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Don't Throw Work-Life Balance Out with the Bathwater: Embracing the Work-Life Balance Spirit

What comes to mind when you think of the phrase work-life balance? Hopeful? Elusive? Challenging? Aspirational? I've heard many people dismiss the phrase. They say that balance is a myth and that it's not achievable.

These criticisms have some merit. Work, life, and balance are such broad terms, and it's easy to take aim at where the phrase falls short. What does balance even mean? Where does work end and life begin? Are work and life like ends of a see-saw where one goes up as the other goes down?

The situation is made even worse when you consider that work-life balance usually comes up as a "should" in discussions of stress and burnout. "You seem stressed. How's your work-life balance?" Or, "Our employees are so busy. We need to work on having better work-life balance." No wonder people run from the term. It's like the grim reaper of stress and burnout, always lurking around waiting for someone to struggle and look for an alternative.

But what if we take a step back from the words and consider the spirit of the phrase? What is the intention of work-life balance? What if you took the idea back from the realm of burnout and used it to empower yourself and organize your work and your life in a way that works best for you?

I think we can all agree that our relationship to work and its role in our life should be harmonious and in equilibrium. In other words, work should flow with the things that support and fulfill us, the things that make us happy, and the things that promote our well-being. In fact, a definition for equilibrium is "a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced." For some people, this makes total sense. There are only so many hours in the day. Their job is a paycheck, not necessarily a career, and they have lots of other things that they want to do outside of work, like spending time with family and friends, enjoying their hobbies, and relaxing. Equilibrium is the goal.

How else can we view the relationship between work and life? How about fit, alignment, or harmony? In this view, work and life serve one another. Our work may be about service and giving back to our community. It may be our life or our life's work, inspiring us and consuming us. Imagine DaVinci, Einstein, or Benjamin Franklin. Do you think they strived for work-life balance? My guess is that they wove their work into many aspects of their life, and each one fed the other.

We may also see all of the ways that our life supports and aligns with our work. From how we eat, sleep, exercise, and who our friends are. These aspects of our life may be in perfect alignment with how we earn a living, even if our work takes up a disproportionate amount of the hours in the day. There is a match between work and life for people like this, and the two are in harmony.

I've got one more work-life relationship idea for you: Humanness. I heard the author and scholar Jacinta Jimenez use the phrase work-humanness balance, and I thought it was an apt description. Work can feel robotic, especially when we have a controlled work "face" or "persona" that we put on when we talk in the door or jump on a video call. We may forget that we are a human being who needs to eat, breathe, move, and who gets tired and emotional.

One other essential element of work-life balance is boundaries. I know many people who set clear boundaries around their work. They have blocks within a day or week where they do specific tasks or parts of their job, like email or strategizing. These activities are separate and don't bleed into one another. Awesome! If you're doing this, then you probably feel a sense of clarity, control, and predictability. And if you know my framework around stress, then you know that lack of clarity, control, and predictability are the three horsemen of the stress apocalypse. Keep these three in check, and you've probably achieved work-life balance and mental well-being.

Ok, so you've got great boundaries, but what's going on within those boundaries? What's the quality of the work time? There is one thing that I've found with busy people with crystal clear boundaries: they've got time for "life," but their work often gets compressed into back-to-back-to-back tasks with little breathing room in between. They've got work-life balance, but they lack intra-work balance

People who work this way rarely get into a flow state, a state of mind where you get fully immersed in an activity. Flow is a highly creative state, and people in flow states often come up with innovative ways to think about and solve problems. Flow also requires considerable mental resources, and these resources get used up when you compress lots of work into a short amount of time. Space is as essential to great work as the work tasks themselves.

Music is an excellent analogy for describing these compression and flow experiences. Music isn't just notes, just like great work isn't just completing tasks. Music requires space between the notes. Otherwise, it's just noise. Similarly, our ability to sustainably perform our job at a high level requires space. Otherwise, we're just making noise, doing a poor imitation of a robot, and we crash and burn. Don't let your work be "noise." Add some space in between the notes.

One more thing. Even with work that we love and want to do all the time, we need space to take a breath. I know so many people who love what they do, but they are taking a lot of punches in their work environment. I've noticed this often as engagement without enablement in the companies I've worked with, and I call it the "engagement paradox" because engaged employees can be the most frustrated and squeakiest wheels in a company.

Engaged employees are super passionate about their work and dedicated to the company, and they consistently go the extra mile. When they encounter an obstacle, it's incredibly frustrating for them. It's like sprinting into a brick wall. These obstacles or brick walls include lack of role clarity, few resources to do the job, being micro-managed, or insufficient training. Employees are enabled when these obstacles are removed and replaced with sources of support. What's important here is that engaged employees get more enjoyment and fulfillment out of their job and can leave work "at work" when their engagement is balanced by enablement.

If you take nothing else away from this article, keep in mind that work-life balance is the path, not the destination. It is a process or set of processes that you engage in to generate calm, success, happiness, and fulfillment. The keys to your success are finding alignment or equilibrium between your work and your life, embracing your humanness, setting clear boundaries, creating space within the workday, and cultivating enablement that matches your engagement level. Each of these is an element of work-life balance in the true spirit of the phrase.

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