Five Steps to Stop the Work-Life Balance Myth
Since my interview last month with Professor Jim Wren of Baylor Law School, I’ve been thinking about something he said: “Work and life don’t always stay in balance. At any given point in time, you're having to focus on what matters most, and that ebbs and flows. So, when people think, ‘I should always have ‘x’ amount of free time,’ it just doesn't always work that way.”
I have also had several conversations lately about the push and pull of balancing work and life. Maybe it’s because Level 2 Legal’s growth over the past few years has stretched each of us to new levels of responsibility. Or maybe it’s the fact that most of the people I work with are younger and in the throes of building families and careers.
And the more I reflect, the more I agree with what Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth.”
In my own life, work-life balance is a misnomer at best. The term itself implies the two are equals, but, like most things that are important, understanding them is nuanced. So, with the caveat that by no means do I claim to have all my ducks in a row, I offer these five suggestions for trying to live with some sense of equilibrium.
When working my way through college and law school, I didn’t have the luxury of wondering how to spend my time. And my grandparents living through the Depression didn’t have time to worry about work and life being balanced - the struggle was for survival. And as I wake up this morning in Dayton, OH, the folks at the GE plant across the street are quite relieved – the 12,000 company layoffs announced overnight apparently don’t affect them. The work part of the work-life balance equation is suddenly much more real. This recent work-life issue is a result of our abundance, so a sense of perspective is in order as we have the privilege of fine-tuning our lives.
Acknowledge the Myth.
When the focus of work and life is balance, I stay continually frustrated because the two will never be quantitatively equal. Something will always be demanding our primary attention. And if we set impossible expectations for ourselves, we will never meet or exceed them. We will always be dancing with failure.
Decide What’s Important.
When my boys were younger, I consciously made career decisions so I could be present for ball games and school plays - at least as many as possible. This meant that other things had to be set aside.
Fast forward a decade and I have more career opportunity than ever - perhaps truly once-in-a-lifetime - and it's worthy of attention. I now need to spend more time working, and I’m grateful for this moment.
Both choices were deliberate based upon life at the time. You may be at a particularly important time in the lives of your loved ones and some extra time is needed there. Or perhaps you’ve got that once-in-a-lifetime shot at work and adjustments in time at home or play are necessary. The key is to evaluate carefully.
My older son recently reminded me of lunches we had together when he was in middle school. I picked him up during his lunch break to go to Rick’s on the Square, where he always ordered the chicken fried chicken sandwich.
Why do those lunches stick in his mind? My guess is that the intentionality made the ordinary become extraordinary. A total of a few hours over a couple of years, but good memories for both of us.
Professor Wren is right. At any given time we’re having to focus on what matters most. Often when I’m stuck, I ask myself, “What is the best next thing for me to do?”
When my younger son was nine years old, I knew I wasn’t spending enough time with him and was missing out. We needed to get away for some fun, but that wasn’t going to happen unless I stopped and made an intentional change in plans. He and I took a weekend trip to Dallas, where we managed to see the Texas Rangers home opener, eat big steaks, take in a Mavericks game, and buy him a new suit for Easter.
I needed to make an adjustment - and it was one of the best weekends of my life.
The point of all this is to let go of the idea that we have to be perfectly balanced to have a well-lived, fulfilling life. In the end, we’re all looking for a meaningful rhythm between our work and personal lives - giving attention when and where it makes sense.
Joey Seeber is CEO of Level 2 Legal Solutions, a Texas-based leading provider of eDiscovery and legal solutions, specializing in modern managed review, outsourcing, and consulting for law firms and in-house counsel.