begin to look different. You’ll look back and realize that, though you’re not yet where you want to be, you’re nowhere near where you began.
Welcome to the journey of work-life balance. It’s lifelong. But I promise, it’s worthwhile.
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