The Work/Life Balance Myth
Are you striving for a work/life balance? Find out why that's not really possible.
We’re located in Los Angeles and it’s fall, so our fall weather is wind with fire. This year has been no exception unfortunately, but it’s quite upsetting that some of the fires every year are not natural disasters, but man-made ones. Last month, a garbage truck’s load caught on fire and the driver unceremoniously dumped the load on the roadside, despite someone passing by stopping and pleading with him not to do so. His burning load lit the dry vegetation that resulted in the Sandalwood fire in Riverside County that ended in two people’s deaths, damaged or destroyed over 90 structures, caused hundreds to be evacuated from their homes, and which burned over 1,000 acres. And this was a small fire compared to many burning in California still today.
While the truck driver was certainly not acting mindfully, he was following his company’s instructions. There are no laws regarding procedures to follow when a garbage truck’s trash catches fire. The state leaves that decision to the corporations that haul garbage. The hauling companies’ priority is to save their expensive vehicles, so most have policies that drivers should immediately dump the load to avoid damage to their trucks. That’s truly mindless in a state that experiences winds up to hurricane force and is blanketed in dry brush. I just read that the legislature is considering looking into this lack of oversight and we can only hope that they take action to protect the state’s citizens.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the people suffering from the fires in both northern and southern California. While we can’t change the weather and we can’t control elements like a lightning strike or a tree branch hitting a power line, we can all certainly be more mindful about our individual actions under these conditions.
I do a lot of workshops on time management and productivity. I also do a lot of workshops on self-care. And while some people listen and make changes that improve their lives, many resist making any changes and simply continue to feel stressed, overwhelmed and struggle with managing their daily lives. That’s their choice.
A small group are more resistant, arguing that it’s impossible to make any changes that will lessen the amount of stress they’re experiencing because it’s due to external forces beyond their control, like their boss, their family obligations, etc. Unfortunately, I can’t help this population because we have to be open to change in order to make a change. But they do say one thing that is true – that there is no such thing as work/life balance.
Balance means a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. From an energetic perspective, balance means perfectly equal, perfectly still. In other words, zero energy is occurring.
I’m pretty sure that only happens when we die. So the real goal is not balance. Who can perfectly balance their time each day between sleep, work, family, chores, errands, personal development and relationships? That is impossible. The real goal is harmony, which simply means (over an extended period of time), we focus our attention on what needs to be done in shorter periods of time - and make sure that we include all elements of our priorities over that longer period.
There are times when we simply can’t do much beyond whatever we’re facing because something unexpected occurred, or we’re under a tight deadline or we’re short on staff or a great opportunity arises. That’s okay. But we need to make sure when that happens, we have a plan in place for the other sides – relaxation, rest and downtime – harmonizing our lives over time so that we live a full and rich life that includes meaningful work and meaningful play.
Mindfulness of that harmony helps us get through the tough phases. I’m getting close to the end of one myself and believe me, it has not been easy. I accepted a lot of work over the summer that would run through the end of November, carefully ensuring that we could live up to those obligations. Then I had an unexpected staffing change. Now we’re very over-extended and I’m conducting up to 5 workshops a week. Many of those aren’t even written until just a few days before the event. It’s resulted in my having to work 7 days a week for several weeks now, which I certainly don’t prefer.
I’ve realized from this experience over the past few weeks that there are still quite a few people who don’t get the concept of harmony and/or misunderstand self-care. Yes, I am pushing my mind and body to the max, but comments from other people include things like, “You’re not practicing what you teach. You need to take care of yourself.” Well, I am taking care of myself to the best of my abilities under the circumstances.
As a small business owner with a staff who expect to get paid, I can’t just cancel events because I’m tired. That doesn’t grow a business. I didn’t plan on being this busy. I’m sure you’ve heard that saying about make a plan and God laughs. Because that’s life – things change. But even though I’m stretched way too thin right now, I’m mindful of the upside. Ensuring that my company delivers on its promises builds on our reputation as being reliable and dependable. That leads to more clients. I’ve seen my staff step up to the plate and perform beautifully under pressure. That builds team cohesion. Many small companies would love to be too busy; I recognize the blessing in that. So yeah, I’m really tired and worn down. My voice is shot from speaking publicly almost every day. But it’s almost over. Grit, resiliency and determination will get me to the goal line.
