In the 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss tells a little story that illustrates the idea of work-life balance. Listen to it here: The Parable of The Mexican Fisherman and Investment Banker.
Which of these two characters reflects how you work? Are you the determined American, constantly seeking to expand your career with a vision of a content life upon achieving your goals? Or are you the content Mexican whose life is a beautiful blend of work, family and personal time?
Regardless of whether we are self-employed or work a nine to five, each of us desires a balance between work and our personal lives. But why is that? We dream of being present for everything in life. We wish to build solid careers, entertain our hobbies, explore new ventures, spend time with friends, start a family and raise children. We want it all! It is this desire to live a well-rounded life that manifests as the need to pursue balance.
What does work-life balance mean anyway?
Work-life balance is the delicate dance between work and other aspects of life. Picture your life as a beam scale. Now, place work on a plate on one side and your personal life on another plate on the opposite side. In order to strike a balance, these two sides must rest at the same level.
Now consider this, investing more time at work causes its respective plate to descend. Subsequently, the more you indulge in your personal life, the lower its plate falls. The act of balancing these two extremes is what is known as work-life balance. Ha! All those hours in Physics class finally paid off.
Walt Disney’s 1937 animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” brought the phrase “Heigh-Ho” to life. It is used as an expression of “yawning, sighing, languor, weariness, disappointment”. Sound familiar? While the feeling of exhaustion after a long day of work is quite normal, it might be a sign that other aspects of your life need to be attended to.
Have you ever wondered why we love weekends? It’s because the idea of having a few days off for personal maintenance is appealing to us. But are a few days off enough? We need to integrate our careers and personal interests such that all these aspects of our lives are beautifully woven together.
“Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls — family, health, friends, and integrity — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”
— Gary Keller
Why do we find work-life balance challenging?
Sony’s latest PS5 invention was created to perform one primary function — to give users an extraordinary gaming experience. Every feature was designed for the collective achievement of this goal. Part of the reason machines are efficient and human beings comparatively inefficient is that they were created to execute a single goal.
The more limited the goals the higher the chance of efficiency -in case you were wondering why you can’t multi-task. Unlike the PS5 or microwaves, our brains can perform a range of diverse activities. We can write books, go scuba diving, camp in the Serengeti, raise children, plot pranks, listen to politics, do magic tricks.
The downside of being capable of pursuing all these things is that we are less efficient than if we only had one thing to do our whole lives. Bummer, I know. But before you get too disappointed, you should understand that our inability to master a single aspect of our lives is because we’ve chosen breadth and variety over total focus and narrow perfection. And this is our greatest strength and most interesting trait.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that thinks it is possible to do all these things and be great at all of them. This is how the paradox of “work-life balance” was created. Contrary to popular belief, this is not possible. Remember your beam scale? When you discover a new interest or take up a new work role, it tends to cause imbalance and that’s okay because you’ve opted for imperfect variety over flawless focus.
How to achieve work-life integration:
In one of his interviews, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, said that the concept of work-life balance is misleading. According to him, we should aim for work-life harmony instead. I think Jeff is right. Work-life balance implies that “work” and “personal interests/life” are two distinct aspects that need equal attention. On the other hand, the concept of work-life harmony embraces the idea that these two aspects are complementary to each other and may be interwoven.
Essentially, this entails that your work should make your life better and your interests should complement your work. When you feel drained by either work or your personal life, it is a sign that they are not in sync. Here are a few tips that might help with that:
1. Define what a life well-lived means to you.
This creates mindfulness in your life and helps you to be more present. Designing the life you envision enables you to be more intentional about how you wish to live your life. A fun start would be to write a step by step description of your ideal day. I found Nigel Marsh’s definition of the perfect day along with his thoughts on the subject quite interesting. Here’s a sneak peek: How to Make Work-life Balance Work.
“There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.” ― Nigel Marsh
Tip: When defining the ideal day include white space in your schedule. In design, white space is the space left in between elements of your design. Designers use white space to create a harmonious layout and prevent overcrowding of features. The idea of white space is also relevant to our lives so as to create time between activities. It is an essential transition period between your activities that helps to adjust your mindset. Getting a cup of coffee or stepping outside for fresh air are some ways you can spend white space time.
“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” — Michael Altshuler
2. Set clear boundaries
We are responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries that we want in our lives. Healthy boundaries define the quality of time you give to both your career and personal interests. Healthy boundaries at work are essential for professional fulfilment. They are the physical and mental limits you create to protect yourself from over-working. In order to achieve work-life harmony, then drawing functional and flexible limits at work is important.
“Work-life balance is not an entitlement or benefit. Your company cannot give it to you. You have to create it for yourself.” – Matthew Kelly