What does work–life balance mean?

In recent weeks the theme of work–life balance has popped up in my conversations a little more than normal.

Perhaps it’s an indication that people are being asked to do more with less (e.g., add hours to their work week to save the company from employing more people).

Perhaps someone is being promoted to a position slightly over their skill level, requiring more time in study, training, or just fulfilling the job description.

Or maybe it’s pressure from the other side of the equation—family, an illness, a new child, or some other life-altering circumstance.

Whatever the trigger, my clients have expressed increased levels of stress and have reported struggling with both “work” and “life.”

“I need a break!” is the war cry of the work–life imbalanced.

But do I?

What I really want is a reduction in stress—that feeling of not quite having enough resources (time/money/energy) to accomplish what the company pays me for and what my home life and family (and I) expect of me.

Wikipedia says “work–life balance is a concept including proper prioritizing between ‘work’ (career and ambition) and ‘lifestyle’ (health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development/meditation).”

I think that’s a bit too simplistic. Prioritizing simply means I place some actions ahead of others. It doesn’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel when the lower prioritized aspects are never accomplished. Corporate-ladder climbing is full of executives who metaphorically never see their daughters dance recitals. And brilliant leaders who prioritize their families and their happiness find themselves struggling for a work identity and sometimes enough cash flow to live the life they want. Not to miss the point that the work environment doesn’t enjoy their genius either.

There are three players in the work–life equation: Me, my job (role), and my life (soul). Instead of prioritizing role over soul, or vice versa, how about we manage expectations?

What do I expect from my job? A certain wage (security). Reward for good and honorable service. Advancement. Acceptance of my skills and value to the organization. Maybe health insurance. The corner office.

What does my job expect from me? This is a little tough to answer because a lot depends on what I think my job expects from me. In many ways, my interpretation of what I need to invest here may not be as much about what the job description dictates as what my Knower/Judger says I should contribute. Maybe I do more work so I don’t have to delegate. Maybe I stay late so the boss sees that I’m dedicated. Maybe I go to the weekend golf outing because I interpret that as expected for advancement.

What does my life expect from me? Again, this is certainly a product of my K/J mindset. Perfect husband. Perfect Dad. Mow the lawn. Grill the Saturday burgers. Smile continuously at my in-laws. Be there when wanted. But again, how do I know these are the universal rules for my home-life? I learned them from my parents in another age when the environment was totally different than it is today.

So here I am working at 8 in the evening on a project that the boss needs tomorrow at 7 a.m. My direct reports just weren’t skilled enough to get it to me earlier, so I’m prioritizing this over my son’s baseball game where, for the first time, he’s the starting pitcher. Can this example be any more painful?

Result: The job gets done. The boss has no idea I did the whole thing. My kid’s avoiding me and my wife is being professional at avoiding me. Oh, and, to top it off, I’m probably snarling at everybody in the house.

There, Wikipedia. I prioritized. How’s that workin’ for me?

Now let’s look at the crisis from an expectation perspective. What expectations can I adjust to edit this script?

I can adjust my expectations of being a super-hero at the job. I can develop an improved mentor relationship with my direct report so his skill level rises to the level of not putting me in that position again and his attitude alters so he does not want to put me in that position again. Or I find a different direct report. This is not ex post facto prioritizing. This is adjusting my expectations from what I’ve been carrying around all my life. Maybe I’m a responsibility magnet (i.e., I can’t say no).

And my dad (who worked a 9-5 in a manufacturing company) never missed one of my ballgames… so that’s my expectation. It’s possible my son’s demand for my sideline attention isn’t as high as I think it is. Perhaps he’s OK with me missing the occasional game. Again, my K/J putting the pressure on me is MY K/J. I learned it. I decided it was the way to live my work–life tug of war.

I can experiment with letting go of some of these beliefs, starting on one side and then the other. It’s not about prioritizing. It’s about letting go of “stuff” until I’m experiencing a new interpretation of how I fit into multiple worlds simultaneously.

Letting go of expectations is an onramp to discovering ways to let things happen rather than obsessing about making them happen. Corner office?

… headed for the ball field.

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