What is the goal line for me? When the staffing change occurred, I immediately stopped booking new events that weren’t contractually required. I couldn’t stop the train that had already left the station, but I could slow down the pipeline and prevent another one from taking off. I went through the calendar for the rest of the year, identifying when I could expect a break, which happens to be at the end of this month. The goal is to complete the workshops booked and then to take a nice long break afterwards. I’m completely shutting down the office for the last two weeks of December, to rest, relax, recharge.
That is harmony. Most of us cannot achieve a daily balance of work, rest, play, and relationship-building or maintaining. Looking at our lives on a day-to-day basis and judging ourselves as being out of balance isn’t productive or useful. While mindfulness is about being present in the now, it’s also in the now that we have to recognize that this moment may not look ideal, but understand that it will “balance” out over time.
Another myth we hear about all of the time is time management. And yes, I teach time management workshops and don’t resist the title because if I changed it to what is true, it would confuse most people. John Maxwell, the renowned leadership trainer, captures the concept perfectly in his book, Developing the Leader Within You 2.0. He states, “…the reality is that you can’t manage time. Managing something means controlling it, changing it. When it comes to time, there is nothing to manage. Everybody gets twenty-four hours in a day. We can’t add another hour or subtract one. We can’t slow it down or speed it up. Time is what it is.”
While my workshops may be titled “Time Management,” the very first concept discussed is that we all have time. The problem isn’t time, priorities are. We don’t set clear intentions and we don’t prioritize what’s important to us. But our priorities change constantly. Hence, when my workload quadruples unexpectedly, my priority becomes fulfilling my obligations and taking care of myself so I don’t fall apart. That’s because one of my top priorities is my business and I’m very clear on my intentions regarding the business. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about my friends and family. It means they will be the priority as soon as this situation is done.
As for people concerned that I’m not taking care of myself, I know most of them have good intentions. My closest friends are a great support because they don’t lecture me at all. They provide empathy and they encourage me by saying things like, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And it will pass.” They understand the situation and they’ve been there themselves. There are probably some other folks who are hoping to be proven right that the whole thing is impossible, but that’s their choice. It is possible. But it requires mindfulness and flexibility.
For example, I’m a strong believer in going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning. But right now, I’m allowing myself to sleep whenever my body tells me it’s had enough. So there have been many weird days over the past few weeks where I go to bed at 4pm, get up around 10, work through most of the night, then take a 1 or 2 hour nap before heading out for another event. It’s crazy for me because it’s not my norm, but self-care is the most critical when we’re under stress, so I’m listening to my body as much as possible. I take a few minutes every day to meditate. It may be for a shorter period of time than normal, but my brain feels like it’s smoking, so it needs at least a little break. I’m cooking a big breakfast every morning and taking my vitamins and supplements, no matter what. It may seem to some like that is a waste of time during a period when I’m so busy, but for me, I’m mindful that breakfast may be the only solid meal I have all day, so I won’t skip it.
The details of what you do to manage a stressful period don’t really matter, as long as you’re mindful that you do have to take care of yourself first in order to be of service to others. Whether you’re taking care of an elderly parent, dealing with a stressful work project, have had a business collapse, suffered a natural disaster or have a sick child, your current focus has to be on that priority. The other facets of life will have to wait, but not forever. And things that were a priority before the consuming event happened will be waiting for you when you get through this phase. I haven’t had time with family and friends in the past few weeks, my house is a mess, my car looks like it might be an abandoned vehicle it hasn’t been washed in so long, and my personal inbox is so scary I’ve stopped opening it for now. The point is, all of it will still be there when I finish this marathon at the end of the month. And then it will be an absolute pleasure to clear out cobwebs, drive a clean car, have dinner with friends and play with my grandchildren.
We cannot avoid stress and be successful. But we can use the stress as a motivator and an energizer to help us get to that goal line. Have I whined a little? Yes I have! But I’ve never lost sight of the end - and that helps me get through each day. My break is coming. Right now, though, my priority is on work. At the end of the year, when I look back at the last six months, I’ll find that there was a balance over time. I will have spent equal parts on work, family, friends and rest, over that six month period. Sometimes that period may be longer and sometimes shorter. But being mindful that “this too shall pass” keeps us focused on the present while looking forward to the future. And that’s a harmonized life.