I'm writing a quick blog post today while I'm traveling out of the country with my family. As I sit here in a Starbucks, soaking in the air conditioning, free WiFi, and an iced latte, it got me thinking about how we all struggle trying to meet the demands placed upon us by work and the life we lead outside work. It can often feel like we are being pulled in opposite directions as we try to do it all. We're told by the experts to find a "healthy balance" between work and family. But what does that even mean? What is the mythical state of balance we're supposed to pursue?
Now that I've reached the mid-point in my life and career, I've come to the conclusion that work-life balance is unattainable for most of us. Unfortunately, too few people know this. They're constantly trying to be a "Super Mom" or "Super Dad" who can work 60+ hours per week, while being a perfect parent simultaneously.
Now I'm not saying that if you work, you're going to be a bad parent. I'm just saying that we should give up trying to be the perfect employee and the perfect parent at the same time. Instead, we should look at work and life as a series of choices on when to devote more of our time to work and when to focus on our family. This way, conceptually, we'll see that work and life are never "in balance." Rather, it's more like a "balancing act," where we shift our weight between one and the other, depending on the circumstances.
The key to achieving this, is to understand two things: (1) our greatest successes are when we live in the extremes of work and family and (2) we can't live in either extreme for too long without negative consequences.
So, today let's dive into these two rules and how they play out in our work-life balancing act.
Our Greatest Successes Arise When We Live in the Extremes
This is just a basic fact. If you want to be successful in a particular avenue, you have to focus all your mental and physical energies on it. Even the extremely talented cannot get around this. No matter how naturally talented Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan may have been in their respective sports, they spent an astronomical amount of time training. This was time they couldn't put into the other realms of their life.
I understand, you're probably not trying to be the world's greatest in your field, but I'm guessing most of you probably do desire being someone who is meeting their full potential at work and as a parent. In order to succeed at this, however, you have to be willing to put in the time and effort required. Equally important is that there are times when they can be way out of balance with one another.
Let me give you typical stages adulthood to explain what I mean.
When I was young and just getting started in my career, I put in longer hours, accepted a heavier work-load, or took on extra projects. Why? Because I was trying to get experience, learn quickly, and make a good impression so that I might progress in my career and get better and more fulfilling roles. I was paying my dues by living in the work extreme.
This continued until my wife and I started our family. Having a child requires an incredible amount of time and energy. I remember those newborn days when we were were extremely sleep-deprived. I'm still not exactly sure how we were able to function. A person's mental state is shot without a sufficient amount of sleep. We weren't as good at making decisions, our logic was a little fuzzy, we were argumentative, and we were more prone to making mistakes. In other words, we were a mess. Beyond this, babies require a lot more time and attention because they can do pretty much nothing without us. So, instead of taking on more at work, I took on less. My focus shifted from work to family.
Now that the kids are older, I've again turned my focus on my career and decided to start a business and this is where more of my energy will be until it's to a point where I'm satisfied and confident that it will stay this way. Even when I'm not in the office, I'm thinking about the business. I'm even writing company blogs when I'm out of the country! Yes, I'm back into the other extreme.
Eventually, as our career reaches its peak. We start to re-focus once again. We're approaching retirement age. Work will again take second-fiddle to our family and friends. We need to do this because we need to still feel connected in some way when we no longer have employment connections. Otherwise, we have a pretty lonely life in retirement.
So, you can see how some of this shifting is natural. But if we think we have to stay balanced all the time, we're trying to force something natural into something unnatural. This is a frustrating undertaking and one in which we'll never have a lot of big successes because we're not ever committed enough to work or family to do the big things in either of them.
We Can't Live in an Extreme For Too Long
It's easy to justify staying in the work or family extreme for longer than we should. However, if we stay in one extreme or the other for too long, it creates dissatisfaction in our loved ones or our managers.
If you are consistently working 12-16 hours every day at work for months and months, and only come home to sleep, how long will it be before the family waiting for your presence, moves on without you? If you're like me, I'm sure you have heard of or know of people who worked and worked all their life, trying to save for a big retirement nest egg so that he or she could do a lot of traveling with their spouse once they retire. Then, right as they are about to retire their husband or wife gets cancer. All that working and planning for the future was for not.
We need to realize that our time on this planet is short. While work can be an important part of our lives, we also need to put aside time for those we love, too. Don't skip the little league games, the school plays, and so on and don't make promises that you're not sure if you can keep. You'll disappoint them and yourself.
Sometimes your family needs you. Be there for them.
Likewise, employers are understanding that you have family obligations at home, but they are not in business to fit around your schedule. They expect some commitment from you to be there and do the job they hired you for. Be reasonable and know that when something really important has to be done at work, that you will need to devote more time and energy to work than family. Let your loved ones know what to expect and ask for their understanding.
So long you shift back to them when your "big thing at work" is done, it will be OK.
Basically, what I'm saying here is that no state should ever be permanent. It's a constant shifting of focus between your work and your personal life. If you are trying to stay balanced between both, you'll find that you won't have a lot of success in either work or family and you'll inevitably be more frustrated with your results. Whereas, if you're in a balancing act, between work and family, you'll find more success because you're putting your focus on the right things at the right times. After all, when we have to invest our time and energy, shouldn't we do it on the things that are going to give us the best return? Sometimes that's going to be work, sometimes it's going to be family.
So let's embrace the balancing act and give up on the "work-life balance" myth. Trust me, you'll feel better about your decisions and have more success when you do.
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