Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Escape the 10 Tyrannies of Work/Life “Balance”

By Cali Williams Yost, CEO and Founder, Work+Life Fit, Inc.
(This post originally appeared in

Like clockwork every year, in the last week of December, people start asking me, “My New Year’s Resolution is to find more balance. What’s your top how-to tip?” My answer is always the same, “Stop looking for balance and start finding your unique work+life fit.”

But this year, I’m more emphatic. You see, for ten years, I’ve patiently waited for everyone to realize that balance is an anachronism. A holdover from an Industrial Age, with all of its boundaries and rules, that no longer exists. But clearly the realization hasn’t sunk in given the number of Google Alerts for “work life balance” that continue to fill my inbox daily.

This outdated concept of “balance” is a major roadblock that stands between us and having true, meaningful flexibility in the way we manage our work, life and careers, because:
1. “Balance” is always discussed in the negative. “I don’t have balance.” “I am out of balance,” which…
2. Keeps you focused on the problem, not the solution. You have the power to make countless adjustments (both large and small) in the way you work and manage your life (as long as you know how), but you’ll never see them because balance…
3. Assumes we’re all the same. We’re not. At any given time, we all have a completely unique set of work and personal circumstances which precludes a consistent solution. For Kate, who’s on the steep learning curve of a new job and works long hours, getting to the gym and seeing her friends every couple of weeks is enough. But for Mark, three days a week mentoring new sales people is perfect, because he can delay retirement for two years and see his grandchildren more. Work+life fit is like snowflakes. I’ve never heard the same fit twice, but balance…
4. Infers that there’s a “right” answer. There isn’t. If the work+life fit reality for each of us is completely unique then there’s never going to be a “right” way. I’ve met an investment manager who runs a tree farm on the side, an accountant who’s a mom and a competitive ballroom dancer, and an entrepreneur who gets home twice a week for dinner with his kids and tries to slip in time to surf during his 80-hour workweek. They’ve all found a work+life fit that works for them in the context of their unique jobs and personal realities. No one is right. No one is wrong, yet balance…
5. Leads us to judge others, often unfairly. Honestly, we need to give each other and ourselves a break. We have no idea what’s going on in someone else’s life or in their job, but we can learn strategies from each other. “How does an entrepreneur get home for dinner and surf?” “How do you manage investments and run a tree farm?” “How does a mother work as an accountant and find time to be a ballroom dancer?” Instead of judging, we can inspire, but balance too often…
6. Results in unproductive guilt. If each of us has a unique work+life fit, then there should be no (or at least less) guilt. If that fit works for your unique work and personal circumstances, rock on; however, the trick is to understand that not everyone can do what you’re doing. This is the missing piece. How can create a culture that allows all of our unique work+life fit realities to coexist together? Circumstances will change. One day you’re able to work 80 hours a week, then because of unexpected eldercare responsibilities you can work no more than 20 hours, but balance…
7. Suggests that the goal is a 50-50 split between work and the other parts of your life. In today’s competitive, service-oriented, global economy there are very few jobs where a consistent amount of work will be done on particular days within certain hours all of the time. Even 15 years ago, you could count on a pretty reliable schedule. And you could walk out the door at the end of the day and not have to reconnect to work until you walked back in. No longer. To find a fit that works for you and your job, acknowledge this inherent workflow inconsistency and connectivity. Plan as best you can to create boundaries around technology and to accommodate the inevitable work+life ebbs and flows. But balance…
8. Leaves no room for periods where there’s more work and less life, and vice versa. If you want flexibility in your workplace to succeed, then you need to be flexible with it. In other words, if an unexpected project has to be completed and you’re supposed to leave at 4 p.m., occasionally step to the plate and stay without complaint. The unanticipated will happen. Conversely, maybe you’ll experience a chronic illness (like when I had Lyme two years ago). Suddenly there’s a lot more life than work, but balance…
9. Ignores the constantly changing reality of work and life. When your goal is “balance” any and all changes will throw you off. My experience is that very few of us know how to think through, plan for and adjust our work+life fit in response to the personal and career transitions we know are happening, much less the events that happen unexpectedly. And, we need to because balance…
10. Will never be taken seriously by corporate leaders. As I’ve written before, when you say “balance,” all that corporate leaders hear is “work less” and the conversation goes nowhere. The minute I started talking about the goal in terms of work+life “fit,” these same leaders began to engage. They saw that they too have a work+life fit that matters to them, but also that there was a business benefit to giving everyone more flexibility to work smarter and better in today’s economy.

Escape the tyranny of balance. Focus on how to optimize your work+life fit and you’ll:

• Talk about what you could have
• See solutions
• Know we’re all different
• Realize there’s no right answer
• Stop judging yourself and others
• Lose the guilt
• Embrace and plan for the ebb and flow of work and life day-to-day and throughout your career, and
• Increase the likelihood of that your boss will support greater flexibility in the where, when and/or how you work and, in turn, manage your life.

How are you going to escape the tyranny of “balance” and find your unique work+life ‘fit?”

To help you achieve your unique goal, check out my book, “Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead/Penguin Group) and join me at Fast Company and my award-winning Work+Life Fit blog. Also, follow me on Twitter.

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